This is quite a moment in family separation politics and so, as the struggle to dominate and the struggle to be heard continues, I felt it might be useful to outline, again, why family separation is an equalities issue. This might help all those who are busy doing their very best to ensure that this is all about bad dads and good mums to understand why, as feminists, it might just be a good idea to stop and listen for a change, because what is being fought for might just offer something to everyone.
Family separation is an experience that many people in this country are likely to experience. A survey for the Centre for Separated Families, undertaken in 2007, suggested that around a third of the population are affected by it either directly as parents, grandparents or children, or indirectly as members of the wider family.
Currently, when a family separates, regardless of much or how little involvement a father has with the children, he is unlikely to become the ‘primary carer’. This is because the status of primary carer is denoted by possession of Child Benefit, a benefit which is paid almost 100% to mothers because it was designed to be paid that way through a policy called ‘from the wallet to the purse.’ This policy, developed in the 1940’s, ensured that money for children was paid to mothers and not fathers. This was because in those days, it was thought that women were more likely to spend money on children.
Thus, a policy which has its roots in post war Britain, a time when women’s liberation wasn’t even thought of, controls the outcomes of family separation in 2012, some 70 years later.
The payment of Child Benefit and the division of separated mothers and fathers into a carer and a provider, means that when the family separates, the outcome is almost certain to be that mothers will take up the role of primary carer and fathers will take up the role of provider. It doesn’t matter how much parents would like to do it differently, these are the roles that are proscribed by our 70 year old legislation. And, when mothers are forced, as they often are, by the idea that being a good mother means caring for children and not providing for them, they will conform to this requirement and do as they are told by society.
Fathers on the other hand are reduced to the status of payer of child maintenance and their value is judged only by their ability to pay, but not to care, for their children.
Those of us working to modernise this miserable state of affairs, would like to see a situation where mothers are liberated from the strait jacket of having to be a primary carer so that care can be shared with fathers. We would like to see women liberated to be able to work without depending upon the state and to achieve all of those things that mothers, in other more enlightened countries, are free to achieve, alongside loving and caring for their children.
We would also like to see fathers liberated from being held only to account in terms of their payment of child maintenance. We would like to see dads being able to care and provide for their children.
And we would like to live in a society in which mothers and fathers are valued for all of the wonderful things that they are, instead of divided into one over-burdened carer and one over-persecuted provider.
In a modern world, fathers who do not step up and take up their responsibilities before or after family separation, will face the opprobrium of our society as well as tough enforcement measures and mothers who seek to interrupt or prevent the relationship between children and their father will face the same.
In this way we will achieve a more egalitarian society, children will benefit from strong and positive relationships with both of their parents and mothers and fathers will be supported to achieve inside and outside of the domestic sphere.
The current state of affairs is men, women, different, equal…until it comes to family separation, upon which it is men, women, different and gender stereotyped roles.
I do not believe that a world in which women are tied to the kitchen sink as overburdened carers is an equal world and I do not believe that a world in which all men have to do to satisfy their parenting responsibilities is tip up at the end of every week is about equality either.
Family separation is an equalities issue because the legislation that surrounds it drives gender stereotyped outcomes and removes choices from parents about how they carry out their parenting responsibilities.
As I write this I can hear all of those voices piping up saying yes but what about the dads who do not step up, we all know them.
And I know them too, that particular disappointment was true for me both in my own father and my daughter’s father. I grew up in a world of bullying men. It made me a feminist but it did not ever stop me from being able to see that my own experience does not make every man a bully or every dad deadbeat.
Those of us unlucky enough to have had a dose of the worst that the opposite gender can offer must ensure that our experiences inform, but they do not seek to dominate the agenda. Ensuring that legislation is modernised with the necessary safety measures is one way of doing that. Preventing change based upon personal experience and expecting to control all attempts to modernise because of that, is not.
Because the world is made up of good and bad and life is not as certain as we would like to believe it is and, a modern society in which men and women are different but equal, reflects that.