When you’re a boy: disposable masculinity in the post separation family

This week I have been encountering once again the way in which men and boys are faced with the most impossible odds when they come to face the life trauma that is family separation.

I have also, once again, been spending my time digging around in the policy and practice surrounding our separated families and considering the ways in which, simply by virtue of being a man and a father, is to face serious and objective discrimination.

As part of this project I have been conversing with leading thinkers in the field of helping men and boys. In doing so I have been startled by the way in which the narrative about fatherhood after separation, has been shaped by the overpowering but erroneous reality that is portrayed by our discriminatory social policy.

Let me get this straight right from the start.  There is an objective, gender biased approach to social policy surrounding the family in the UK.  Fathers are, without doubt, being routinely and actively discriminated against when they face family separation.  This is not about mad men making themselves out to be hard done by, or bad men manipulating reality to get revenge on women.  This is cold hard reality.  Social policy in the UK discriminates against fathers after family separation, whilst at the same time, making out that it doesn’t and, worse, using smoke and mirrors to point the blame at fathers for their own suffering.   That’s a triple dose of delusion for separated dads to cope with, the horror of facing family separation, the lack of access to services to support them through family separation and the blame for having caused it in the first place.

An example of how separated fathers are discriminated against can be found in the scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill which is passing through Parliament right now.  This bill contains the proposal to change the Children Act 1989, to incorporate a directive that children should have a relationship with both parents after separation.  Not because, in the words of Edward Timpson, Minister for Children, the ‘government intended to change anything, but because the government wanted to ‘make fathers feel that something had changed.’

The cleverly used words, repeated throughout the scrutiny of the Bill, offer an insight into the reality facing fathers.  It is not that anyone is going to admit that there is discrimination written into our social policy, the often used tactic instead, is to blame fathers themselves for feeling discriminated against.  To shore up this illusion, academics like Liz Trinder  Joan Hunt, are used to deploy the smoke and mirrors effect.  I notice that Liz has been actively submitting written evidence and  Joan Hunt in fact has rushed out a piece of research to demonstrate the fact that there is absolutely no bias against fathers in the family courts, its all down to fathers’ perception of bias (again).

I am not one to be satisfied with surface thinking and I have, in recent days, been digging down into the history of our social policy around the family, to understand at a micro level how this was designed to deliver the kind of outcomes we see today.

One of the biggest issues that we face as a society is, in my view, the generational problem of fragile families and the way in which fathers are seen as disposable.  As a result of my conversations this week, I was really surprised by the way that the narrative about fatherhood is not only shaped by the historical impact of our social policy, but by the men and fathers who seem to accept the implications of that history.  I wanted to understand further, not only what that social policy has done to fatherhood, but what it has done to fathers perceptions of themselves as people with an essential and important role to play in the family.  Because if conversations with leaders in the men and boys movement,  appear to replicate the assumptions in gender biased and discriminatory social policy, what hope is there for change? Put another way, when the dominant discourse about men as fathers in 2013,  is shaped by the social policy that was written by feminists in 1974, what hope do we ever have of creating a society in which fatherhood is celebrated and supported for all of the wonderful things that it brings to our children’s lives, in a way that no longer references the definition of acceptable fatherhood espoused by those women?

Lets unpick this a little bit.

There is an advert currently showing which has appealed to many fathers.  This ad shows two boys having fun, the reveal being that one of the boys is actually the other’s father.  The message that accompanies this advert is ‘its good to be a dad, its better to be a friend.’

Whilst I absolutely ‘get’ why so many fathers are delighted to see this ad (makes a real change from mums and shopping), the message that it is perpetuating comes straight out of the feminist approach to reforming masculinity.

There was a time when fathers represented the outside world to children, they brought authority and, in healthy relationships, provided structure and security as well as continuity and consistency.  In short fathers were respected and respectable, they were valued for the role that they played in their children’s lives.

During the seventies however, when, as Julie Bindel and other feminists of note have said,  the family was ‘discovered to be a place of oppression, violence and abuse,’ with men and fathers being held primarily responsible for this.  In the subsequent feminist analysis,  that our society is governed by a ‘patriarchal system’,  fathers and the family became a target for radical reform.

This notion, that our society is still inherently oppressive towards women, has been used to justify four decades of social policy around the family which is, today, objectively discriminatory against men, particularly in their role as fathers.  This institutionalised acceptance of the notion that ‘patriarchy’ is somehow a compelling and universal truth, has ensured that not only were our narratives about men shaped by the feminists in the last century, they continue to be so.  So much so that even those men who are engaged in trying to find equality in family life, are bewitched by it.  Fatherhood is, it seems to me, all about being best mates with your children these days, its all about nurture, its all about being as close to mothering as it is possible to be.  Forget the hormones, forget the neuroscience, forget the difference that masculinity brings to family life.  To be an acceptable dad now, is to be your child’s friend.  Not only entrenching the idea that men are boys who never quite grow up properly, but removing also the potential for anything about what makes a man different to a woman or a father different to a mother, to be celebrated.

This eradication of masculinity in all its  difference, in both its positive and negative forms is, I would argue, no accident. Starting in 1973, with the change in the divorce laws, and moved on throughout the seventies by a raft of social policy reform enacted in the shadow of the newly defined ‘patriarchy’ this is a conscious and determined strategy which was encapsulated by Harriet Harman in a report for IPPR called ‘The Family Way‘ in the nineties.

This report, in which Harman and her co-authors said “it cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social cohesion”, built upon the earlier implementation of the Children Act 1989 which was introduced in 1991 with the remit to (amongst other things)

• reinforce the autonomy of families through definition of parental responsibility;

but which also contained the following;

The rule of law that a father is the natural guardian of his
legitimate child is abolished”. – Children Act 1989, Part 2 (4).

Is it becoming clear yet that what happens to fathers after family separation in the UK at least, is the result of gendered policies which were put in place to address social changes occurring some forty years ago?

Or that gendered narratives of what it means to be a ‘good’ man and by association a ‘good’ father are managed not by men and fathers themselves, but by the parameters set by a feminist engineered policy framework that was developed in the seventies?

As it is 2013 now, and men are very difference creatures to what they were purported to be back then, lets, for once, step out of that historical feminist framework and look at the world of separated families through another lens.

Let’s look at the world without our assumptions, which are shaped by the messages in our social policy and practice and our beliefs about ourselves.  Let us, in looking through this lens, for once not assume that the family has separated because the father in the family was violent or abusive. Let us not assume that he was having an affair or that he did not do enough, spend enough, care enough.  Let us look at this family without our feminist spectacles, which are coloured by behaviours seen in men and women in 1973, and see two people in 2013, whose relationship has ended and consider what each of them might need to help them through what is such a difficult emotional time.

Let us, as we look through this lens, value, equally, the different things that mothers and fathers bring to their children’s lives.  Let us consider the ways in which children benefit from relationships with each of their precious parents after separation.  And now let us consider the different ways in which our mother and our father are treated in our society which is not infused with some mysterious ‘patriarchy’ but which is, instead, just a society in which men and women experience different things at different times and different influences shape their different lives.

What would we do differently if we considered each parent to be inherently valuable to their children’s well being?  What would we deliver differently to support each of these people to give their children the things that are so valuable?  How would we speak about these two people? How would we arbitrate between them if they could not agree on how to give their children their equal but different valuable input?

Well I would argue that in this world, through this lens, our social policy would not divide separated parents into carer and provider through a ‘gateway’ entitlement called Child Benefit which is paid primarily to mothers because of the belief that mothers always spend their money on the family, whilst fathers spend it in the pub.  Instead we would support mothers and fathers to make a parenting agreement in which each would assume a portion of the care for their children and then, we would assess their financial capacity to deliver that care.  A baseline assumption, about how much it costs to raise a child would be used to define how much state support, each parent would receive.  An exchange of funds may become necessary under this approach to ensure that children are not dramatically better off in one household than the other.

Through this lens we would see that children are safe and secure with mothers and fathers and that there is nothing biologically determinant about care that makes mothers better at it than fathers and we would apply, across all of our determinations about post separation parenting, a safeguarding procedure that is based upon the reality of risk to children and not an assumption.  In carrying this out we would use the statistical evidence that shows that mothers and fathers can be a risk and we would ensure that we understand, in each individual case, what that risk is.

Through this lens, the post separated family looks like a mother caring for her children for part of the time and a father caring for them for the rest of the time.  Through this lens we would value equally the different things that children receive in this arrangement.  We would also, however, recognise that children living only with one parent miss out on the experience of two parents in relationship with each other.  We would, therefore, ensure that relationship support, both pre and post separation, was made available throughout the land, in ways that were easily accessible to men and women.

And finally, the world through this lens is governed, is by a children act in which the natural guardians of a child are, equally, its mother and its father.

How different does that world seem to the one that separated fathers must currently negotiate?  Now,  tell me again that there is no bias against fatherhood, its just that fathers think there is.  Feminism.   It is impossible to do anything inside or outside of the field of the family and social policy, without reference to it.  Until it is recognised, named and acknowledged, as the driver of the outcomes that we have seen in the family for the past forty years, we will not be able to move on.

Every time I write about feminism on this blog there is a really big reaction.  From the anti-feminists to the pro-feminists, the idea of a world without feminism is a huge talking point.  I wrote recently of my recovery from feminism and my understand that this ‘ism’ had shaped my life negatively, not positively.  As I continue to explore the world outside of the dominant feminist discourse, I am finding out just how powerful this ‘ism’ actually is.  From the creation of a non-existent ‘patriarchy’, to the inculcation of the belief that everything personal has to be political, this belief system has shaped our social policy, our practice around the family, our support to mothers and even the very ability of fathers to conceptualize their role as men.  So powerful is this driver of behavior and thought, that I have, in recent months, been accused of being unprofessional for even daring to write about it.

And yet daring to think about it as well as write about it has brought me closer than I have ever come to being able to help the families that I work with.  The power of liberation from the strait jacket of the thinking that shaped our social policy in the 1970’s has done nothing but expedite my ability to understand the reality facing families and to actively work to assist them.

I was recently very privileged to meet Erin Pizzey and spend time talking with her about the work that she did in the early seventies at the outset of the liberation movement.  Her views, which I realise I have increasingly come to embrace, are that second wave feminism hijacked the social policy agenda in the nineteen seventies and prevented assistance being given to both men and women during times of difficulties.  And that social policy, which was designed by feminist academics and set within a framework of patriarchy, has dominated our consciousness ever since.

Fathering in the post separation family?  I look back at Harman’s words and I understand that it is no accident that men struggle.  I come forward to the present day and think about fathers as their childrens best friends and I see fatherhood set within the parameters of what is acceptable to women.  And a narrative about masculinity which has been shaped by forty years of feminist social policy.

And all of it disposable in a world shaped by women,

When you’re a boy.


  1. Excellent piece Karen as usual. I was quite irritated by the add you mention, and it does remind me of all the “professionals” whose solution to parental alienation is more or less just entertain the child and don’t expect to be a parent. Plan some fun days out, but don’t expect to be part of their every day life. Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against having fun with children, but there is a lot more involved in being a good parent.
    Timely that you write it on the same day as a report from the Avon longitudinal study of parents and children is published. Describing a link between father absence in the early years and depression in teenage girls.


  2. I personally thought the add was a welcome change as it showed a loving dad doing what a loving dad could do for his child. Sure it didn’t show the complete father role with all the “responsibility” side and “discipline” that goes along with being a parent, but please remember it is an add, designed to sell and as such it was pleasantly happy and a good message to boot.
    I don’t mind being associated with being my child’s best friend as well as his dad, looking out for my child’s best interest, its what us dads do best that counts and that’s one of them.

    As for the feminist side of things, my take on it is this.

    The feminists wanted equality in a male dominated world, equal pay equal rights, and in a fair world equal is good and I applaud that. However, a la Aldus Huxley, some women wanted to be more equal than men and when the male society of the time failed to give the women equal right quickly enough, a groundswell of thinking began to take shape, “if we cant be equal then we will take what we can when we can”, thus entered the female political law making and policy makers.

    They were clever, they were insurgents, not in a violent way but by going undercover.

    To my way of thinking a groundswell of thinking began to emerge, the feminists said if we cant be equal to men then we will create our own world without men. We want a family without the need to have a man involved because he is ultimately not needed other than to provide the DNA from his sperm. We will raise our children on our own and we will develop a support system that means we can get support from other mothers without the need for men to be involved, they do not want to make us equal so therefore we will do without them (am I repeating myself, oh good)

    We will develop a system that will legislate for “absent fathers” because not only are we going to do this alone but when we do we will then conveniently lable the father as the scape goat and call him absent.

    The law can then be changed to make sure that all ostracised and “absent” men are forced to pay for their children via the CSA. We do not need men but we do want them to provide us the money so that we can enjoy our society of women without the need for direct involvement of men.

    And when the men start to stand up for themselves and start making waves by declaring that they actually want to play an active part in their childs life, i.e. they are trying to prove that they are not absent, then we will create a legal system that protects the womans status quo and by the very nature of the man wanting to make a court application the starting point will be declare that the father is a nuisance because he is not co-operating with us as what we say is in the best interest of the child because we are the mother.

    And of course we can only socially engineer this system when the father takes the mother to court because then they fall into the trap we set.

    Those normal women who actually get on with life post separation and arrive at a compromise position with the father we will still try and influence by starting organisation labelled as self help groups such as mumsnet and xyxgroup. they wil be set up to provide disharmony and confusion and give sound “advice” as to what a womans real “rights” are and that you poor women are all really downtrodden by you hateful men.

    The flaw in all these feminist arguments is really this

    If you feminist mothers really did not need us men then you could get on with your lives without needing hand outs from us men via the forced CSA

    So go ahead and think you are independent and when you learn to live without hand outs and learn that sharing the care of the child post separation is the best for the child they you are nothing but selfish, self loving female bigots.

    I love my children and I love my wife, I embrace equality in its purest form, I embrace the fact that women are best at some things and men best at others, I embrace that in other situations the roles are reversed and other still when men and women are equally good at the same things


  3. HI Russell, I don’t think Kat or I were having a ‘go’ about dads liking the ad, or for that matter the ad being made, you are right, its nice to have something positive about fathers for a change, but it struck me right between the eyes when I saw it that this role, that dad is supposed to play, of best friend, is the one dimensional role that many dads get relegated to after family separation. And looking at the social policy that created that role for dads, it is clear that the traditional role of head of the family and the person who brings in the outside world for children, is no longer an acceptable part of what it means to be a father after separation. In short, the multi faceted and richly diverse relationship that a father may have before separation, is reduced to that of brief encounters as to his children afterwards. And it struck me that, in warming to the ad, as so many fathers have, whether this was an example of the way in which the feminist influence and the parameters set by feminist designed social policy, had worked to ensure that dads have, by and large accepted that role.

    My analysis on the development of a feminist driven social policy framework is that this arose through the way in which women took control of what they were ‘allowed’ to be in control of, in social policy terms, which was the family, deemed then to be the area that women were mostly interested in. The way in which social policy was developed to ensure that women were free to choose whether they stayed or left a relationship and if they chose to leave, were free to take their children with them, was outlined in the Finer Report in 1974. Since then a whole raft of policies have been developed that has lead to the current position, in which fathers who seek to be part of their children’s lives after separation must jump through considerable numbers of ‘hoops’ before they can achieve what we tell them is their responsibility, to be a father to their children.

    I know that the subject of feminism and fatherhood generates much anger, much debate and a great deal of disagreement. But I really do believe that Erin Pizzey, in highlighting the way in which our thinking is shaped by feminist social policy, prevents our delivery of services to the family as a whole, has a clear and uncorrupted understanding of what went wrong when the movement towards equality began.

    Something I am very much thinking about as we develop our services to support families through separation.



    1. Hi Karen

      Btw great blog, cuts to the chase, I bet you will get some flack for it!
      Btw when the flack comes it absolutely confirms you are right!
      As for the add, I understand your point if view and agree with it, and what I put was not meant to say that I disagreed with you but just wanted to add something from a loving dads point of view
      The more adds like this, that promote part of what a man can be to his child, the better.
      Maybe we could have “perfected” the add by altering the final scene thus
      “The boys return from their time together, the older boy now changes and takes the “responsible” roll and tells his “sibling” that its time for tea (with product) and then its time for bedtime routine (still in his boys guise). As soon as boy is in bath the father figure is revealed and then sits with his child and reads the bedtime story before lights out
      He gently kisses his child to leave him to sleep”
      This combines friendship and discipline in its purest form it shows that father and child respect each others roll in the family
      Father could even return to the mother who is downstairs, or mother could enter bedroom scene to kiss her son goodnight
      Both parents sharing in the love and caring of their child


  4. I agree with you completely Karen, especially your comment about the division of parents into carer and provider. It is perfectly possible for the two parents to be both carer and provider and it is a pity that Government fails to recognise this. The stereotype of the father leaving the mother to cope alone with the children is no longer the norm and for many fathers, it can be an uphill struggle to start again without a home or their children. In this situation many fathers can find themselves in a dire financial situation and the notion that they can be ‘fun’ dads taking their children on days out and entertaining them is just wishful thinking for many dads.

    I think for many dads who find themselves outside of family life, the advertisement touches the heart when dad is portrayed as both father and friend. Wishful thinking again.


  5. But do we really think that this is just a case of feminism gone berserk to the point that it promotes gender violence? Surely there must be some sort of enabling force that allows for feminism (if we want to persist in calling something so perverted by that name) to do this in the first place? Surely we are not speaking about feminism as such but a brand of feminism that is little more than an agent of corporate and state interests. I really don’t think that is as far fetched as it may sound on first hearing. While I do agree that many of the so called women’s groups have been contaminated by blind fanatics with a chip on their shoulder, I find it hard to believe that the violence that they promote toward boys and men doesn’t serve ulterior purposes.


  6. On the matter of dads being expected to be friend, not father, I think Karen has a very good point. In my own experiences, I have seen over and over how separated dads are vulnerable to alienation whenever they try to be fathers and attempt a stricter more disciplinary role that is engendered by love, concern and wanting the best for their children. In these cases, the other parent might exploit this by permitting their children everything to the point that they become rotten and grow up without strong moral values. And when dad tries to correct this, he becomes the least favourite parent or the parent that is feared. Another hypocrisy, of course, is that it is perfectly acceptable for a mother to discipline their children. When a father does this, it becomes a reason to remove him. So yes, there are a lot of messages out there broadcasting the view that society doesn’t need fathers, but that if men want to play ‘best friend’ every other weekend, that could just about be tolerated.


  7. Amazing wisdom you have Karen, I have cast this wonderful posting abroad to others, hope you don’t mind.

    In conclusion, and hope its not to far off the point, I leave you with the pleading comments of a young father who approached me only yesterday to publish something for him on my FB page. So scared is he of the courts he wasn’t prepared to do it himself, but he is desperate to stay in contact with his son. He wrote the following, and it has the sound of a confused father, I felt sorry for him:

    A father that wishes to remain anonymous asked me to publish this for him, help him if you can.

    “Hi everyone, I have just had my final court hearing, it was meant to be 3 days long but after 4 hours I was told I should be having contact and it will start as soon as the contact centre can take us. Because I have not seen him for the last 22 months (since he was 2 weeks old) contact must start off on a fully supervised basis and be reduced to supported contact when the contact centre sees fit. All of this will then be reviewed when I get back to court in November. GREAT news! However, due to CAFCASS wiping thier hands of the case, social services never having involvement and Legal Aid no longer funding contact centres I have been told I need to pay for the centre myself. At the moment I am not working and am going to be struggling to get back into work due to some physical and emotional ill health but I am confident in the future that I will. The supervised contact will be £100 every 2 weeks and then, when its reduced to supported contact, will be £60 every 2 weeks. I have NO idea, other than selling everything I own, how I’m going to raise the money. I have spent the last 3 days emailing and phoning about 25 advice lines, support groups and charitable trusts but had no luck and so far it doesn’t look like there is any coming my way. Does anyone please have any Ideas where I could get help with funding for this? This is the last of many huge hurdles I need to overcome before I can FINALLY start a relationship with my son. Thank you.”

    “PS. I have been ordered by the judge not to discuss my case on Facebook, this is why I cannot post this direct. I thank Paul Manning for doing that for me.”

    How sad, God! how can this be happening to fathers who seem to accept such humiliation so freely and as the norm now, just to stay in touch with their kids. I ask you all… how can this be right and just?

    Thanks Karen. Regards from, Paul.


  8. Not sure what to say. Sounds like another means of punishing ‘men’ for not stepping up to the plate as slave labour or war fodder. This country is so good at judging other countries and cultures, but in my mind is quickly becoming the most violent country on earth.


  9. Oooh nice to see Diane has joined the debate?

    Thought her speech was brilliant. That bit about” a new labour government would totally overhaul the family justice system to ensure that the hundreds of thousand of children in this country whose parents are separated will be empowered to have a meaningful relationship with their dads post separation and the state will intervene directly to offer advice support and guidance to all separated parents at a community level.”

    or maybe i should stay off the Havana Club?

    Nice idea about encouraging men to access parenting classes mind? Difficult though if you endorse a system that ensures that so many will have little or no contact with their children. Maybe when the latter is addressed we can begin the road to defining or even redefining masculinity?

    Loved this article… http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/16/masculinity-crisis-men
    Swings the whole focus around to everyone blaming single mothers. Brilliant. The Chardonnay must have been flowing in North London when this little gem was being tickled along the keyboards.

    As for Dianes “Viagra and Jack Daniels”?
    The last time i tried to smoke Viagra it made me dizzy and my ears bled. Safer with a Cohiba.
    Jack Daniels is for fools. That’s why Fidel sends us Havana Club. May send a bottle to DA?

    After three…”Things can only get better…”


  10. “Gone baby gone.” (For all fathers who have feelings too.)

    I know what it is to lose a child, to live with that pain every second of the day, to be haunted by dusty toys that lay idle and unused. I know what it is to weep while hesitating in the doorway of my child’s bedroom, fearful to enter lest I remember him too much. A room that echoes with distant laughter, with bed time stories and the warm ambiance of goodnight hugs.

    I know what it is to treasure his favourite shoes and to have his coat still hanging in the hall, wishing that one day he would come home to wear them once again. I know what it feels like to sit on a lonely park bench watching dads push their kids on the swings to and fro, and trying not to cry, but failing.

    I know that when I awake in the morning my son won’t be there to ask me if we can wrestle, like we used to, on ‘Dads big bed’. I know that skimming stones on the water is a pastime I can’t handle anymore because he isn’t there to count the skips and he then to try to match me.

    I know that I can’t bear to look at his old homework books anymore with large pencil letters written on lines that hold me timeless in thought. All I know is that a ghost sits at my tea table reading comic books and speaks of ‘Play Station’ while eating pizza and giggling at me.

    I know what it is to have memories that I really believe I want to have, but at the same time really want them to go away. All I have left is reaching out for the ‘now’ and trying to get by on it day to day.

    I know what it’s like to look in the mirror while thinking… ‘gone baby gone’, but then to try and convince myself of this: Remember to keep your child in your arms and in your broken heart, whatever happens.

    Written by Paul Manning (Make of it what you will.)


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