As the weather has heated up so it seems has the impact of what I have recently been writing. The last post about the Bad Men Project being one which has particularly stirred things up. I admit that I can, at times, write with a somewhat sharpened pen. But the reactions to my latest piece of writing appear to me to be a little over exaggerated. Is it the subject matter that is the cause of the unsettling, or is it because I have finally decided that I will, no longer, collude with the charade that is the Bad Men Project, (which of course, liberates me fully, to speak up and speak out on the matter).
The reactions to the latest piece have encouraged me to sit down and consider what it is exactly that I am looking for when I talk about the way in which we could and should support families in this country. Being very good at illuminating what is wrong is one thing, being able to shape the way that we could put things right is quite another. In some quarters, there is the allegation made that I am unable to articulate how things should be, relying only on describing what is wrong with the way things are. Forgive me then for pointing out however, that much of what I have been doing on this blog since I began to write it, is discuss how things could be, as well as illuminate how things are delivered differently in the work that we do.
I have been demonstrating the difference that equality and respect based work with separated families makes since1998. Alongside colleagues, I have written about it, delivered it, evaluated it and even shown the Minister for Child Maintenance herself the way it works. We have embedded the difference in the Child Maintenance Options service (not that you would find it there these days) and we have recently trained over four thousand early years workers to do it. We have worked with families themselves, with Local Authorities and even trained an Australian Relationship Centre to use our programmes. We have worked with practitioners up and down the land, what more could one do to demonstrate that there is a different way that delivers a different outcome, that is based upon respect for the difference between men and women and underpinned by an equalities based approach?
The answer, I fear, is nothing. The reason, I believe, is because the reality of what we are showing crosses a boundary which is held firm by the orthodoxy around family services in this country. This orthodoxy being that women have problems, but men are problems.
I should make it clear once again, that the way that I work is based upon an equalities approach in which the reality that mothers as well as fathers struggle after family separation is placed centrally, and which recognises that separation is equally painful on an individual level but unevenly supported on a collective level.
This uneven approach to support is, I believe, because the BMP is at work in much of our service provision, encouraged and supported by the gender neutral legislation which surrounds the family.
Gender neutral legislation, (which I am almost sick of talking about now, so long have we been banging on about it) is the way in which a law is created without paying attention to the different experiences and different needs of men and women. Legislation, laws and the services which are created underneath that, are key drivers of behaviour in our society. To make a law gender neutral is to fail to consider how it will impact upon men and women differently and therefore drive their behaviours differently.
Gender neutral laws in a gender biased society, deliver gender biased outcomes which drive behaviours which appear to uphold the assumptions that have been created about people.
Put simply, if you create a law which pays child benefit to mothers and then, when the family separates, tell the couple that the one holding child benefit is the primary carer then you will create the illusion that only that parent cares for children. If you then, continue to allow, the perpetuation of the myth that all family separation is about fathers leaving mothers and you only listen to standpoint academic research which confirms this for you, (instead of asking parents directly yourself), then what you will come away with is the belief that family separation is only about bad dads abandoning good mums and the only issue that is of concern is poverty.
That is a classic example of a gender neutral law delivering gender biased outcomes and it is at the core of our family separation policy and has been for forty years.
I cannot say it more clearly than that.
Neither can I say this more clearly.
Dads are discriminated against in family separation policy, that is why they are disaffected, disappearing and desperate. There is nothing more, nothing less to say about it. In a gender analysis, it is quite simply a fact. Now we either live with it (and the fatherless society that it creates) or we do something about it.
This is not about fathers rights. It is not even about children’s rights. This is about the way in which our society values men as fathers and fatherhood in general. The current message being that dads are deficient, dangerous and disposable and that after family separation they simply do not matter.
Are some dads dangerous? Yes of course and I have never said any different. But does that make every father dangerous? Of course it doesn’t. Are some mothers dangerous? Without doubt, but that does not make them all dangerous. Some appalling cases of fathers killing their kids instill fear, but then so do the appalling cases of mothers who kill their children. Only we do not ever end sentences about separated mothers with the words ‘where it is safe to do so’, do we? Why not, when the safety issues around parenting after separation are almost equal in terms of risk from fathers and mothers.
The answer is, in my mind, the Bad Men Project, the collective delusion which is upheld by the orthodoxy which silences all who challenge it. I am in no doubt that by speaking about this again and again, I too risk being silenced or sidelined, or both. But I cannot stay silent on the matter, and I won’t. Because even as I write, good men are being disposed of and children are being forcibly removed from relationships with their fathers, by gender neutral legislation which delivers gender biased outcomes.
Its not an accident. Its not that fathers are inherently mad or bad. It is the way in which the legislation has been created that delivers outcomes which appear to replicate, what we are told by those who benefit from this (the single interest groups for example).
And there are unintended consequences of this rigid legislation. Consequences which actually damage some mothers in the most appalling ways. Creating laws which only allow one parent to be a carer after separation for example, can put some mothers at risk of being completely evicted from their children’s lives if a father is the one who decides to take control. In my work with alienated mothers, it is without doubt a reality that many of them have been pushed out by dads who are controlling and abusive. But there is no way back in for these mothers. Just like dads who are pushed out by divisive legislation, non resident mothers face the consequences of a gender neutral legislation, only they face even more collective vitriol because they are somehow even worse than non resident fathers in the minds of too many people.
If the laws around family separation were gender aware, we would deliver something completely different both in terms of outcomes for children and behavioural change. We would keep both parents strongly engaged with their children (as they are in countries where gender mainstreaming is at the heart of social policy) and we would increase value, dignity and respect for mothering and for fathering. Even further than that, we would support each parent to care as well as provide for their children in co-parenting relationships that are expected, not offered as a one of a menu of lifestyle choices.
We do not need to focus on anxieties about dividing the child in either physical location or time when legislation is underpinned by gender mainstreaming because we will support both parents to understand their children’s needs and how to support those together. And we will understand that equality in family separation does not mean equal this or equal that but equality of opportunity to continue to deliver on the role of being mum and dad. Recognised, valued, and supported in ways that meet the different needs of men and women.
I don’t know how many times I have said the same thing over the past couple of decades but it is worth saying it again.
The dignity of being valued, for the wonderful things that one brings to the life of a child, is the difference that underpins the work that we do.
About as far away from the deficient dad approach as it is possible to get.
But a thousand times more effective.