Step parenting in the post separation landscape: not wicked and not always to blame

Two tragic deaths of children have been reported recently, responsibility for which have been attributed to mothers and in one case a step father.  Two needless deaths which could have been prevented, one of which at least was predicted by the biological father of the child.

In the twittersphere, I have been watching with interest a debate around the issue of step fathers and mothers who are dangerous to children, the intimation being that step fathers are more dangerous to children than biological fathers.  I have heard this argument before, from the top of the FNF tree and have been most concerned each time it is confidently repeated.

The idea behind this argument appears to be that mothers can be as dangerous as fathers to children after separation and the proof is that mothers can bring any old Tom, Dick or Harry as step father into the family home, whilst the natural father of children, no longer viewed as being his child’s guardian in law, can be banished to the outer reaches of the child’s consciousness.

Now I have a big problem with this argument and it is not just the focus on blaming mothers that annoys me, it is also the focus on demonising step fathers.  I don’t know if the father’s movement intends to offend at least half of its membership, but it appears to forget that many step fathers are also likely to be biological fathers and offering these men up, as sacrifices to the feminist movement (who demand that wherever there is violence in the home there must be a man behind it), is disingenuous and quite simply wrong.

Step fathering, like step mothering is a thank less task.  It requires the patience of a saint and the ability to know when to step forward and when to step back.  Most of all it requires the ability to dance with the devil, to be nice to that person who was once your beloved’s beloved and smile when all you really want to do is pay them back for all the hurt, control and harm they wreak in your life.  It requires that you are endlessly able to smile in the face of adversity, provide the family framework that brings normality into your step children’s lives and take the face slapping sting of being, quite simply, disposable when the ‘real’ parent demands attention.  Step parenting, be it fathering or mothering is no walk in the park and I admire each and every person who takes up the challenge and survives it.

The argument put forward by the men’s movement appears to be that natural or biological fathers of children are more protective than step fathers and also that mothers appear more likely than fathers to bring the demon step parent into children’s lives.  The recent death of Daniel Pelka appears to confirm this argument. However, whilst I have no quibble with the fact that Daniel’s mother and step father killed him, I take absolute exception to the way in which this is portrayed as ‘evidence’ that mothers and step fathers are more dangerous to children than fathers (and presumably step mothers).

NSPCC evidence shows that children are harmed almost equally by natural mothers and fathers.  This evidence, for me, blows the whole step father argument out of the water and shows that it is not biological or step parents who are more or less dangerous, every person who plays a parenting role, be it biological or step, has the capacity to harm children and, whilst some do,  most do not.

Where I do agree with the fathers movement, is that the involvement of the natural father or mother of a child has a protective quality about it, which is born, perhaps of a vested interest and which is, when it is supported, hugely beneficial to children.  As a step parent myself, I love all of my children dearly, but I know, deep down inside, that my love for step children is different to that of my own child.  This does not mean that my step children are less important or less wonderful in my eyes, it does not mean that I would not do anything and everything for them.  What it means however, is that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that my step children have their own mother’s love, their own mother’s care and their own mother’s fierce protectiveness, the same as that which  I feel for my own daughter.  Allowing that space, for that love from their own mother, means that I do not have to compete, I do not have to struggle and I do not have to beat myself up for not being the perfect step parent.  I know that I am important in their lives and that they feel, as I do, the once removed ‘step’ relationship is good enough, for all of us.

That once removed quality can sometimes be different.  Where a natural parent is no longer alive for example or no longer available to a child.  Where that space is empty and available, step parents can fill a role which is much needed by children.  But to try and do that, when a parent is still around and especially, still available, can be to take away from a child that special connection which can make a massive difference in life.

Working with the whole family after separation, as we have done for many years at the Centre for Separated Families and now at the Family Separation Clinic, we know that parenting after separation is a tricky task which can take many years to gel and settle.  Our work with families, is focused upon helping parents, both biological and step, to learn the different elements of good enough parenting after separation so that children can settle into their new lives in strong and enduring relationships with all of the important people in their lives.  Negotiating new roles in post separation family life can take some time and many families get caught up in defensiveness as they try to rebuild their lives.  Children, in these circumstances, can find it hard to understand adult reactions and responses to these changes, especially when they are faced with their own psychological tasks of adapting to change.

In this world there are no perfect and no demon parents.  All parents are, just parents, trying to do the best for their children in very difficult circumstances.  Mothers in these difficult places can be absolutely overwhelmed with the demands of  daily life and fathers can be equally stunned by the damage that family change brings. It doesn’t matter, in these circumstances, who left who or who did what to who, all parents need support and all parents are vulnerable.  As life moves on and new relationships are formed by the adults, more change is introduced to the family, which once again has to shift and adapt to cope.

Family separation is a transition which itself renders the family and the children in it vulnerable.  Add into that emotionally vulnerable people and it is easy to see how children flounder.  When a mother and a step father end up damaging a child so badly that he dies,  or a mother leaves a child dead in a cot for so long he is mummified, we need to understand that these are seriously damaged people who need to be removed from society so that they cannot harm other children.  What we must not do, is jump on the feminist band wagon and start seeing the actions of damaged women as evidence that step fathers are to blame, especially when so many step fathers are also biological fathers who are likely to be parenting in two directions at the same time. Yes some mothers and step fathers harm children, but so do some fathers and step mothers.  It doesn’t mean we are all straight out of a fairy story in which the wicked step parents must be vanquished by the ‘proper’ parents in order to restore order to the world.

Learning to weave step parenting with biological parenting is one of the most sophisticated psychological achievements possible in my view and those who do it should be supported and cheered, not labelled and lumped together as potentially dangerous to children.  To do so is to fall for the feminist propaganda which relieves women of the burden of responsibility whilst finding a man to pin the blame on, all the while creating yawning gaps of knowledge and awareness through which children fall, as Daniel Pelka did, when no-one quite believed his mother could be so dangerous to his well being.

And those in the father’s movement, do nothing but shore this up, each and every time they confidently tweet the same poisonous nonsense.  Someone should give the tree a shake and bring them to their senses.

22 Comments

  1. Yes essentially it’s about the healing and education of adult carers. The bonds and the ties that we make throughout our lifetime are crucial to our social and psychological well being. It is to be hoped that by the time we loosen our dependency on on our adult carers and becomeCarers ourselves we understand better what it is to care and respect for one another and all the children that we bring in to this world.

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  2. ‘But to try and do that, when a parent is still around and especially, still available, can be to take away from a child that special connection which can make a massive difference in life.’

    Whilst I agree with much of what you have said in this thread Karen, to those of us parents that are still around, and available, that have had to watch helplessly as the system fails to recognise that, and favours the other parent who already has ‘possession’, to the detriment of the children, it does also seem to bestow upon the step parent greater access and thus rights to our own children than us, the natural parent.

    Whilst the vast majority of step parents may not themselves facilitate this inequality, unfortunately where a minority actively set out with their new partner to exclude the other natural parent it can be especially damaging to that ‘special connection’, or destroy it completely, which is no doubt the intent, and the ‘system’ seems ill equipped to do anything about it.

    In my own situation, despite Cafcass identifying early on that my ex seemed to be trying to replace me as the other parent with the new partner, and acknowledging that this was unhealthy, they along with Social Services were woefully inadequate at making the obvious link between this and my children subsequently not just completely rejecting me, their loving parent, but also half their entire family, and thus their identities.

    Where there are difficulties such as this, it should surely be routine for the authorities to look more closely at the involvement of a step parent within the family dynamics, and at he relationship they have with any natural children of their own, but sadly this does occur, them seeming to be ‘protected’ from closer scrutiny by virtue of being neither the ‘applicant’ or ‘respondent’ in the family law arena.

    As you rightly point out, many step parents are also parents in their own right, so it would be wrong to tar all step parents, with the same brush. Since seperation, I have moved on, and found a new partner who also has children, but I am extremely careful not to intrude into parts of their lives which would not be welcomed by their other natural parent, and I work hard to strike a good and healthy balance in the relationship that I have with them compared to their natural parents.

    However, whilst recognising the good that most step parents can do, especially where the other natural parent is no longer in the lives of their children, either because they have sadly died, or irresponsibly abandoned them, I do think it equally important to recognise the damage that can be caused by poor step parenting and the way in which along with the natural parent such people can be instrumental in deliberately alienating children from the other natural parent and their family.

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    1. Hi Yaz, I agree, what I don’t agree with however is that all step parents are the same and that step parents are the reason why some mothers push some fathers out of their children’s lives.

      You are absolutely right in your analysis that some mothers assume power, this is backed up by gendered legislation and those who do that can and by and large do get to decide how the other parent is ‘allowed’ to parent. However, in some cases, the father will do this and will also oust the mother completely. This is down to the way in which the legislation around family separation can be used to oust one or other parent by one or other who is determined to do it.

      Which means that the legislation should be changed so that neither parent can assume that control and both parents have to engage with a shared parenting arrangement of some sort.

      Which probably means that we need to move to some sort of legislation which engineers a starting point from which each parent must negotiate with the other.

      Which probably means some sort of presumption which is brought about either through the governance of financial support for children, or through the social policy which governs what happens when parents cannot agree.

      Much like the Australians do.

      This post however, is not about that, its about the way in which the fathers movement is shoring up the feminist argument that where there is harm, women are not responsible but men are. By jumping on the blame the step father band wagon we not only do fathers a disservice, we add weight to the argument that women are not responsible for harm to children. Yes, our personal and individual circumstances might cause us to believe that step fathers are to blame, just like many feminists believe that all fathers who do not live with their children are absent because they have run away or been violent, that’s not the case, you know it and I know it, joining in with the stereotyping does not right a wrong.

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      1. Thanks for the response Karen, and I totally agree when you say that joining in with the stereotyping does not right a wrong, which is why I purposely tried to ensure that my post was gender neutral.

        Unfortunately until the legislation is changed so that neither parent can assume control, gender stereotyping rather than equality will continue to influence the professionals who are supposedly there to safeguard the welfare of our children.

        I totally agree that we need to move towards, and reach, a point where legislation treats both parents equally, and engineers a start point where parents must negotiate with and reach agreement for the benefit of their children.

        However, as you have said in previous articles, this is never likely to be achievable until social policy for financial support of parents also treats them equally, and does not further the stereotype of one parent being the carer and the other the provider, with all the potential problems that creates.

        The current article is about step parents, and I agree that most should be commended for taking what is an extremely difficult role, and generally and doing a fantastic job.

        However, I do believe that where difficulties are encountered, particularly where parental alienation is involved, the relevant agencies should pay far more attention not just to the involvent of step parents, but also any other adults that may be in a position to adversely influence children.

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  3. Karen,

    I am in complete agreement with you regarding the problem with the feminist view that whenever there is violence towards children, there is always a man involved. However, there does seem to be a trait with women of a certain type (the type who work hard to exclude the father from the children’s lives) where they fail to protect the child or children from exposure to their new relationships and all that brings with it. This is obviously not in all cases but seems to be prevalent nevertheless. I have heard all manner of justification for bringing a boyfriend home to the children after 2nd or 3rd date, from “we need a life too” to “We can’t go out as we have the children so we HAVE to bring them home.” The danger to children does not have to be of physical or sexual violence – it is all too often from children seeing man after man come and go, which teaches these children so much about relationships. Furthermore, often these men can develop a GOOD relationship/friendship with the child or children, which, once the relationship is over, is almost always demoted to nothing at all as these stepfathers disappear completely from the child or children’s lives. This is not only the Stepfather’s fault, in fact it’s mostly the mother’s fault as, out of the 2 of them, she is the one with the responsibility to protect the child from this sort of emotional harm. To the stepfather, top of the agenda is the romantic relationship with the children just being part of that deal, and many of these men embrace this ‘added extra’ with love, whilst others don’t.
    Before anyone comments to say that men can also be guilty of this type of carelessness with new girlfriends, this is true, and often happens, but for all sorts of reasons it is usually the mother that makes this mistake with new men.

    Incidentally, I completely relate to your experience of being a step-parent vs being a parent. I have been the former, and I now am the latter, and the boy I was stepfather to is a dear dear young lad and I loved and cared for him very much but my love for and responsibility to my child is something different, and that is almost certainly because I always knew that he already had a father and I was very respectful of that relationship and always took a step back when his father was in our presence. Had he been fatherless, I’m sure I would have ‘raised my game’.

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    1. I sometimes need to read something more than once to completely understand the message or point it is making. Having read this post a second time, I now understand what you are saying about father’s groups exacerbating the gender prejudice that wherever there is violence, there is a man behind it, by vilifying stepfathers. I do agree that this is an inaccurate assessment of such situations and recognise that there are good stepfathers just as there are good fathers and mothers. What I would add though, is that this opinion comes from pain and fear – the pain and fear of being marginalised or worse, out of one’s children’s lives while another man, who has often been around for 5 minutes, gets to spend all the time in the world with them. As a father, I would say that it’s the most unjust and unfair part of the whole family separation process and I’m sure it’s the same on the other side for mothers who are ‘replaced’ by another woman.
      If I could interpret what the fathers in the father’s groups are saying, I’d take the assertion that ‘stepfathers can be very dangerous to our children’ and translate it to ‘how can that be right, that I love my child more than anything in the whole world yet not only am I being restricted/prevented from seeing my child but to add insult to injury, this other man gets to spend so much time every day with my child and also gets to wake up to them? Surely I should be first in line for this. Surely everyone agrees on that?! Someone do something!’
      Of course, hopefully, the realisation eventually comes that a stepfather is just a part of the whole thing and the best a father can hope for is that mother and new partner have a healthy relationship that is positive for the children, and that the children love and respect him and he feels the same way back. Even when this comes with feelings of being replaced slightly, I find that I appease those feelings by focusing on my child’s needs. I’d rather my child had a good stepfather than none, which would probably mean men coming and going. The fairytale scenario of dad and mum with children all living happily under one roof was left at the door when we split up and so I eventually realised that I could not control who was in my child’s life from then on. I could have some influence on my side but I’d have to let the other side of it go, and just be sure to be available to my child. It’s so damn tough sometimes though, but hey, nobody ever promised me it would be easy.
      One huge benefit of learning to live with the fact that our children have important others in their lives that are not anything to do with us, is that it is hopefully good training for the future, as children grow fast and become more and more detached from their parental bonds as they step out further into the world and form new relationships and find new love, and this is something that is a healthy part of growing up and all to often parents stand in the way of this because they struggle with the feelings that non-resident fathers have usually had to come to terms with a long time before.

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  4. I think it was probably Mark Harris who first promoted this belief in the fathers’ movement that stepfathers represent an additional risk factor. Mark had been forced to suffer what many fathers suffer: being excluded from the lives of his daughters while his ex replaced him with a violent and abusive man who had unlimited and unrestricted access to his daughters. I think Mark was fixated on this issue and came to believe it was the fundamental problem for the fathers’ rights movement. Following the publication of his book he and Matt O’Connor found it was mutually beneficial to work together and the idea became absorbed into the F4J world view; from there it spread to other organisations such as FNF.
    When I worked as a researcher for F4J my role was to dig out figures and evidence which supported this world view, and the greater risk to children posed by Mum’s new partners was an important element. The idea that Mum’s new boyfriend could be “the next Ian Huntley” became part of the simplistic sound-bite based campaign. I am as guilty as anyone of promoting the idea.
    One of the exercises I undertook for F4J was an analysis of over one hundred serious case reviews in an attempt to establish patterns. And clear patterns do indeed emerge, relating to perpetrator, MO, family structure, social services involvement, etc. The problem, however, is that these are exceptional, rare cases, and basing any generalisation on them is as dangerous as Women’s Aid concluding in 29 Child Homicides that paternal contact is always hazardous: it would be absolutely wrong to draw any conclusions from these terrible cases which can be applied to the general population. Most parents do not kill their children, and most step-parents – especially those who are properly step-parents in the sense that they are married – are committed and dedicated to their step children. Being a step parent is a great privilege.
    The fact is that custody following family breakdown is normally granted to the mother and that 84% of step-families are thus mother-headed. It is inevitable, therefore, that most mothers who kill their children are resident parents and that most fathers who kill their children are contact fathers. As Mike Cox, the F4J barrister, said of 29 Child Homicides, the WA conclusion is a tautology: you cannot kill a child with whom you do not have contact.
    The fact, therefore, that many serious cases involve a mother and her male partner killing her child is simply because this is the most common post-separation family structure and child homicides very rarely happen in intact, married families. We are dealing with a simple correlation, not cause and effect.
    Having said that, my analysis of serious case reviews suggests that there is a real phenomenon at work in many of these cases, often referred to as the Cinderella effect: there is something going on. I believe that there is a particular type of man involved. He is probably one of the Baby Ps who was not killed, one who survived. He is terribly damaged and has no empathy. With no children of his own, he is drawn to the aftermath of family breakdown, to sole mothers and their children. Somehow his presence enables these mothers to do what they could not do on their own: to kill their own children.
    I do not pretend to understand the psychology involved, but there are too many of these cases, and their numbers are slowly but steadily increasing. Some cases are well-known, some obscure: Daniel Pelka, Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford, Kimberley Carlile, Doreen Mason, Kyra Ishaq, Peter Connelly, Graham Bagnall, Wayne Brewer, Jason Caesar, Sophie Casey, Heidi Koseda, Darryn Clarke, Karl McGoldrick, Doreen Mason, Christopher Palmer, Daniel Vergauwen, Sophie Merry, Martin Nicoll, Leanne White, Darren Lee, Sarah Adams, Zoë Evans, Suzanne Rarity, Lauren Creed, Philip Martin, Jordan Sullivan, Kennedy McFarlane, Carla-Nicole Bone, Jade Hart, Danielle Reid, Perrin Barlow, Jasmine Galyer, Kelvin Cochrane, Ainlee Labonte, John Gray, Tiffany Wright, Michaela Moffat, Courtney Crockett, Ukleigha Batten-Froggatt, Aaron Gilbert, Deraye Lewis, Leticia Wright, Tiffany Hirst, Sanam Navsarka, Brandon Muir.

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  5. And I guess Nick I could add the names of the 29 child homicide victims as a counter balance which would do nothing apart from confirm that the tactic of extrapolating huge headlines from small groups of terrible actions is employed by both sides of the fence.

    And it is that these groups are lined up on different sides of the fence which is my deepest concern. That the groups who support mothers or fathers are mirroring the exact dynamics that occur when the family separates. The fall back on stereotyping, the retreat to the ‘tribe of origin’ the focus on only the negative aspects of the other person brings nothing but an escalation of conflict and it is whipped up on both sides by single interest groups purporting to tell the truth about family separation.

    The truth about family separation is that it is a nasty and difficult business. To get separate from someone that you once loved takes a great deal of psychological conflict. Attachment is a powerful gel which pulls people back together again and again, which is why one sees newly separated people jumping back into bed with each other for a period. Conflict is necessary for people who identified as a couple once. It is conflict which propels the movement into individual consciousness again.

    Step parenting, whenever it begins, is equally a difficult business because to be a step parent one has to navigate the negative tides at the same time as building the positive aspects of a new relationship. I agree with you that there are some people who are perhaps drawn to vulnerable parents and there are some vulnerable parents who are equally drawn to controlling people at times of crisis. This does not however, mean that all step fathers are that way or all mothers with primary care are that way.

    It is quite simply wrong of the fathers movement in my view to perpetuate this notion because a) it falls into the feminist tactic of always blaming a man and b) it removes the focus from what is the real issue, which is the disposable father culture which is brought about by our current legislation.

    A better way of promoting child focused outcomes would be to address the disposable father culture head on, using evidence of how the legislation around the separated family engineers fragility in the father child bonds. I am, as you may have noticed, quietly coming around to looking very carefully at how we could create a culture of acceptance of shared parenting through shifts in our legislation. I still think we could do it through the child maintenance system, by adopting for example, the Australian model of assessing both parents for their ability to support their children, but I also think we could achieve it through the setting up of Family Relationship Centres, again as they have in Australia, where Child Arrangement Orders would be agreed in Child Focused Parenting Arrangement meetings (which would become compulsory and which would feature elements of EI). I continue to work with Oliver C on refining the EI model and we have tested some elements of it to great effect.

    And of course, step parenting would be supported through Family Relationship Centres, which would be based upon a multi stranded parenting support approach which would use fathers groups as the entry point, instead of mother focused services only.

    One of the interesting elements of what I am doing right now is looking at how men are supported in relationship counselling. As a female therapist, I often find myself identifying with the mother in the room, experiencing, as she does, the difference between I and the father and, also, finding echoes of the way in which difference can bring frustration, especially in separation situations. I have to work incredibly hard to overcome my natural bias towards finding it easy to understand mothers and less easy to understand fathers. I can only do this because I have spent such a long time studying and working with fathers, from an equalities basis, not a feminist basis. So, for example, I do not expect a ‘good’ father to behave in particular ways, ways that are identifiable as feminist reconfiguration of fathering. Dads do not have to be Fatherhood Institute approved to be good enough in my book. When I work with mothers who have been in the Women’s Aid school of female reform however, I have to work very very hard to overcome the ‘sisters are doing it for themselves’ mentality that prevails. Whilst I understand the desire amongst the handmaidens of the Women’s movement to reform every prisoner of men that they can access, I know it does no good when it comes to building up collaborative relationships and so I find myself paddling hard in one direction, only to have to paddle hard in another to bring about balance. And when a dad has been on the male equivalent of the women’s consciousness raising programmes, the pantomime that erupts is quite simply exhausting as I find myself paddling in circles trying to move both sides away from their personal and individual rights towards what their children need, which is mutual understanding, co-operation and respect.

    I am very interested in development of Family Relationship Centres which are focused on the family and the positive protective qualities it can bring and which are devoid of personal and individual rights based approaches.

    The multi layered, multi stranded and complex nature of this work never ceases to amaze me, especially when you get under the surface of the soundbites and get neck deep in the mud with parents themselves.

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  6. Elsewhere, Karen, you have described your journey from feminist to your current understanding. I think former fathers activists have to traverse a similar path, and it is one I find myself on. As I have read, and listened, and thought, and questioned, and understood I have been forced to reject the platitudes and assumptions which once seemed so seductive and which also seemed to offer salvation from the situation in which I, and so many other fathers, found myself.

    As time went on I found increasingly that the fathers’ rights model – itself a reaction to and inversion of the feminist paradigm – simply didn’t fit the facts and didn’t offer a solution. My journey to discover an alternative truth has, on the way, led me to marriage and to step-parenthood.

    Parents who abuse and kill their children have a great deal in common – which is all I really meant to say – but they have nothing in common with parents who do not abuse and kill their children.

    I have no doubt that a system of child support which takes account of the ability of both parents to pay would be fairer and would have other beneficial effects. I also agree that Family Relationship Centres are the future; so many people seem to have come to this conclusion independently that they would have wide support, though they would struggle to remain independent of government and of ideology.

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  7. Doesn’t the notion of stepfathers being regarded as “more dangerous” at least partly stem from Darwin’s theories of natural selection which basically tell us that males of a species only care for the young that transmit their genes? I think there’s some kind of instinctive reaction against stepfathers and many separated fathers would confess to feelings of displeasure were another man to become involved in a caring relationship with their children.

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  8. I’ve not had personal experience of the attack against stepfathers…but I have had a younger brother who took on a ten year heroic stepfathering role to 5 children…and then got physically attacked and driven out of that relationship by the two boys when they grew up in a conflict over who would be the “man of the house”. He remains on very good terms with the girls.

    Thus I very much agree with Karen about the extraordinary challenge that stepfathering can represent. However, we can also be talking about a variety of very different scenarios.

    There may be the scenario, as above, where a man has abandoned his children – and someone else is trying to pick up the pieces…and despite building up the best possible relationship, may still get all the suppressed anger of those abused children – thrown back on him.

    In contrast, as relayed by Nick…we can have a scenario where a loving father is driven out by a partner who is emotionally damaged, and is furious because the children love him more than her, and/or they wishe to dominate the family situation totally. In such situations the step-father may be brought in deliberately – as yet another weapon against the biological father.

    Finally, we may have situations where the relationship has broken down because of failures of communication and self-perception, etc perhaps on both sides. In this case, often each partner still does care for the other to quite an extent, and will often take up with a new partner – who will be quite similar to the previous one. Sometimes there can be an element of recognition of this, and consequently some level (and even quite a high level) of mutual cooperation, sometimes even friendship between all the parties can result…though tensions and insecurities may remain.

    All in all, I think we have to face the fact that with the modern situation of easier divorce, the traditional family scenario has broken down as a model…yet this hasn’t really fully registered. We seem to be dragged…agonisingly in many cases…to a scenario where co-parenting of some kind or other is the norm. My belief is that rather than being passive in this regard, it would be better to embrace this whole-heartedly and, and actively begin to look at creating family structures where this will be the case.

    My feeling is we could do this so that it would be advantageous to everyone – and especially the children whose well-being is our primary concern. In this situation, we would all have the opportunity to become both learners from and mentors towards others in regard to the tremendous challenges of parenting. And the presence of many caring eyes would virtually eliminate the possibility of abuse.

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  9. Nature programmes. A pack of Lions with an elderly dominant male is challenged and out-fought by a leaner younger male. Whilst the elderly male slips off into the long grass of the pampas to die the new dominant male will round up the cubs and murder them. These are not his cubs. Very soon the female he has won will produce more cubs for him, which of course he views as his own, fiercely protecting them from danger. Mum does the shopping, with her mates. She doesn’t have to pay for carrier bags. She tracks down the weak and elderly. The kill not only provides food for her family but also other animals further down the food chain, like the vultures who swoop down to pick at the carcass.
    Do we humans have Lion in us, I don’t know. Could it be that when our emotions run high, when we are frustrated and angry, our behaviour could revert to something more basic, primeval.
    As human beings it is to be hoped that our behaviour towards one another facilitates a respect and kindness which far outweighs any tendency we may have to revert to such basic and wild instincts of the Lion.

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    1. I love the image of a lion with carrier bags. It reminds me of the old joke: two lions walking down the High Street, one says, “I thought you said this place was crowded on a Saturday”.

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  10. Thank you Karen for this piece. I find it such a shame that the step parent is such a vilified figure in our culture. Some are bad, but others surely bring something extra to the lives of their step children without attempting to be a replacement parent. I shall give one example which is important to me personally:

    Children who have gone through divorce will to a greater or lesser extent carry the scars of a relationship gone wrong. They may consciously or unconsciously be disillusioned about adult relationships, and their parents engaging in new relationships can bring a counter balance to this. Of course for that to happen, these new adult relationships need to be stable and healthy. Some (most I hope) parents will be capable of forming such relationships and others will not, but really it is the responsibility of the parent not to introduce a step parent, until they are sure the relationship is stable and healthy.

    My own experience of step parenting tells me that my step children are sometimes puzzled by our relationship, because it contrasts their other experiences. The fact that at times they question our relationship and are prepared to discuss it brings me some hope that from us they will learn about the compromises, mundaneness and other less romantic parts of forming a stable, loving adult relationship. Observing our relationship, which they clearly do, brings something more to their lives than either of their parents could give them on their own.

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  11. Here are my thoughts. On the whole, I am in agreement, and I know step-parents that are great, but why sing the praises of them when the biological parents are routinely treated like garbage. People at FNF have every reason to be angry about the fact that mom’s new boyfriends see their own children more than them. There is a context for this that I think Karen might be omitting here.

    1) I would not trust anything the NSPCC say or do, especially any statistics that they might happen to come up with. They have repeatedly failed children inasmuch as they have repeatedly failed to acknowledge the abuse caused to children by implacably hostile mothers whose sole aim is to banish dad, even if it means hurting everyone and most sadly the children.

    2) There is good reason to be suspicious of step-parents. It is not for nothing that we have several tales of witch-like step-mothers, and step-fathers can be just as evil. These stories are universal, and it is not hard to understand why, because step-parents half the time regard the children as an impediment to the relationship, and something that sits divisively between the two adults; those children are a constant reminder of the other parent’s eternal bond to the estranged parent, and are at best a nuisance.

    3) I think that since we treat biological dads like garbage, step-fathers should at the very least have to jump through all the same hoops, and be CRB checked as a matter of course, and have to obtain a court order to live in the same house as another man’s children. A modest proposal, you might say.

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  12. P.S. I am not part of any men’s movement. I think the whole idea of women’s and men’s movements is a very sad thing, and that this is where the real hatred and violence lies – in vilifying one group. I am just a dad, who has seen a lot of strange things happen over the last decade. I have seen how we used the cause of women’s liberation to go to war with Afghanistan, and how certain people have entered jobs with the social services or the CSA simply because they represent positions of domination over men. Ironically, I have also heard, and still hear, that we live in a patriarchal culture, where men dominate women. It is not to shore up some feminist nonsense that I suggested what I did above; it is simply out of a conviction that all should be treated equally. Hence, if we are going to treat separated dads like monsters, then we ought to treat the mothers and step-fathers like monsters too. At least that way, we might actually all wake up one day and realize that we should not be treating each other so monstrously in the first place.

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    1. Hi Grant,

      I appreciate your post because you highlight that quite often people at various levels are doing things for sadistic reasons. In addition to being used as a weapon BY the resident parent step-parents can sometimes take on this role out of their OWN desire to torment the biological parent, and as a display of dominance – alongside of any actual romantic interest…although they may, or may not, be conscious of this.

      As I mentioned, fortunately there are also situations where this does not happen, and step-parenting becomes co-parenting. I agree that this is SO important to the welfare of all concerned that we cannot just leave this to chance. A more communitarian society would find mechanisms to ensure that family life certainly cannot take place completely without some oversight. In traditional societies it was watched over by the “elders”. I would imagine these would have generally been men, but it was still a safeguard.

      That has all been lost now. People coming to the West from these more traditional societies and who are used to and accepting of these structures nevertheless find themselves completely paralyzed in this regard, and at a total loss to know what to do because the structures simply do not exist here and they do not have the confidence to create them. No other agancy wishes to take responsibility for this either, as it seems to conflict with notions of individualism.

      However, these notions of “personal freedom” – which we think cannot possibly be abandoned – in reality merely serve to cover up the effective abandonment of the responsibility we have toward each other.

      I would suggest the first duty of any outsider who wishes to become involved with someone who has children, would be to demonstrate their concern for the relationship between the original partners and their biological children. If they cannot do that – then they should butt out. We could achieve this through informal societal approval, or not – as the case might be, if such a widespread debate was to be encouraged.

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      1. So let me understand this clearly. You state, Woodman, that “A more communitarian society would find mechanisms to ensure that family life certainly cannot take place completely without some oversight.” Are you saying that I, as a divorced father, should not have been allowed to marry my wife, a divorced mother, without some sort of state or societal intervention? Or perhaps you think that only I should have been subjected to state approval, and not my wife, because this sort of social engineering often goes hand-in-hand with misandrist attitudes?

        In 1986 the Law Commission recommended that no man – even a biological father – should be allowed to have parental authority over a child without judicial scrutiny. In the event the 1989 Children Act relaxed the rule to allow a mother to make this decision, but it still means that about half of fathers do not have automatic PR for their children or, to put it another way, that about half of children are born illegitimate. Mothers, however “unmeritorious” always have PR.

        One of the professed aims of the Children Act was to reduce state intervention into the family, though whether it achieved this is doubtful. Increasing intervention and extending the range of decisions the state can make on behalf of parents has the effect of infantilising parents and undermining their parenting when what we should be doing is providing them with the skills to parent effectively.

        Taking parenting into state control and nationalising children is a dangerous policy. As Russia found in the 1920s, the reality is very different from the theory, the law of unintended consequences means that the effect on children and society is devastating. Enabling people to make their own decisions is not abandoning responsibility: on the contrary, it is ensuring that they take responsibility for their own actions and do not seek to offload it onto others.

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      2. Hi Nick,
        As a general principle, communitarians want as much as possible in society to be organized by the communities that are affected by the decisions that are made, on behalf of as many in that community as possible (i.e. seeking to be as inclusive as possible) rather than for society to be dominated by large competing special interest groups – so no…in fact we wish for as small a central state sector as can be managed. It is all about the culture of individual responsibility – that it would take to achieve that.

        We don’t live in anything like a communitarian society. Quite the opposite, as a highly individualistic society…we cannot function without a large centralized state to keep us reasonably in line.

        The current situation in terms of relationships – is highly laissez faire. The religious restraints that previously held families together have largely gone, and there has been no moral framework to replace them. Obviously, situations vary enormously, but overall there is relatively little sense of responsibility when it comes to considering the emotional needs of children – and that is just as true of many women, as of men. As far as I can see, the focus is most frequently all about the adults – not the children. There is a current widespread acceptance that serial monogamy is going to be (should be?) the norm…with most relationships not lasting more than 8-10 years, if that.

        As far as I am concerned, when there are no children involved, that is not necessarily a problem – but since in the cases that concern us there will be children involved…who consulted THEM in this great scheme of things? Did anyone design the scenario to be in their best interests?

        Many of us have fought valiantly to keep our relationships going when there were kids involved. How much help did we get with this – was ANYONE interested? All I am saying, is that I accept that divorce will sometimes be necessary…but as soon as there are children involved, surely it should really be a means of last resort?* Far from being misandric, since far more women than men are initiating divorce, this will currently apply more to women than to men!

        *(As a hippy I do not believe in formalisation of relationships at all, for various reasons – but I am speaking for those who do wish to do so. For me personally – a lifetime commitment is that…and so I do not recognise ‘divorce’ either. How many people have you seen who have got ‘divorced’ – but you know that really…the former ‘marriage’ is still in place, at some deep unspoken level?).

        Perhaps people with more experience can contribute here, but to my observation most problematic relationships are struggling with power relations that are unbalanced – one or both parties trying to dominate the other. This is something that can be worked on – in fact people need to come to terms with these dynamics in any relationship…and what preparation do any of us have in this respect?

        I appreciate that Karens’ work really begins after separation, and that many people have really made the best of things second time around – and can’t now imagine or wish things any different. However, is that the general picture? Do we take separation as inevitable, and even a healthy and sought after phenomenon…if only we managed it a bit better?

        What would really be in the children’s best interests…if it would be possible to concentrate on that (and not the adults) for just a moment? THEN…factor in the adults needs? How would the situation look then? Isn’t prevention generally better than cure? At the same time – for the full range of human development – are adults needs typically met within one intimate relationship? In two..? Obviously some important questions here.

        So how do we manage these whole relationship dilemmas a LOT more responsibly – that’s really the point – NOT greater state intervention…my apologies if that is what it seemed like.

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  13. Hi Grant, I think your post supports what many dads feel but forgets that many dads are also step dads, or likely to be at some point if they are separated. What you are really struggling with is the reality that men and fathers are valued far less in our society these days and seen as the cause of all of the problems rather than being seen as valuable people who may sometimes have problems. But in my view, to declare that step fathers are the problem is to cause real in fighting. The focus in FNF and everywhere else in my view, should be the need for men and dads to be treated as equally valuable as women and mothers in our society, not placing wholesale blame on step fathers. Some step fathers are a problem but so are some step mothers and equally so are biological mothers and fathers. I think the fathers movement has made a bad move focusing on this as an issue, it makes no sense and simply plays right into the hands of the feminist mythology of where-ever there is violence there has to be a man to blame. And remember, it is feminist academics who have invented the idea of social fatherhood – the notion that any man can be dad to any child – born out of the desire to ensure that post separation family life remains under the control of women and not men. That’s where your target for change lies and FNF and others should be brave enough to stand up and name it instead of playing along with the feminist argument and not standing up for families and fathers, which I thought Families need Fathers was all about.

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  14. I agree with you on this, Karen. We Dads should not be viewed as interchangeable by our partners. Our relationship to our children is very important to us and vice versa. We have to wrestle control and responsibility away from mother and into a co-parenting arrangement that suits Mum,Dad and the Children. Starting at birth we need to establish who the father is. We don’t do this, and we allow the mother to toy with the feelings of all concerned until she or the courts (not the father) enforce a DNA test. Families in conflict can be viewed on daytime TV, the Jeremy Kyle Show. Time and again we see Dad ridiculed and berated by the host because he hasn’t done this or he hasn’t done that. But he doesn’t know whether he really is the Dad………………….such a mess simply because mother is playing the game, “I want to choose the Dad, never mind who the real Dad is”. It is a game, the classic cat and mouse, perhaps born of fear. Perhaps you could explain the psychology of what is happening?

    Kind regards

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  15. Is it this simple,…. for any parent, either mum or dad, if they are experiencing difficulties, problems.. or have concerns about the other biological parent or step-parent or both, that those concerns no matter from where they arise, are taken seriously to get to the bottom of the salient cry for help to either validate the concern…or maybe help the person crying out for help.

    A culture where mums and dads both know they will be taken seriously and supported if they need help and support, and valued equally, whether they are married, divorced or separated, a culture where fowl play, hostile parenting and pure alienation has no place to hide should it occur, a culture where fowl play doesnt occur because every individual knows that support is there for them whatever their problem, and not ranked against them……….

    ………a culture that wouldnt have to tackle fatherlessness because it wouldnt be generating it, where there would be no profit in divorce or separation in regard to residence tyrrany, where trying to damage parental child relationships isnt fostered and supported through welfare or the media portrayal of men and fathers, a culture where there would be less people getting married for the wrong reasons…..and a culture where the causes of many separations and divorces related to the stress of one or both not having support or feeling powerless or conversely all powerful and dominant -dont occur.

    The reality at the moment is the only agencies which are state run are set up to demonise one party and make a victim out of the other, and that is feminism at work….

    …..absolute power, absolutely corrupts, and that absolute power is given at this point in time to guess who, the resident parent who on the whole can do no wrong and is protected, -knowing that the absolute power will almost certainly in some way corrupt not only the resident tyrrant but also its true victims, the men and boys who end up in somekind of stockholm syndrome, having no choice but to accept it or be ostracised as well as blamed.

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