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.