The Distancing of Fathering: Too Great a Loss in the Landscape

Today is Father’s Day in the UK and all around the land children will be marking the day for their dads.  For some there will be no card or present, no telephone call or good wishes. For some children there will be no opportunity to give these and for others the opportunity will be denied to them.  However we look at this, Father’s Day is a day when someone somewhere will be hurting and others will be celebrating,  loss in the landscape after divorce and separation, makes Fathers Day both happy and sad, not one or the other.

Having just finished our alienated mothers retreat it is both a difficult AND an easy thing to switch from the issues facing mothers to the issues facing fathers.  Difficult because I have been so fully absorbed in the archetypes around the alienated mother and easy because in doing this work with single sex groups, highlights the differences between the alienation of mothers and alienation of fathers and the underlying dynamics which cause this.  Whilst many cry out that this is a non gender specific issue, I beg to differ.  For whilst both fathers AND mothers become alienated from their children, the manner in which they are alienated and the consequences of that are extremely different.

The impact of alienation is different for men and women too and each in relation to the loss of their child will feel that and express that differently.  This is why campaigning as an alienated father, requires a different approach to campaigning as an alienated mother.  What we collectively understand about mothers, does not apply to what we collectively understand about fathers, which is probably why the F4J stunt on GMB was not well received this week.  Pulling out a pair of pink knitted balls on morning TV, Matt O Connor attempted to emulate the tradition of using knitted and handmade vaginas, called ‘pussyhats’ which are worn by women around the world in the somewhat (in my view) ludicrous approach to raising awareness of women’s equality.  Unfortunately for F4J, the use of pink knitted balls to follow this tradition to raise awareness of fatherlessness in the UK, simply led to widespread horror and outrage. Which goes to show that what is good for the goose, is most definitely not good for the gander.  Whilst I saw F4J doing they have done for many years now –  using airtime to make people talk about the issue of fathers, others, including dads, were disappointed that their experience was somehow tainted by this.

From my perspective, it is not possible to gender neutralise the way  in which we represent the needs of men and women because each experiences their own lives and the lives of others differently.  Which is why sitting in a TV studio with a knitted vagina on your head brings applause and admiration, whilst pulling out a pair of knitted balls from your pants, makes people cringe.  Women, in our current day stereotypes,  are allowed to be a little bit outrageous and challenge stereotypes – we are supposed to ‘hear her,’ whilst men in this day and age are supposed to be apologetic for the balls they possess and grateful that they have women to teach them how to be better humans.

I come to this work with a background in gender mainstreaming, that is understanding how men and women experience things differently and how their different needs must be met in order for them to achieve equality of outcome.  Those different needs for support are never more clearly seen than when I work with groups of mothers alone or groups of fathers.  In alienation, the opportunity to attend to those different needs is essential because fathers face particular blocks to their parenting which are structurally embedded and whilst mothers face the unintended consequences of those too, their route to alienation has different markers.

When we look at the experience of alienation we have to look at the way in which fathers who do not see their children are viewed by the wider society.  Fathering as an archetype has been systematically attacked and eroded (so much so that the GMB debate which featured F4J this week, was about whether Father’s Day was necessary anymore).  Following on from the retiring President of the Family Division’s speech about celebrating the demise of the nuclear family and surrounded by media images of families which are made up of anything but a mother, a father and their children, it is easy to see why being a father must feel like being an endangered species.  Rather than celebrating our dads, we are are collectively airbrushing them out of our archetypal awareness, which means that being a dad who plays the traditional role of keeper of the keys to reason and rationality, is becoming more and more rarified.  Nowadays dads are expected to call their children ‘mate’ and the family hierarchy in which dad is top dog, is increasingly eschewed in favour of a sort of flattened approach in which mum is in charge of dad and the kids.  The message this gives to children is that dad is something other than an adult, cannot be trusted but can be indulged if he behaves himself.  This kind of shift in dynamic, prompted by decades of feminism and supported by rigid social policy control, does not benefit children in my experience and puts dads at risk of alienation even whilst the family still lives together.  Little wonder so many fathers find themselves immediately pushed to the margins on separation, there is simply no space for them to have any kind of meaningful relationship when they have already been alienated into the space of being considered by all a  fairly useless human being.

I am really concerned about children whose fathers are pushed into this space because their opportunity to draw from their fathers all those things which are essential for them in their psychological development are being denied. The role of fathers as protectors of mothers and then in bringing the outside world into the home as described by Winnicott is simply diminished in our society today.  In diminishing this reality of how the biological and psychological functions intertwine in our parenting roles, we have set up confusing and perhaps for children, difficult to understand imperatives in the inter-psychic world.   Whilst mothers used to be the people who were pregnant and through the act of carrying the child and giving birth became mothers psychologically as well as physically, the couple is now supposed to consider themselves pregnant, with fathers being expected as well as expectant, in the whole pregnancy landscape.

Whilst I am not advocating for a return to the days when dad involvement was too deposit the seed and then smoke a cigar in the waiting room after the birth of the baby, I am advocating a return to understanding how men and women relate differently to parenting and how their different needs for support in parenting are missed in the effort to gender neutralise the experience. I am also calling for awareness of the dangers of gender neutral approaches to anything to do with parenting.  It is not the goal to gender neutralise, it is the goal to recognise the differences between men and women in parenting pre and post separation because it is in recognition of difference that we are able to fully meet the needs of alienated mothers and fathers properly.

In my work this week with alienated mothers, I have recognised again that the underlying dynamic for mothers who become alienated is their vulnerability to coercive control which is continued through the child.  The vulnerability in the background is linked to a number of different things, including having a history of abuse in childhood.  This is an area which is being researched and illuminated so that we more fully understand how the vulnerabilities lead to children being controlled.

In my work with fathers I recognise again and again how they are rendered powerless by the societal beliefs which have been seeded over decades and how their partnering with mothers with control issues, underpinned by narcissistic patterns of behaviours,  leads them to fall prey to alienation.  It is only in separating out the background experiences and the manner in which collective beliefs about mothers and fathers, coupled with tightly stitched social policy and legislation, drives outcomes which cause alienation, that the reality for alienated mothers and fathers can be understood.   In understanding these, we are more able to put together responses which properly meet the needs of alienated parents.  It is in understanding these that we can properly represent the experiences of the parents we work with.

As I left our mothers retreat this week I drove through England stopping off in places for cups of tea and a rest.  In one of the motorway service stations I observed a dad with a baby, the baby had the biggest smile on his face as his dad sang to him, a smile so big it lit up the whole place.  In another place I watched a dad teaching his little ones to stop, look and listen as they crossed to the cafe.  In my work I watch dads do what they do with the courage and strength of old which is tempered by the tenderness of those things they have been told they should be.  In each and every encounter I see the power and the value of fathers.

As a younger woman who brought up a child alone because her father wasn’t interested and as an older woman whose father disappeared out of my life with someone unknown six weeks before I got married, fathers are important to me.  They are important not just for all the things they bring to their children but because I know the impact of their absence – I know what the gap in life without a father feels like.

And so for all fathers everywhere, for everything that you are, not just that which is acceptable to women, I wish you happy fathers day.

You matter, you make a difference and you are truly welcome in the world just the way you are.

18 Comments

  1. I feel sad for my son today. He fought hard for his children through the Courts for a shared residence order. It did work reasonably well for quite a number of years. However, one boy was alientated at the age of 15, three years ago, and the second boy was alienated around Christmas-time aged 14. Both boys have blocked their father from social media and their phones. I could not tell you the reason why they seem to hate their father, he has been a good dad and put them first at all times. The eldest boy has said he has the worst dad ever. The youngest has said that their stepfather was a far better father to them than their own father. He has said that ‘he doesn’t like his dad’. When my son was rushed to hospital as an emergency a few weeks ago, neither of his children enquired if he was OK, despite having been informed he was to undergo an angiogram that day.

    There will be no Father’s Day card for him today, but I have no doubt at all that my ex. dil will have purchased a card and a gift for their stepfather so that they boys can give it to him today. Their biological father has been consigned to the dust bin, discarded as unnecessary.. Some women just want to move on to pastures new and they do not care what havoc they reap in the wake of. They seem to have no empathy for the feelings of others.. However, they are not oblivious to the pain and hurt they inflict on their ex. partners and the extended family, they seem to drive pleasure from it.

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    1. Yvie, I am alienated from my 4 daughters in much the same way your husband is. What I have learned is that they have little to no control of why they are doing this…and won;t be able to cope with reality until they are away from the poisonous wings of protection cast over them by the alienating parent. There are many of us, far more than I could have ever imagined. Be supportive and loving, don;’t try to offer solutions, there aren’t any until they are away…just be there the way you are.

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  2. Powerful and true words spoken by you yet again Karen.

    Last Father’s Day my partner was airbrushed out of his children’s lives. This year, after another year in Family Courts, he is now seeing two of his children & we are going out with them this afternoon too.

    Cafcass (& therefore the court, because our judge took Cafcass’ evidence as gospel all the way through proceedings – their power is far too great when they are clearly not fit for purpose!) did not recognise this as an early case of attempted Parental Alienation, albeit not yet severe in all the children, and it was only due to the resilience of the children that they recognised they still wanted a relationship with their once very close dad.

    Cafcass supported the request by the younger children to resume contact & thanks to the efforts of our barrister we managed to eek further contact into something of a half decent arrangement. We know this may not last long & we are aware of their mother’s ongoing attempts to alienate the children. But for now at least we can continue to build memories & hopefully more resilience.

    So my message for this fathers day is for all airbrushed dads to keep fighting, keep repeating what you know to be true, be calm and work with the courts & cafcass as well as you can. I know how frustrating it is and how draining emotionally it is. I’ll repeat what Karen always says which is to keep yourself healthy & strong so you are able to parent your children when they need you.

    And thank you Karen & Nick. We absorbed everything you wrote & said. You were the first people we came across that educated us about PA & we are eternally grateful for all your work and your empathy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Quote: Which is why sitting in a TV studio with a knitted vagina on your head brings applause and admiration, whilst pulling out a pair of knitted balls from your pants, makes people cringe.

    Good grief! I saw none of this, thankfully. The thought of either makes me do more than cringe!

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  4. Quote: “In my work this week with alienated mothers, I have recognised again that the underlying dynamic for mothers who become alienated is their vulnerability to coercive control which is continued through the child. The vulnerability in the background is linked to a number of different things, including having a history of abuse in childhood. This is an area which is being researched and illuminated so that we more fully understand how the vulnerabilities lead to children being controlled.”

    THAT is my whole story. And I mourn the fact that all I ever wanted was a loving family – a husband I could love and rely on and children who loved us both. A proper family.

    Instead, my estranged and alienated daughter (now married and aged 37) has just returned from her sixth holiday abroad this year with her dad and will no doubt be celebrating Father’s Day with him today …………….

    Quote: “In one of the motorway service stations I observed a dad with a baby, the baby had the biggest smile on his face as his dad sang to him, a smile so big it lit up the whole place.”

    I too have witnessed scenes just like that and I cannot help but feel huge envy. Why couldn’t I have married a man like that?

    My heart truly goes out to those fathers who have been cheated out of fatherhood. You are probably the kind of father I would have wanted for my children. The kind of father figure I keep in my head as I mourn what never was and could never be. Oh how I wish I had married a man who had wanted to pick up our baby. In reality I had to beg him to pick her up and I cannot remember him ever cuddling her or singing to her or anything else until she became interesting when she was 15 and began developing her own opinions, especially when she shot me down.. And yet he is the one in her life now.

    To all fathers who fit the fathers of my imagination I send my heartfelt best wishes for Father’s Day and for those who are in the same boat as me, well, all I can say is that I feel your pain.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I appreciate what you are saying in this article but I think the context of parental alienation being gender neutral is that it can happen to mother’s as well as fathers as opposed to the differences in how a father might end up in this predicament over how a mother might get there.

    It is a shame modern society seems to want to make everyone gender neutral. With you all the way on the female genitalia hat point… where was the outrage when that was going on.

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    1. I think you missed the point Angela, of course it happens to mothers as well as fathers but promoting it as gender neutral and saying it is caused in the same way and impacts in the same way means that we miss understanding it and meeting the different needs of mothers and fathers who are alienated. If you don’t know the difference, you cannot assist in preventing and treating it. That is the point of understanding difference and not promoting it as a gender neutral issue – nothing is gender neutral, it is impossible to gender neutralise anything because everything in the world is affected by how we think about gender.

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  6. I dont think I missed your point. I was merely expressing what people generally mean when they talk about PA being gender neutral. Nor did I personally say it’s caused in the same way for both sexes. This is the first time I’ve heard there may be a difference. Will be interesting to hear more about this as it unfolds.

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  7. “The message this gives to children is that dad is something other than an adult, cannot be trusted but can be indulged if he behaves himself. ”
    Pretty much sums up my experience and on reflection it had started happening before the separation – the warning signs are there though I had no frame of reference in which to recognise it and I have no idea how one can change it even whilst within a loveless marriage. We are blamed and punished for the failure of the relationship even before it fails. Marriage counselling doesn’t even help because they won’t go as to take joint responsibility is not within their capability. Prevention is always better than cure but how can you prevent the inevitable?

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  8. Karen – I have just come across your blog and your work, whilst researching competing publications (which it seems publishers insist on) for submissions of my book : “Disposable Dad – the Destruction of Fatherhood in 21st Century Britain”, which recounts my own, ongoing experience of being thoroughly alienated from my children after years of getting on wonderfully. Their mother couldn’t abide this and, as the Primary Carer following divorce, eventually forced me in to a court process that wiped me out of the children’s lives. Just this week, more than two years after that separation from my girls, I have received a text from the youngest effectively saying she wants nothing more to do with me. She is 12 and we were always very close, as indeed I was with her soon to be 15 year old sister. I think Paul Apreda of Families Need fathers Cymru has mentioned your name to me before. I am replying really to ask if you would review and comment on my manuscript – although I fully appreciate you may simply not have the time. I’ve been reading some of the blogs this afternoon. I find them helpful – they make me feel less alone and less of a failure. Thank you.

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    1. Hi Rob, glad you find them helpful, yes of course I would be happy to do that, if you send it to office@familyseparationclinic.co.uk I will take a look and comment. I am sorry to hear about your situation with your girls, it is far too common a story and one which needs to be heard. Kind Regards Karen.

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