This is a potentially risky article to write.
I suspect that there will be fathers who will find it offensive and unfair. Who may well feel that I’ve done them a severe injustice in the way I describe their relationship with their children. That I’m somehow blaming them for making difficult choices.
All this I understand. And the alternative is to look away and disregard experience.
To ignore the issues raised in this article is to pretend the work we do as family mediators takes place on a level playing field, when it is manifestly not so. We need to recognise that mediation, when done in our small rooms or on smaller screens, is hugely influenced by what passes for ‘normal’ in the wider world. To overlook this truth is a form of self-delusion that none of us should be comfortable with.
Normal matters. It shapes the kinds of conversations that we invite people to have, that we allow to happen, that we accept as legitimate. Normal comes laden with assumptions about what constitutes right and wrong, about what makes sense and what doesn’t.
To question or challenge the status of ‘normality’ runs the risk of being seen as less than impartial, as somehow being at odds with ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’. The problem is in not acknowledging how ‘normal’ shapes the decisions that get made, we run the risk of losing our credibility by inviting people into a process that is skewed from the start.
The issue at hand is around parenting and childcare. As a family mediator, I am frequently contacted by fathers who say they are not seeing enough of their children. These dads feel marginalised and excluded from their children’s lives. They often feel like second-class parents. Mediation offers these dads a way to renegotiate their parental role – to seek more equal status – both in terms of practical arrangements and in regards to their relationship with their kids.
Of course, mediation in such cases isn’t always successful. However, this isn’t the end of the story. When mediation doesn’t work, these dads often end up making application to court. This step is sometimes made hesitantly, worried that the courts will favour mum’s version over their own.
I try to meet these concerns by saying that the law is not supposed to make any distinction between fathers and mothers, that both are to be considered equally. The court is meant to start with a premise that children, unless there are exceptional circumstances, deserve a relationship with both parents.
In a crude way, the law says that mums cannot simply dictate terms. That while they can say “No”, that isn’t necessarily the final word. Dads who want to spend more time with their children can access the court to challenge that “No”.
And in many cases, the court will make an order that translates into a “Yes”. The court has the power to change the story, to set out times and circumstances that increase a dad’s involvement with his children. If the courts are a reflection of the wider social world, it would seem that there is clear support for the idea that fathers matter.
That is, until the situation is reversed.
Lately, I’ve had a number of mothers wanting to use mediation to see if they can encourage the father of their children to spend more time with the kids. They complain that dad only sees them every other weekend. Sometimes even less than that. Mum is concerned that this can’t possibly be enough time to actually build a real relationship.
Their argument isn’t completely devoid of self-interest. Alternate weekends means that mothers have responsibility for the children twelve out of every fourteen days. This gives precious little time for her to be ‘off duty’. Their world is inextricably tethered to the kids. And as acceptable as this might have been a hundred years ago, it is far more problematic in the age of the ‘working mum’.
For many mothers, the only kind of job they feel entitled to seek is one that fits around the needs of their children. This means that they have to find (and fund) a way of life that manages both their jobs and their kids. And pity the poor mother whose child dares to get ill, as the juggling act becomes absurdly more difficult.
What needs to be stressed is that these women aren’t simply asking for a break from childcare. While this would definitely be an added benefit, what confuses and upsets them is why dads get to choose when to see their children – and that this choice seems to be based on dad’s needs, rather than the children’s. While genetics might be shared on a 50/50 basis, there seems little effort to translate biology into lived experience.
The mums I talk to say that they’ve tried making this argument with dad. What they almost always hear back is a plaintive cry of being too busy to commit any more time. Alternate weekends is the best they can manage. Work is crazy busy. The new partner is demanding attention. Or you know how much I love my cricket/rock-climbing/socialising at the weekend.
These mums invariably ask me what they can do. And I dread the question. I tend to make a feeble joke, saying that mediators are only issued pens, not magic wands. Eventually, I have to admit that I have no power to force a man to step more fully into the role of parent. That making someone ‘grow up’ is outside the remit of mediation.
Then they ask me about court. They know that courts can make orders that enable dads to see their children – can the court order dad to be a better, more involved parent? And it is this precise question that highlights the skewed nature of the world in which we live, which includes mediation. For the simple truth is that the courts won’t issue an order expecting a dad to spend more time with their children. It just doesn’t happen.
And so we reach the unpalatable question as to whether dads matter. If the court is mandated to treat dads and mums as equal parents, how is it ‘equal’ that mothers should have childcare responsibility 85% of the time? Why isn’t the court, as an institutional reflection of the wider society, saying that this is unbalanced, unfair and not ‘in the best interests’ of children?
To be clear, these mums aren’t saying they don’t love their children. They do. They are not even saying that parental love should be assessed on the basis of time and days. The societal wall they have crashed into is the one that seems to imply that dads have choice and mums don’t. And that this should be accepted as the way that the world works. It’s just normal.
The power inherent in this societal definition can be measured by how often a mediator comes across a mum who threatens to show up at dads on a Sunday night and say: “Here are your kids. I’m away working this week, so you’ll have to look after them. See you next Friday evening.” In more than twenty-five years as a mediator, I don’t remember hearing this once.
I know some dads will argue that the maintenance they pay is supposed to fund childcare costs, allowing mum to work. And while this is true to an extent, the children still usually come back to mum’s house, not to dads. Its mum who feeds, bathes and beds the kids during the working week.
Many mums might also argue that they’d prefer to earn their income from work, rather than child support, but having to be home when the children finish from school makes it difficult to seek full-time, well paid employment. The kind of job that dad has.
So where does this leave mediators and mediation?
Mediation is a conversational space and there is clearly a potential conversation to be had. Mum can certainly try and explain why she feels that dad should see more of the kids – and why the kids should see more of their father.
The trouble is the introduction of that word ‘should’. It can very quickly shift the conversation from exploratory to judgemental. Dad should see more of the kids because ‘it’s the right thing to do’. Parents in the context of relational breakdown are very sensitive to even the slightest whiff of judgement – and once detected, almost immediately shift into either attack or defence.
Mostly it’s a lost cause, largely because mum is arguing for a position that has very little societal support. Apparently alternate weekends are a legitimate amount of time for a father to spend with their children, both in terms of relationship and influence. Dads can feel secure knowing that they’ve fulfilled their parental duty without the slightest hint of embarrassment or guilt.
And it’s precisely this unchallenged certainty that I find most difficult to deal with as a mediator. It is a position which needs neither explanation nor justification – it is simply the way things work. It’s just normal. And trying to unpick ‘normal’ is a dangerous thing for a mediator to do without being accused of taking sides.
My mediation mantra says that if I’m not doing empathy or curiosity, then chances are that I’m not mediating. And while this formulation might be debated, it serves me well as a measure of what I’m doing in the room. If I’m not doing empathy or curiosity, then I’m likely to be trying to push someone out of their position or trying to step in and solve the problem. Neither is mediation.
It is precisely the requirement to stay empathetic and curious that I struggle with in these cases. In seeking to understand how they arrived at their thinking, I seem to be ignoring the ‘fact’ that what they are proposing is perfectly acceptable. And so my questions and interventions immediately feel accusatory. And to be perfectly honest, I suspect that they would be right to detect some underlying bias or incredulity.
So I’ve tried to come with some less judgemental and more generous interventions. They are very far from either perfect or comprehensive. I’m sure there are better. My hope is that colleagues will put forward their suggestions so that I can shamelessly steal them.
How did you decide that 2 nights a fortnight was the right amount of time to have with your kids?
What factors shaped your decision around this decision?
Do you think the kids would like to see more of you? What would the ideal amount of time with your children look like? What benefits might this have for you and for them?
It sounds like you’d like to see them more/spend more time with them – and don’t feel you have space in your life to do so? How does this feel?
Can I check – is it the case that you believe that it’s fine and fair that mum has the children for 12 days out of every fortnight? Why does that arrangement make sense to you?
If you were still together, would you expect mum to do most of the childcare? Having separated, do you still have the same expectation?
What kind of relationship do you want to have with your children? Do you think your kids see one parent as more ‘active/involved’ then the other? Do you think that makes any difference to them? Is being a ‘hands-on dad’ more or less important than generating an income?
Why do you believe you add to your children’s lives? What would they miss if you weren’t there?
Do you believe that mums are ‘supposed’ to spend more time with their children, that this is simply more normal and natural?
Is paying for childcare a substitute for spending time with your children?
What stops you from having 50/50 arrangements? What would need to change so that this was a realistic consideration?
In reading over these potential interventions, I can still hear my judgements rumbling away underneath. The only saving grace is that I rarely have to put these into practice, because I rarely get to see dad. Mum, having tried and failed to engage dad in a conversation around these issues, has mostly given up hope of anything ever being different.
My fear is that even if mum could ‘make’ dad acknowledge he probably ‘should’ spend more time with his children, this admission wouldn’t lead to a positive outcome. If anything, if he feels coerced into this position, opens the possibility of dad taking out his frustration on the children. On this basis, it can be hard for mums to see the benefit for the children of pushing too hard.
In talking to a colleague about this dilemma, he often tells clients who find themselves caught up in a loop of unhelpful behaviour is that if something isn’t working, they should probably stop doing it. And while this may help mum stop pushing for something that is less and less likely to happen the harder she pushes, it also re-enforces the societal norm that mums don’t have the ‘right’ to choose in the same way that dads do.
The reality is that dads have access to court in order to argue for their agenda – and mums, at least in terms of this issue, simply don’t.
So to return to the title of this piece – Do Dads Matter?
I want to be absolutely clear that as far as I’m concerned, children need to have a real relationship with their fathers, that this has a huge and important impact on their lives, both now and in the future. I also know from experience, that there are many, many dads who long to see more of their children.
This piece isn’t about the importance of parenting, but about availability of choice in how decisions get made. The landscape in which negotiations we facilitate take place. Trying to highlight the unspoken assumptions that shape the conversations that are and aren’t possible. And about how we as mediators operate within a societal framework whether we wish it or not. That normal is a bloody hard rationale to question or challenge.
I want to close with an example from my practice. I remember one case where mum had left the family home and her three children. She felt like shit. She came into the mediation so full of guilt and shame that her opening position was that she didn’t deserve any of the assets, including the family home and the pension. Nor could she imagine the children would ever want to see her again.
I know that many fathers also feel terrible about leaving their children. I do not mean to characterise dads as unfeeling or unaffected. What I do think – and this is the central point of the article – is that in leaving partners and children, dads have a greater degree of freedom and choice in constructing a life that more or less works for them.
This isn’t to say that they don’t miss their kids or wish they could spend more time with them. Only that, as far as society is concerned, this commitment can be fulfilled on the basis of two days out of fourteen. An equation that only works if mum is willing to accept her place.
Changing ‘normal’ doesn’t happen on the individual level. It’s not about what this mum or this dad decide to do. It’s about whether paternity leave is more than a couple of weeks, or that men can negotiate with their employers as parents rather than just employees. And when conversations about child-rearing happen at the point of conception, rather than the point of divorce.
So maybe I got the opening question wrong. Maybe the real question should really be ‘To what extent does society believe that dads matter?’