It might perhaps be noted that there are some moves afoot in Britain to remedy the appalling situation described below. In Australia it has already been for some years the default assumption in the divorce courts that children will spend equal time with both mother and father -- and Britain could be moving in that direction. Individual circumstances may of course move court orders away from the default assumption but Australian courts have been fairly resistant to that. A strong case has to be made to deviate from the default assumption of shared parenting.
A year ago today, David Cameron wrote an article for this newspaper, damning feckless and absent fathers. “We need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go awol,” he said. “It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink-drivers, people who are beyond the pale.”
Like thousands of other fathers, I snorted with derision and contempt when I read it, and have felt too angry to respond to it until now. Unmeasured public rage can be facilely dismissed as a kind of madness…
Dear Prime Minister,
You seem to be unaware that the principal reason that fathers become estranged from their families is that the family justice system is institutionally gender-biased. A father has to fight bitterly to get what is automatically awarded to mothers, and if he has no money he cannot even do this. Fair outcomes are reserved for people like me, who can afford them. Fathers get pillaged of their assets, and are then told that they cannot have their children overnight because their bedsits are unsuitable. They get accused of sexual or physical violence so that they cannot see their children for months while the accusations are dilatorily investigated.
Then judges reason preposterously that, since the children have got used to the situation, this should not be disturbed, and will decree that the father is now entitled to even less time. A mother is never punished for disobeying court orders, in case this upsets her and her distress impacts on the children. A father’s distress will be used against him to show that he is unstable. The children’s distress at losing their father does not count, and their stated preferences are ignored.
Mothers often try to move long distances away to ensure that contact is in fact impossible, and children find themselves saddled with a stepfather of whose existence they may have been previously unaware. Cases are adjourned over and over, for months, and are heard by different judges at each sitting. Cases are investigated by people from a body called Cafcass, which is underfunded, understaffed, undertrained, chaotic, unaccountable, does not do long-term studies, and simplifies its tasks by following anachronistic gender stereotypes.
In the meantime, the father loses physical and emotional touch with his children; he loses all hope; the stress and despair make it impossible to concentrate on his work. He finds that the more his children are withheld from him, the more maintenance he has to pay. The children are what he loves most and are his reason for living. Some men may spiral down into mental illness, alcoholism or even suicide. One charity used to keep a book of suicides called “The Book of The Dead”.
Mr Cameron, I condemn feckless fathers as strongly as you do, but you appear unaware that by far the majority of relationships involving children are dissolved by mothers. A statistic I have read recently stated that it is 83 per cent. I look forward to your article next Mother’s Day.
The biggest social scandal of our time is the absolute lack of justice for fathers, and the cruelty to which they and their children are routinely subjected by a legal system that is capricious and out of touch with the way we live now. These days, Mr Cameron, fathers push buggies, make meals, change nappies and spend hours watching awful children’s programmes just for the sake of the cuddles. The only thing we can’t do is breastfeed.
You are a father of young children, and I hope you never experience the horrors that come from a failed marriage. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare of injustices and double-binds. As you get demoted to the status of distant relative, you will find that your relations also lose your children, too. Most of my letters of support have come from women who are desperate on their brothers’ and sons’ behalf, or from grandmothers who have not seen their grandchildren for years.
Mr Cameron, the treatment of fathers in this country amounts to a contravention of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which concerns the right to a family life, and our court procedures contravene the right to a fair trial. If I could raise the necessary money to take cases to the European Court, I would give up years of my life to do so. Some day, somebody will.
Yours truly, etc
Louis de Bernières
I have been very lucky, Louis de Bernières writes
I have had the good fortune to have come to an understanding with my ex, and to continue to be a part of her family. We separated two years ago – after 10 years together, and two children: Sophie, four, and Robin, seven. My ex now lives in the village next door, and we have shared residence, which is working very well. This Father’s Day, I will be working, giving a talk at a literary festival. Then I shall rush back in time for bedtime and presents (I hope) at my ex’s house. My ex is very good about observing Father’s Day.
For a time, though, I had months of the most extreme despair after our personal fiasco blew up in our faces, and this has given me the determination to fight on, not for myself, but on behalf of the tens of thousands of fathers who do not have my public profile or financial means.
The fact is that fatherhood has changed. My own father was not a “hands-on” father, as he admits himself. His generation was not allowed to be, and didn’t know it was possible. I remember the slight awkwardness if he bathed us when our mother was out. He was still a wonderful father, and the important thing is none of us doubted that he loved us deeply and would have endured any hardship for our sakes. His ability to quote appropriate bits of Shakespeare is undimmed by age, and he still writes poems for each of us.
I admired him hugely as boy. He had been through the Italian campaign on the Gothic Line, and my mother assured me that he was “as brave as a lion”. He had medals to prove it, and a “Mentioned in Despatches”. His fathering skills included an ability to bark like a sergeant major, and so he had no discipline problems with us. After leaving the Army, he spent his life working for charities, and continued to do so unpaid after he retired. I am mystified as to why he never received an honour when many undeserving people have received them, such as donors to party funds. My father devoted his entire life to the service of others, for a part of it at the risk of his own life.
Of course, when I was a teenager I thought my father was an old fascist. “Fascist” was the word that my useless generation employed to dismiss anyone who didn’t blame “society” for everything. When I grew to maturity – quite recently – I understood that my father was one of those who laid his life on the line to save us from Fascists, to conserve those freedoms that we take for granted and are always in danger of losing.
My father was not interested in sport, and mother taught us cricket. It was with my father, however, that I cut logs, mixed concrete and laid slabs. He taught me how to use the carpentry tools that I still love to use. He encouraged my fanatical model-making, and was spectacular at it. Most importantly, he was interested in literature, in politics, in moral issues, in religion, in history and what could be learnt from it.
His creativity and intellectual engagement are the explanation for my vocation as a writer. Well done, Pa, it’s been a life well-lived. See if you can beat your own father past 96. And thank you with all my heart.