A week too late perhaps, but the dust has started to settle and when my good friend and OnlyDads Advisory Board member Spencer asked me for my views on Natasha’s post about Penelope Leach I thought I’d better offer a viewpoint.
So Spencer, what follows is a totally personal response. But first some context.
On Monday 16th (the day Natasha wrote her blog and all this news about Penelope Leach broke) I was having a meeting with my colleague, Rebecca
During our meeting we received a visit from a local dad – toddler in arms. This particular dad approached OnlyDads two years ago looking for some advice. He told me then that the situation with his ex was dreadful, he had failed to gain residence of his children – the judge, with input from CAFCASS, had simply dismissed his proposal, and he was now stuck. His final words to me that day were (and I remember them) were “the fact is, my kids will end up living with me – the Courts just haven’t done their job”.
And now they are living with him. Two years too late! It took the intervention of a social worker to work out was going on at mum’s house and then immediate – I mean IMMEDIATE action was taken and the children were taken to live with Dad. Now we have really happy and secure children. And for the first time in two years we see a dad with a look that comes only from knowing your children are safe written all over his face.
And I’m left wondering why it is, in these very clear cases, there remains a bias towards keeping children with mum?
And as part of this context, I recall my own situation, where despite it being obvious to everyone that my daughters should live with me, it took 9 court hearings, various CAFCASS reports, and it was again, only with the intervention of a social worker who really got a handle on what was going on, that this position was secured. Two years of total angst!
The fact is Spencer, I am uneasy with sexism of any kind. So when I read about Penelope Leach’s views my heart sank a little. I read Natasha’s post that same evening. I greeted it with an “Ooooff”. Let me add, I’m a big fan of Natasha as an individual, and her blog. I was however surprised with some of the words and phrases she used when talking about Penelope’s position. I thought phrases like “we couldn’t agree more” and “applaud” and “salute” where likely to give rise to something of a backlash.
The facts are, that whether it was Penelope, or her publishers, or the media, headlines were spinning around that if toddlers /young children spend nights – or as the headlines ran, have “sleepovers” – with dad, it can cause children to suffer brain damage. Headlines like this are a powder keg.
Later that evening – it had been a full on and busy day – I tweeted something along the lines that this whole issue was best ignored. I also have a particular problem with the expression “sleepover at dads”. It diminishes the crucial role of fatherhood. It’s the same as tweets that read “off out with the girls (sic) tonight, hubby’s babysitting”
You were not the first to include me in tweets asking for an opinion, Spencer. Throughout last week I was finding it difficult to find my voice. See the thing is, the more I read, the more I disagreed with everyone!
In the world of family law and social media there is a set routine. Women state a view, then the father’s rights activists shout back that it’s all a “feminist plot”. Then charities and other organisations jump in with posts and comments that basically say “it’s all about the children and aren’t we all grown up and reasonable by seeing both sides”. (They always read a bit holier than thou!)
My heart sinks further and I sort of clam up.
Anyway – that’s some background context. I’m now (as you asked) going to let you know what, and how, I think.
I can’t quite express who much I believe feminists are not the problem. I’m not going to enter the whole debate about who is and who isn’t a feminist (too boring) but for the sake of clarity I take a feminist to be anyone who does not feel the need to define themselves by parental or marital status and holds a world view that men and women should be equal.
Here’s the thing. In 8 years of running OnlyDads I have yet to support a dad who is “fighting” with a feminist ex. I guess that is because (by definition) feminists see themselves as equal, have a brain and a life, and are only too happy to share out the parenting responsibilities.
Basically Spencer – and here I perhaps part ways with Natasha – I’m not a fan of theories and papers and academic pronouncements on issues as diverse and dynamic as family life.
As a young man I studied theology. Some might say that’s all a bit useless given God doesn’t exist, but the study of religion(s) (and anyone else steeped in this disciple will agree, I’m sure) enables you to spot nonsense at a thousand yards. You are educated to sort of smell it!
An elderly professor told me over lunch one day at College that his God was a God of questions more than a God of answers. That was 30 years ago and I’m still learning from him.
Is “don’t go your dads tonight, you’ll get brain damage” that much different to parents from the ’70s saying “don’t play with the Indian boy, you will come home smelling of curry”?
To my mind, there is something of a totally dated feel to Leach’s viewpoint.
We all love a bit of natural history on the BBC. I wonder if Sir David could be persuaded to do one last programme based on the rapidly changing face of fatherhood?
Walk out into town centre or playground today and you will see an army of dads with their offspring. And you will notice relaxed, happy, confident, and engaged children.
What happened? It really wasn’t like this even twenty or thirty years ago. It’s truly remarkable!
So remarkable in fact that I don’t think courts, the legal profession, CAFCASS and others have quite cottoned on.
Care with words
If OnlyDads has taught me anything, it is that this contemporary generation of fathers love their children and want to be fully part of their lives.
To be separated from them is hard. Perhaps the hardest thing in the world. I hear the words “like being bereaved” all the time.
We all need to treat this love with the respect it deserves. Inflammatory newspaper headlines can be seen to ride roughshod through this love and it’s not good enough.
I’m wary of any thought or philosophy that has the potential to divide the sexes or inflame the toxicity that exists at the time of divorce and separation.
For this reason I think Leach is wrong. And even if a professor of social sciences could prove to me that she is actually right, I’d still disagree with what she has to say. And that is not bloody-mindedness. There is a bigger battle to be won here. Getting mums and dads working together is key.
We need a lot more unity and a whole heap less division.
ps I have read some crass personal comments being made about Natasha. I know for sure no one reading this post will quite appreciate all the work Natasha does supporting families and dads in particular. I treat Natasha like a friend, and even though we have disagreed on this one I hope to meet up on Wednesday and have another argument about who is buying the frothy coffee x