HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
There is a popular notion that after separation dads are either absent or angry and that their presence in family life is not necessarily an essential part of what a child needs. From the changing of the divorce laws in 1973 to the current day, several generations of dads have found themselves disposed of after family separation. An outcome which is nothing less than brutal for those so affected and which is, in these days of modern men and masculinities, so ridiculously outdated that it can sometimes feel as if we are living in a bygone era, where children and their fathers were on head patting terms before bed but nothing more.
I work in the field of family separation and I meet disposable dads every day. These men, who appear at times to me to be nothing more than the ghostly imprint of what a father is, are suffering. Not that you would know it, so unpopular is their plight. Gaslighted by the system which surrounds the family as it separates, these dads, who were pregnant with their partners (in that most modern approach to sharing all of the experience of bringing forth life), now find themselves routinely cast out of the family after separation. Dads are not welcome in post-separation family life, especially if they are going to cause trouble by wanting to actually parent their children. For those modern men who gave their all to fatherhood, the injustice of such a swift eviction from the lives of their children after separation, is a bewildering attack on their very sense of self.
When I talk about 'the system' I am talking about those family services which are likely to become involved in supporting the family as it separates and adapts to changing times, CAFCASS (the Family Court Practitioners who assess the needs of children in post separated family life and Social Services, who may also be involved). All of these services are routinely delivering their services around mother and children first, with father coming a very poor second. There is no such thing as gender equality in family services it seems, or if there is, it is the commonly held approach of women and children first. Pity those dads who go into the family courts expecting fairness, equality and justice, for what they receive is far less than this.
Dads after separation were once described by the CEO of Gingerbread (the single parenting charity) as 'secondary resources, most effective when strategically employed.' Translated this means, dads are useful to mums after separation because they can babysit and be included on the rota for the school run. Dads as helpers, are acceptable so long as they are doing as they are told. Dads as hands on active parents, sharing the care, the chores, the long nights of tummy aches and sickness are not routinely acceptable. In fact as a practitioner working with dads who have been evicted from their children's lives after separation, I have witnessed dads being told that their desire to care for their children is 'aggressive and upsetting' to their children's mother.
These days, in the shadow of Section 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014, children are regarded as being best served by having a relationship with both of their parents after separation. The problem being that in order to achieve that many dads face obstacles to achieving that. Obstacles in the shape of Family Court Practitioners whose own belief system does not allow them to conceive of a father wanting to care for his children and obstacles in the shape of other people who believe that when it comes to post separation care for children, mum knows best. For all of our efforts to modernise the family, bring fathering into the frame and ensuring that children experience mum and dad as team parent, when the family separates it is cast back into the nineteen fifties. Back to a world where dad works and mum cares and the space in between, where equality and modernity should be is lost forever.
And the terror of it all is that what is waiting for dads, should the family ever separate, is so hidden from view, that no man about to become a father can see it, until it is far, far too late. In our building of modern men we have failed to address their real needs as fathers because allowing them to become disposable after separation is both cruel and deeply damaging to the children they are summarily removed from.
Those children who will one day soon become parents themselves, are internalising an expectation of parenthood that belongs in the past, not the present and definitely not in the future.