The New Micro-Politics of Child Contact

The fathers’ movements … have obscured the structural basis of the gendered division of labour that supports and sustains women’s greater role in child care, and have turned mothers’ objections into an apparently self-interested, child-harming defence of the status quo. … In framing the issues as ones of justice, they have also turned to law to demand ‘fairness,’ [but] they have not sought to redistribute the burdens of working and caring.

Carol Smart
  1. “The most obvious problem to be faced when contemplating the demands of fathers for more contract with their children is that this collective demand raises its voice at the point when men’s relationship with their children’s mothers have broken down. Of course, from the point of view of many fathers have been no urgency about raising their voices before this point. Arguably the system whereby mothers carry the main responsibility for children and suffer the consequences in the labour market and in terms of later benefits such as pensions is not a problem for the majority of fathers who can fit even quite ‘active’ fathering in [and] around their employment and other leisure commitments. This gendered division of labour only becomes a problem for fathers on divorce and separation when the emotionally powerful position of mothers is revealed to them in a meaningful way. But the fact that this realisation comes at the moment of separation inevitably means that the demand for more contact or even residence becomes part of the (inevitable) conflict that surrounds separation and, indeed, even intensifies this conflict.
  2. The next element in these micro-politics involves the interwoven nature of ‘care’ and ‘love.’ It is empirically established that mothers do most of the caring for children–even if some fathers do a substantial amount (particularly in the UK where there are high levels of part-time maternal employment and low levels of state provided child care). Moreover, caring for children is often an expression of love and it provides a context in which love can thrive and develop. This has two consequences. For mothers, reducing the amount of caring for children that they do is associated with guilt and loss, and the majority of mothers experience anguish when they return to work or when their children first go to school. So, giving up ‘caring time’ has emotional connotations for mothers. For fathers, love may not be so bound up with caring activities and responsibilities, but this does not mean that they do not love their children. However, as a consequence the love they evince may not be perceived to be rather superficial (he does all the fun things while she does all the laundry!) and so less weighty or emotionally significant compared with a mother’s love. This means that the demand by fathers for caring time to be taken away from mothers creates emotional pain (especially if it is the father’s new partner or mother who will do the work of caring) while the demand itself can appear to be based on trivial or superficial emotions and motives.
  3. This problem ties in with a third issues which concerns the nature and quality of fathering in the absence of maternal guidance and supervision. As I have noted, the dominant pattern in heterosexual parenting in most post-industrial societies is that mothers take overall responsibility for care for children, but they may delegate certain activities to fathers. This cultural arrangement is obviously open to change and variation (compare Sweden with the UK for example), but it is still the prevailing pattern in most post-industrial societies. This means that after divorce or separation it is difficult for mothers to trust fathers with full-time care (at least of young children) because they are perceived as occupying the status of a partially trained apprentice in the sphere of childcare work. This of course is just as much a source of men’s anger as it is of women’s anxiety. This conflict arises directly from different experiences of the gendered division of labour. The problem, however, is that while father’s anger has found a ‘legitimating’ political voice, mothers’ anger has not.
  4. The final ingredient to add to this rather toxic mix is the ambiguous view that many fathers apparently have of their role as economic provider for children after divorce or separation. This ambiguous relationship sits uneasily with the often stated aspiration of becoming emotional carers and more involved in the lives of their children. In other words there is an apparent lack of ethical congruence between the political demand to care/love and the common refusal to provide adequate financial support for children. This ambiguity was clearly captured in a notable English case known as R v Secretary of State for Social Society ex p W. In this case the father had previously applied for parental responsibility in relation to the children of his partner in order that he should have a degree of social and legal recognition of his status as father of the children. However, when his relationship with their mother ended he refused to pay child support and, notwithstanding his previous application for parental responsibility, he reclaimed his status as a non-father (because he was not the biological father) and declined to accept any responsibility for financial support of the children. This case epitomises the situation where it is culturally available to fathers to have an ‘opt-in/opt-out’ style of relationship with their children, causing much resentment to the parent who cannot/would not opt out. It also gives weight to the impression that men’s claims to fatherhood are not serious, altruistic or responsible, but are generated by a desire for personal gratification and sometimes by a desire to spite mothers who are seen as too powerful.

The fathers’ movements have taken their experiences of these interpersonal conflicts and reframed them as issues of justice and inequality. In so doing they have obscured the structural basis of the gendered division of labour that supports and sustains women’s greater role in child care, and have turned mothers’ objections into an apparently self-interested, child-harming defence of the status quo. In framing the issues as ones of justice, they have also turned to law (especially judges and the courts) to demand ‘fairness,’ while claiming much moral high ground through the emotive vehicle of personal accounts and anecdotes. In a sense they are seeking the help of meta-political or legal sanctions (e.g. penalties against mothers) to solve micro-political disputes in their favour. They have not sought to redistribute the burdens of working and caring. In this endeavour they might achieve some of the sanctions they wish for, but almost any analysis of the power of law to change people’s perceptions and behaviours–especially in the realm of intimate relationships–would suggest to these fathers they will not succeed in finding the remedy they imagine the law can provide.”

Excerpts from Carol Smart, “Preface, ” pp. vii-xii in Collier, Richard and Sally Sheldon, eds. 2006. Fathers’ Rights Activism and Law Reform in Comparative Perspective. Oxford: Hart Publishing. From the section, “The New Micro-Politics of Child Contact, ” pp. ix-xii.

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