As I have suggested above, it is ‘care talk’ that can be particularly significant in the emergent narratives of fatherhood. In Re R (a child), the putative father wanted to care and, although he had no experience of so doing, the desire to do so was seen as noble. In cases of divorce, the situation appears to be different, because the fathers have lived with their children and have had the opportunity to care – yet may not have actually done so. This means that, even in post-divorce situations, fathers are frequently voicing a desire to care in the future, rather than basing their claims on an existing care relationship.
Stuart: At the beginning I don’t think I was a good father; I think I did everything I was meant to do but I was just going through the motions. It was just as I got to know this little person, I grew to love him and it just doubles up and doubles up and then it gets out of control and you cannot control how you feel about him.
Care talk is therefore often based on a rights claim: that is to say, many fathers are claiming a right to start caring or to care in the future. But the assertion of the desire to become a responsible, caring parent is treated as a natural urge that springs from instinctual love; it is therefore almost unassailable.
I have argued that the combination of rights, welfare and care talk combine to create a new narrative of fatherhood which is becoming influential in family law. It is, perhaps, important at this stage to restate that my focus is on accounts that fathers give and that seem to have particular salience for policy development. I am not suggesting that fathers use these arguments cynically (although obviously some may); rather I am interested in the degree of uniformity to be found across a very diverse range of fathers (of different ethnic backgrounds, from different social classes, and from different regions). It is as if, in finding a voice, fathers have all found the same one. This might suggest the power of the fathers’ movement to provide a mode of articulation for the problems that fathers now face. Indeed, we might even find parallels between the way in which fathers have come to identify as a solidaristic, self-identified, ‘minority’ group and the impact on women of the rise of new feminist discourses in the 1970s and 1980s. Fathers – as a group – have been gradually politicised in Britain by the growth of women’s rights in marriage and on divorce; by men’s campaigns against the Child Support Agency; and more recently through fathers’ claims to children. Moreover, for those fathers who go to court and who find that they do not get the orders they feel are justified, there is a sense of anger which is also unifying.
But it may be possible to over-emphasise the unity of this voice or narrative. On closer inspection, it is possible to see that fathers speak through a number of different registers, emphasising different issues and emotions. By this, I mean that, although the main themes may appear to be similar (eg equal rights, welfare and care), we need to be attentive to how these are spoken, where emotional inflexions lie and the context in which such utterances are made. So, it is necessary to be attentive to other themes to see how fathers are presenting their ‘story’ and to understand how they wish to be perceived. Day Sclater has identified a number of narratives to be found when people tell the story of their divorce, the most common being the ‘victim narrative’ and the ‘survivor narrative’. We found evidence of similar ways of making sense of their experiences among the fathers we interviewed. But in addition we found some constructions which had strong overtones of the themes rehearsed in the fathers’ movement literature. There is not space to consider all the variations here, but perhaps two of the most relevant are what might be referred to as the ‘patriarchal narrative’ and the ‘heroic narrative’.