Reading cases can provide only a partial insight into the scope of these new narratives of fatherhood; in particular, Appeal Court cases are not a window onto everyday life. Although such cases involve ‘real’ people, they become stylised and symbolic, and the arguments put forward for both sides are carefully manufactured and crafted. Cases, taken over time, can of course indicate how influential new forms of narratives are becoming, and individual cases such as Re R (a child) can indicate significant shifts in the sorts of claims that are being put forward as social and legal contexts change. But it is important to have some knowledge of how fathers speak in person, in more ordinary circumstances, about the claims they are making around fatherhood. So I shall turn to interview data with fathers to explore the kinds of account they put forward. The excerpts selected here are from fathers who have been involved in disputes over contact or residence and, although their circumstances are not identical to those of the putative father in Re R, these interviews capture some of the same issues. They reflect the use of ‘rights talk’, ‘welfare talk’ and ‘care talk’, but also demonstrate a larger repertoire of accounts which break out of this formulation and perhaps reveal that, notwithstanding the emergence of newer narratives of fatherhood, more traditional forms still exist. These excerpts also show the overlap between individual stories and the more political rhetoric of the fathers’ rights movement.
In everyday narratives of fatherhood, ‘rights talk’ took the form of suggesting that, in law, fathers had fewer rights than mothers, and that fathers were treated as less competent and as having less of a claim to their children.
Michael: Well I think, well it would be nice if you knew that there was no differen
tiation on sex; that father and mother would be treated exactly the same.
I mean there is no doubt that at the moment it is expected that the mother will get residence. And I think these days a lot more fathers have a lot more input with the kids than they used to do. And to be excluded as a second class citizen I think is that is the one thing that I would like to see change.
This claim for equal rights was a recurrent theme in our interviews with fathers; we found that even where fathers were personally content with the outcome of their legal dispute, they nonetheless felt that other men were being discriminated against. Injustice and inequality may, therefore, be said to have become a strong inferential framework in everyday perceptions. In this context, a mother’s argument that she may have been the primary carer throughout a marriage (giving up work, or working part-time) is seen as irrelevant to a claim which sees equality solely in terms of treatment meted out at the point of a court order. This claim for equality is therefore a completely decontextualised one, but it has a powerful resonance in a legal culture which is uncomfortable with claims about discrimination and unequal treatment. So, although ‘rights talk’ alone is insufficient to shift family policy away from the paramountcy principle and its focus on children’s welfare, it does shift a generalised sense of ‘sympathy’ away from motherhood towards fatherhood.