Narratives of fatherhood
When considering the significance of demands for equality and justice for fathers on divorce, it is important to recognise that groups such as Families Need Fathers or Fathers4Justice were forged out of a sense of loss of privilege and in competition with mothers, whom they defined as being too powerful in matters to do with children. The focus on fatherhood at the time of divorce has pushed these groups into a very combative style, which seeks to harness much of the pain associated with separation into a focused anger around claims to children. But the movement is not simply about claiming equal rights over children on divorce or separation; it is also about making new kinds of claims to children and hence to fatherhood. This means that, although there is a specificity about their claims (for example, for 50:50 sharing of children), they are a catalyst for wider demands which are taking new forms (as discussed below), which in turn extend the scope of fatherhood and also, by definition, start to redefine motherhood. This suggests that the new articulation of the meaning of fatherhood, which is now given voice through the pursuit of legal claims, is more than the voicing of a pre-existing but silent claim, but is actually part of a new discursive construction of fatherhood.
The success of pressure groups like Fathers4Justice has been in their ability to combine narratives of ‘rights talk’ with both ‘welfare talk’ and ‘care talk’. And because this has occurred in the context of a proclaimed war against the unfair privileging of mothers, the effect of their narrative has been an erasure of narratives of motherhood. Arguably, these movements have not been progressive, in the sense of trying to transform and share the responsibilities of parenthood (by, for example, campaigning for the right of fathers to work part-time); rather, they have been constructed in opposition to motherhood.
It is important, however, not to read every claim made by fathers in the field of family law as if it is merely the mouthing of a political doctrine fashioned by the fathers’ rights movement. Equally, it is important not to assume that any father who becomes a party to an action in court is motivated by the same political goals. Yet there may be some evidence to suggest that the populist narrative of groups like Fathers4Justice is entering into everyday usage, and that it may be framing the claims made by more and more fathers. It is to these more complex issues that I shall now turn. First I shall examine a particularly significant case which articulates the new claims that fatherhood now makes in the field of family law. I shall then turn to some empirical examples of how fathers are expressing their contemporary engagement with (apparently privileged) motherhood and will look at how, in everyday constructions, the new narratives of fatherhood are taking shape.