The heroic narrative
The heroic narrative has become particularly significant through the rhetoric of Bob Geldof; it conjures up the image of the father taking on a hazardous battle against the odds in order to be able to play a part in his children’s lives. Of course this image may accurately reflect the experience of some fathers who do face an uphill struggle and who have been unfairly excluded. But it is also a narrative that embraces the compulsive and manipulative father who refuses to give up his attempts to control the life of his former wife and children. The heroic narrative is therefore not spoken only by heroes.
Philip: I kept asking through my solicitors for more time and tried to get her to see
that I could not, that it was too upsetting for me and for the boy, but she would not move at all and in the end I kept going back to court and in the end I was deemed to be a vexatious litigant and they hit me with a section 91.14 which is a really draconian order; basically it means that you cannot make any more orders without the leave of a judge. And that has stayed in place until 2004. Every year I go to court asking to progress my case and he does not, and he knows what I think of him and he knows that I know his days are numbered. The man is a dinosaur.
Philip had taken his case to the Court of Appeal, had challenged the Court Welfare Officer and spent much of his time agitating against CAFCASS and family court judges. His experiences are validated by groups like Families Need Fathers, which publish such accounts in their newsletters and document similar examples of (apparent) injustice, providing a supportive context for this kind of anger. What is more, we also know that these accounts are given increasing credence in the media, which in turn provide a validation of experiences of injustice. It is clear that these ‘heroic’ fathers identify with a new political script and that this is empowering for them.
In this chapter, I have drawn together ideas about how moral claims to fatherhood are being framed into a new recognisable narrative. Claims to justice and rights are utilised to reposition (disadvantaged) fathers in relation to (over-privileged) mothers. Claims based on the welfare of the child are now routine, while claims based on care are a newer element. These draw both on assertions about fathers’ love for their children and on the wider policy context in which it is held that fathers are necessary to their children’s well-being and that all responsible parents should parent jointly. As Wallbank has argued, mothers who appear to resist these arguments are now castigated.
At this point, however, it becomes necessary to recognise the limits of this analysis. It is possible to carry out an analysis of emergent narratives and the ways in which different ‘elements’ such as care or rights are put together to create a new vision of fatherhood. It is also possible to see how debates around specific issues like residence and contact are shifting in line with these evolving narratives. We can also see how some of these narratives become discursive – by this I mean they may become part of how fathers re-envision and reconceive themselves. Hence, we should not really be surprised that more and more fathers may position themselves and understand themselves in these new terms. But the problem arises when, in tracing these developments, one’s analysis fails to do justice to the experiences that fathers may be trying to articulate because some of the claims made by the fathers’ movement and some individual fathers are so problematic (for children and for mothers). It is also a problem if it is assumed that the new claims that are emerging (especially claims to care) are treated as if they are cynical or politically motivated strategies designed solely to defeat motherhood.
Above, I raised the issue of there being a range of registers through which the new narratives of fatherhood can be presented. I suggested that it is important to be attentive to the tone and emphasis of what is said, but it is also important to hear the quieter statements and not only those that are delivered at high decibels and in an intimidating fashion. Take for example this statement:
Paul: Contact was stopped sometimes, it has never been as bad as some, as what
some non-custodial parents have had, who I have known, some have not seen their children for nine months, over a year, some have not seen them again.
It’s never been that bad but contact at the moment is one weekend out of every two from the Friday night to the Sunday night, but we don’t have any contact during school hours, which I find very difficult to feel involved with the children’s growing process if you know what I mean. I know very few of their friends at school or their parents, so I feel slightly isolated from the children, but we do have an exceptionally good time when they do come, but you are not part of their general life.
This father is subscribing to some extent to the widely held view of vindictive residential mothers, although it is interesting that he does not gender his account; he sees it in terms of residential and contact parents, rather than in terms of mothers and fathers. In this way, he shifts the debate away from a simple gender war towards a recognition of the relative powerlessness of the contact parent (of either gender) compared with the residential parent. But he then goes on to capture, in very straightforward terms, what it means to be a parent who cannot share in the everyday life of their child or children. He depicts the sense of exclusion and the hurt that goes with this, but he is not constructing his story as a blame narrative; rather it is one of regret and sadness.
There is therefore a range of registers when it comes to fathers’ voices, and it may be that, in listening, we need to become more attuned to these differences. The rise of the more aggressive fathers’ rights movement may cloak some very problematic patriarchal and hostile attitudes towards women and children, and may even express a yearning for a golden age when women and children were dependent and powerless. But equally some voices may be seeking to express an emergent change in how fathers wish to relate to their children, and this may signal a shift in fatherhood which is not dependent upon a denigration of motherhood. It would, of course, be unwise to predict how the current struggles over motherhood and fatherhood will unfold. But it is interesting that fathers may be signalling a shift in fatherhood by using ethical claims which were developed in the context of trying to give a place to values associated with care. Returning to the theme originated by Gilligan, one might have predicted that fathers would seek to advance their case in relation to an ethic of justice, yet, although this is an important element in their narratives, I have argued that it is claims formulated within an ethic of care that seem to be particularly significant. Of course, whether one sees this as the cynical co-option of feminist ideas for the benefit of men, or as a more complex interplay between shifting values, a recognition of the importance of care relationships and a discursive reconstruction of fatherhood will determine how these changes are viewed.
I would like to acknowledge the importance of my collaboration with Dr Vanessa May at the University of Leeds in the work we carried out on the project funded by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The interviews with fathers from which extracts have been used in this chapter were collected as part of that project.