Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

Being There: Fathers After Divorce (book review)

B. Simpson, P McCarthy, J Walker (1995)

Relate Centre for Family Studies / University of Newcastle. ISBN 1 899232 02 8.
A4 format paperback, 90 pages, £10.95

This is probably the most significant United Kingdom research on divorced fathers and their children in recent years. The methodology was a retrospective qualitative study of 91 non resident fathers who divorced in 1985, followed through to 1991. This was backed up by a series of in-depth interviews and a seminar involving the fathers, the researchers and a group of professionals. The main aim of the study was to explore how men renegotiate their role as 'active fathers' when they no longer live with their children. Little has hitherto been known about the implications for men who take on the unclear and undefined role of a non resident father who has limited contact with his children.

The pattern of father child contact uncovered by the research was that by the time of the final questionnaire, effectively a period of five years, 37.8% of the fathers saw their children once a week. A further 23% saw their children once a month and a further 16% saw them for less than once a month. A group of 23% had no contact at all with their children. This figure of no contact for 23% of fathers over a period of five years is a substantial and worrying number but it is lower than the figure of 50% over five years that is usually put forward by fathers' advocacy groups. The research makes no judgement about the quality of contact only the quantity. Of the variables associated with the fall off of contact they select socio-economic status and gender as being the most important. Fathers were three times as likely to have lost contact with their children if those children were all daughters than if they were boys. Non manual workers had more frequent contact than manual workers, who in turn had more contact than men who described themselves as unemployed.

The authors go on to say that they found three different types of post divorce parenting. Firstly came the no contact group, this included fathers who reported they had no contact or very rare contact, 27% of the sample fell into this group. Secondly comes the parallel parenting group, who make up 27% of the sample, this includes fathers who reported having contact but having no communication with their ex spouse. Generally this group said they had reasonable contact but had poor relationships with their ex spouses. The third group, 46% of the sample, were classed as communicative. These included fathers with good contact and good relationships with their ex spouses. This type of three way classification is similar to those used by other researchers like Maccoby, Depner and Mnookin in the USA and Mary Lund in the UK. The authors offer three in depth case studies of separated fathers struggling in the face of varying difficulties to stay in contact with their children. In the penultimate chapter the twin themes of loss and growth are developed. It is argued, correctly, that fathers who become non resident experience an acute sense of loss. This feeling relates to loss of control, loss of intimacy, loss of routine, and loss of role. The authors then argue, rather less convincingly, that the whole experience of being separated from their children offers fathers an opportunity for growth and development, an interesting variant of the silver lining hypothesis .

The final chapter, Making it Work, runs through a list of issues which are seen as being important in the determination of contact. There is a discussion of the significance of step families, finances and housing. Finally the authors discuss services for fathers after divorce, including in their list: solicitors, the need for information, mediation, contact centre and self help groups.

Although there is much interesting data and a very useful review of the literature, in some ways this is an annoying report, in parts patronising and condescending. It falls into that category of telling us too late what we already know. In terms of making contact work it sets a very low horizon indeed. The argument seems to be that with better social work / welfare support, more advice and information and so forth things would be a lot better. Surely the point is that the whole notion of contact needs to be scrutinised. Many non resident parents see the whole idea of contact or being a 'visiting' parent as demeaning. It is extremely difficult to maintain a good relationship with children under the constraints of visitation / contact parenting. The fact that so many fathers do maintain a relationship with their children under these conditions is an enormous tribute to their dedication and strength of character. Surely there must be a strong argument that we should not be seeking to maximise contact parenting but replacing it by shared residence.

There is clearly a need for some revised assumptions and an enormous culture change in the discussion of post divorce fathering, not least amongst academics who research the topic.

Arthur Baker

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