Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

Women moving over

Patricia Hewitt

speaking at the IPPR Conference 'Men and their Children' in London, 30th April 1996


I'm delighted to be here today. I really think this conference is a landmark event. Certainly as far as IPPR is concerned it grows out of now nearly six years work on gender, employment and family policy. But of course the work we've been doing in IPPR itself draws on a far longer period of work which has been done both theoretically and practically, some of which has been summed up for us this morning by Michael Lamb. And I think what we are beginning to do and what this conference represents really, is create an extremely exciting collaboration between different disciplines, but also between academics and real practitioners - whether they are parents or teachers or other people working directly with children.

Why should feminists worry about fathers ?

I want to start by asking the question (and perhaps trying to answer it) WHY ? As I was asked by a BBC interviewer a couple of weeks ago in a programme which was generally about discrimination against men and specifically against fathers. He said "Why should somebody like you" (he meant but didn't quite say it - a feminist), "Why should a feminist care about what is happening to men ?" Why should feminists worry about fathers ? Why in the title of this contribution should women do any moving over ?

There are a few quick answers to that question. First of all it reflects, doesn't it, a caricature of feminists which crops up over and over again. We've got quirky feminists as women who eat men for breakfast. More accurately, feminists are the people who made the social construction of femininity visible, identified it as a problem and inevitably have similarly made the social construction of masculinity visible and problematic. We - all of us who were involved in the early days of the 70s women's movement - grew up stoically from that slogan 'the personal is political' - I'll come back to the politics later on.

But last night I started with the personal, thinking about what I could usefully say this morning, I asked for advice as I increasingly often do from my nine year old daughter. I said to her "I'm going to be speaking about fathers tomorrow; what do you think about fathers ?" And she said "Well it's really mothers, you know, who look after the children", and she named several children in her class who are living with their mothers but not their fathers. And she said: Those mothers, you know they've got full responsibility for their children". And I said "Yes, I think for those families that's true", but I said "What about families like ours where both the parents are there ?" She said "Even then the mum's got to look after the dad". I thought that's not how her father feels about that. She said "I don't mean that, it's still the mother who really looks after the children". But I though that perhaps the first statement was pretty important as well. And then she talked about at school - it is still mainly mums who drop children off in the morning and collect them in the afternoon. The men - the fathers and the grandfathers - there are some, but very much the minority.

So what she was reflecting on was an invisibility of fathers. And I suppose I was first struck by this many many years ago before my daughter was born. My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage and when my husband started telling his friends and colleagues what had happened, the reaction he normally got was "How terrible for Patricia." Nobody said how terrible for him, and yet it was as well.

So that is the first part of the answer - feminism isn't all it's usually made out to be.

The second part of the answer is that it is actually in women's interests generally to get men more involved with children. I'm going to develop that, but let me just summarise that argument by saying the gender segregation within families underpins gender segregation in employment, and it is only by making it possible and desirable for men to share in the care of their children - only by encouraging men to express that demand for themselves - that we will achieve the radical transformation of the workplace which really underpins the equal opportunity agenda.

And then thirdly, and I think above all, engaging men in the care of children - their own and other people's - is in the interests of children. There are sometimes conflicts of interest between individual women and their partners and their children, and I want to come back to that later, but I think any of us who are concerned about children, and the quality of their lives and development, need to assert the child's interest in knowing who the father is and wherever possible knowing their father as closely as they know their mother.

My strong sense is that the family debate has got itself locked into a thoroughly sterile argument, typically at the political level, about two parent versus lone parent families. What I think we need to recognise is that from the point of view of the child, every family is a two parent family. One parent may be lost to the child, through death occasionally, through loss of contact which too often follows separation or divorce. Some children may never have known their fathers, others acquire new parents in reconstituted families. But the starting point - physically and emotionally - remains two parents. Now Jo and Michael (Lamb) summarised the evidence beautifully this morning - we know that children benefit from a close and loving relationship with both their parents. It doesn't always happen, but public policy surely should be designed to enable and encourage both fathers and mothers to fulfil their emotional, their practical and their economic responsibilities towards their children.

What's the problem ?

Now secondly, for the main part of this contribution. I want to talk about "What's the problem ?" "What's the problem that's being indicated in this title 'Women moving over' and how do we deal with it ?" I guess a lot of people here were involved as I was in the 1970's campaign for equal opportunities, equal care, sex discrimination and all that.

Just remember for a moment the formal and the informal sanctions which kept and sometimes still keep women out of male dominated jobs. The formal and informal networks and behaviour - everything from the exclusive male clubs to sexual harassment - by which men protected and sometimes still protect their power. We've spent at least 20 years trying to dismantle the barriers that stand in the way of women moving into men's occupations. That, contrary to some of the myths, is a task still uncompleted, but not something I'm going to talk about this morning. What I do want to do is just have a think for a moment about men wanting to play a full role in nurturing children, whether as fathers or in the female dominated professions that are involved with working with young children. Just think of the formal and informal barriers that those men face. The institutional barriers, particularly long working hours and increasingly workaholic working time culture such as has been referred to this morning. The Social Security system still predicates upon the assumption of full time employment for a male breadwinner.

I remember early in my days we took up the case for a role-reversal couple - a very rare occurrence in the mid 1970's. A woman who had gone back to full time employment after having a child, because she had a good job to go back to, and a man who had decided to stay at home and look after the children, but who was denied the tax and social security allowances that he would have become entitled to if he had been the mother in that position, because he was a man and therefore he had to register as available for work. If he wasn't available for work - except unpaid work - he couldn't get benefit.

Think of the assumptions about the relative importance of fathers and mothers that are embedded even in the most trivial - most everyday events. I remember when I took my daughter to her local school. I did all the things you do as a parent of a child at the school - fill in the card to let the school know who they should contact in an emergency. And the card said 'Name of mother - workplace telephone if appropriate, home telephone' and so on. And I said, "Why aren't you getting the father's name and phone number as well ?" In my case they had more chance probably of getting hold of the father than the mother anyway. A small thing, but symbolic of something much bigger.

Think of the jokes - and we heard about some of those this morning. Think above all of fears which Jo has just talked about - fears that any man who really wants to get involved with children, particularly a man who wants to work with young children, is either gay or a paedophile or both. And just as we need them and we still need them - anti discrimination and positive action programmes to enable women to move into so-called men's work - we need positive strategies to enable men to move into so-called women's work, whether that's inside the home or out.

Now many of the barriers that men face in caring for children - mostly directives within the workplace - are constructed by other men. But women are not powerless. We're involved in all of this as well. In some cases it seems to me that women and men, or is it fathers, have an identical interest in change. I'm thinking for instance of the alliance that is being constructed by some trades unions around the issue of shorter working hours. It was very notable some years ago - a campaign which was based around what their own members, both male and female, had told them about wanting more time with their families. In other cases, making space for men - making space for fathers - represents I think a real challenge to women, and that's where it gets much more awkward.

Let's just deal with examples of that and explore what I think is the way forward.

The law

I want to start with the law - the legal framework around parenthood. Traditionally most Western European countries have regulated relationships between parents and children through law about marriage. It doesn't really fit any longer, particularly not in Britain, with a rapidly rising number of children born to couples who although they may be living together are not necessarily married. One thing the law needs to do: rather than focusing on the relationships between the parents - between the adults - it needs to focus on the relationships between the parents and their children.

In this country the Children Act was a real move forward in beginning to recognise the interests of the child. It ascribes parental rights and responsibilities equally to parents provided they were married. But where parents are unmarried, the Act effectively gives the mother sole parental rights and responsibilities and a veto over whether those can be shared equally with the father - unless he can persuade the court to over rule the mother's objections. And both the provisions of the court order and the provision for an agreement between unmarried parents to share parental rights and responsibilities equally are very little known and understood. I think that although the Children Act was an essential landmark it is time we moved beyond it. One of the oddities about the Children Act is that although it constantly uses and talks of parental responsibilities and parental rights, it doesn't actually define them. And I think we need as the Scottish Law Commission recommended and the Social Justice Commission recommended - we do need to define parental responsibilities and rights; to make a statement about what is parenthood. And we also need I believe, to accept the principle that these parental responsibilities and rights should belong to every parent - to fathers as well as mothers. Yes there will be some exceptions; in the case of a child conceived as a result of a rape, but the principle seems to be clear and essential.

Now, the legal recognition that fatherhood matters, and that recognition that fatherhood matters takes other forms as well - paternity leave has been mentioned several times already - that recognition in itself starts to change behaviour.

I remember one interesting example of a woman bringing up her daughter; not married to the father; never indeed lived with the father; whose child still had some contact between the child and the father. And then the mother and the daughter were due to visit Australia. Now, Australia takes a very different legal attitude. from Britain towards the common responsibilities of fathers as well as mothers towards their children, and when she came to get a visa to take the child to Australia, the mother had to get the father's consent. And that simple, bureaucratic indeed, requirement, signalled to the father that he mattered. He was expected to have an interest and a say in what happened to the child. The reason lying behind was the fear that in some cases that one parent might be seeking to remove the child from the proximity of the other parent without good cause. And the result of that was a real effort on the part of the father to establish much better contact with the child. Its not always going to work like that but its an interesting anecdote.

Now we need then, I think, to move on from defining and allocating parental rights and responsibilities to some pretty fundamental reform of the Child Support Act. And that Act I think can only be reformed in a much wider context of support - social support for fathers as well as an expectation of support from fathers. That's not always easy for women either. I remember, it must have been at the time the Child Support Bill was going through Parliament, talking to a Labour MP about what Labour's attitude should be towards the Child Support Act and the principle behind it. And he told me the story of one of his constituents - a woman bringing up two children on her own. The father had some intermittent contact with the children - pretty disturbing - the father would sometimes remember one child's birthday; he would turn up with a lavish present and lots of loving care and attention and then he wouldn't be seen for months and he'd forget the other children's birthdays. We are all likely to be familiar with stories of that kind, and the very real distress that they cause the children and the disruption and further distress to the mother. He was telling this story and he said she was terrified of the child support Act. She did not want to pursue the father for maintenance. She was terrified of losing the Income Support she was living on. She had given up her job because it didn't pay enough to pay the mortgage and the man was paying the mortgage - you know the usual story. She needed to claim Income Support because she couldn't support the three children on her own. She didn't want to go after the man for maintenance because she was terrified that after a couple of years of effectively complete absence he would come back into their lives. That if he was paying something, he might start thinking perhaps he should see the children as well. I said to that MP "Look it's obvious, it's much easier in all kinds of ways, despite the poverty, for that woman to bring the children up on her own without having to bother with this disruptive unreliable man; but is it better for the children ?" And he thought about it and he said "No, you know, the interests of the mother and the children will not always be the same". And that is true, and I believe it is, it's quite tough for women who have been brought up really to believe in an identity of interest between mother and child.

Now, moving on as I think we need to do, to reform of custody and access and developing much more common and protective forms of shared custody and extensive access. Again we need to understand that may well mean quite tough challenges for the mother to help make that access work. It may mean a restriction on the freedoms of both parents. It is apparently quite common in some American states for court-ordered access or court-approved access agreements to include a provision that neither parent - whether the resident parent or the non-resident parent - neither parent is to move out of the state until the children are grown up, unless they go back to the court.

Changes in language

Those sort of changes in the law need to be matched by changes in language. For many years now people in this country have simply replaced the term 'single parent' with 'lone parent', recognising that those sort of parents aren't single parents in respect of never having been married. We may need to go beyond that as well. I remember hearing some years ago, David Blunkett the Labour MP, who had at that point recently separated from his wife, objecting very strongly to the use of the term 'lone parent family' to describe his former wife and their children. Because although the children were still primarily living with the mother he was participating, and as far as I know, still is, very much in their care and upbringing and he objected to the notion that somehow he'd been written out of the script.

Beyond these areas of change in the law and the language, there are many other areas of behaviour that we need to think about both privately and publicly. Do you ever think about what happens in the very very early weeks and months of parenthood ? We know from personal experience backed up by research that it is so easy for the mother to become competent - to become competent in everything from nappy changing to feeding, to understanding the meaning of a child's cries. And it is very easy for the man to become incompetent - to see himself as the second class parent, the not really expert one, the one who says "What shall I do now?" to the mother who really knows. And if men - fathers - are going to become as expert and competent in bringing up their children, as mothers, then I think we probably have to step back a bit and just let them manage, let them make mistakes, just as we did and always will.

Involving men in the care of children

We need to think about what happens in pre-school and school environments. There's some fascinating work that's been done in 4-5 fathers projects in the United States, which found that if you were going to get men - fathers, step fathers, uncles, whatever - if you were going to get them involved in the care of their small children - for all the reasons we spoke about earlier on - they needed to do more than just write a letter saying "Dear Parent, would you like to come along". They had to take positive action - just as we had to take positive action (now paid off) to get women doing effectively male subjects in order to create another job opportunity. One of my favourite stories was the headstart project which wanted to do something about the mothers who couldn't get a job, so next to the child care centre they built a training centre. Mothers who were coming with their children anyway to the child care centre could then be encouraged to do some training and learn the skills which would get them a job. But for men it was the reverse; the men felt very hesitant and weren't coming to the child care centre at all, so on the other side of the child care centre they built a car repair workshop. This was a very low income neighbourhood and the men were unemployed like the women. The men came to the car repair workshop to use skills they already had and turn them into marketable. And then the project said "We'll pay you whatever it was to work in the car repair workshop, we'll pay you exactly the same if you come and help out in the child care centre". So for different reasons they got the men into the child care centre. But all of those projects, and there are numerous examples, only work if the people who are committed to involving the fathers address the reluctance of many of the women - whether it's the mothers or the child care workers - to let men into their space.

Any of the women's work whether they're involved in mother and toddler groups or pre-school playgoups - any of those environments which are exclusively women and children - I think you'll recognise what I mean when I say these are very cosy, comfortable, safe, places. They are also not very cosy or comfotable for men. And it's not easy to say "Sure we want men to come in." Maybe it will affect their careers and although men are much less likely to work as primary school or infant school teachers, those men who do work in primary schools are much more likely to become headteachers. So there's that fear isn't there, that the men who come in will take over - they won't help, they'll take over.

You know, it's very similar to the reaction which used to drive many of us mad with frustration in the 1970's when we got men saying "We're not having women in our clubs". You know, "It will ruin the atmosphere, it'll ruin the whole point of it. We don't want women in our space". And I think there is an issue for all of us there about where it is appropriate, and necessary, and enjoyable to have all-women or all-men groups or women and children groups or men and children groups, and where it isn't appropriate or constructive to have such a gender difference.

A new policy for families

And so through a different route I think, I come to exactly the same conclusion as Michael Lamb. A new policy for families must not be government trying to dictate how adults lead their lives. I think it would be just as fruitless to try and force reluctant adults to marry each other, or miserable spouses to stay together, as it would be to try and impose a single state-mandated pattern of shared parenting.

What the government does need to do is to understand and give voice to the importance of fathers as well as mothers. It needs to develop a range of policies that enable both fathers and mothers to choose the ways that suit them of combining earning a living with bringing up their children. Certainly there is the need - and that's a subject for another conference - to pursue economic policies which enables families with children to escape from the poverty in which so many of them live. In some cases that is going to mean women having to do some moving over - emotionally, physically, intellectually - to create public as well as private spaces for fathers. But as fathers move in I think it is their responsibility to make sure that this doesn't become or be seen as a kind of take-over threat - a hostile take-over - but that it is perhaps not even a merger but a partnership.

I was asked this morning by another television interviewer whether this conference was politically important. I said "Of course it is, you know fatherhood is a political as well as a personal issue. It is central, it is an intersection (?) really for the extraordinary social and economic changes that are transforming our world". It is very rarely addressed by politicians. It is a terrain in which most politicians feel extremely uncomfortable.

And I hope that one of the things this conference does is to demonstrate what a rich political agenda there is for them and what possibilities there are for a new development around family, around mothers, around fathers. And I hope that in the not very distant future we will see some politicians get up and run with that agenda.

Patricia Hewitt speaking at the IPPR Conference 'Men and their Children', London on 30th April 1996

Patricia Hewitt is a former Deputy Director of IPPR, of which she is now a trustee

Transcribed by David Cannon (Shared Parenting Information Group)

SPIG Home Page