It’s very hard to be grown up when we’re getting divorced. As parents, we’re expected to share nicely, act responsibly, be the bigger person, put the needs of our children at the centre of every decision. As angry, hurt, vulnerable human beings, that’s hard to achieve. We’ve gone from sharing resources to competing for assets.
First, there’s the finances. Divorce requires us to establish separate households. The more one parent gets, the less there is for the other. Running two households on the same resources as one costs more. So we both end up with less money than before.
Since we’re now living in separate households, we need to agree how much time our children will spend with each of us. Because children need us to support them, one of us usually needs to make a payment to the other, who has primary caring responsibilities. Now we both also have less time with our children than before.
All these things are decided via the same process. Intellectually we know that our children are not a marital asset. But it’s very easy for us both to start thinking of them as one more resource to be shared out in the zero-sum game of the ending of a marriage.
Time spent either with, or without, the children both become points of contention. Is time with the children a benefit or a cost? Are four fun-filled days a month more, or less, valuable than nagging them to get dressed and eat their breakfast every morning? If your ex-partner asks you to take the children for longer, are they ducking their responsibilities or giving you a gift? If you refuse, are you resisting your ex-partner’s manipulations or selfishly prioritising your own needs over your child?
It’s hard for us to separate access and money – especially when we both have less of both than we had before. The parent making the payments might think, “Why is the other person getting my money and my children? Why am I being pushed out of the family like this?” The parent caring for the children might think, “Why do I have less freedom and more responsibility and less money? Why am I doing all the hard work and they get to do the fun stuff at weekends?” The parent making the payments may reduce payments, or stop paying altogether. The parent caring for the children may restrict or withhold access to the children. These events may be in retaliation to each other and can come in either order.
Sometimes, one parent’s behaviour is so dangerous or violent that allowing them access to the children would be unsafe. Sometimes, one parent has abused the other. Should a person who has beaten, raped or mentally tortured another adult be allowed to spend unsupervised time with children? And what happens when the person accused of the abuse denies that it took place? Because all human systems are fallible, sometimes mistakes will be made. Parents who are not abusive will be denied access to their children. Parents who are abusive will be granted access.
I’ve been very careful in writing this not to assign gender, at any point. In practice, we all know how and where the dividing lines are drawn. When it comes to issues of residency, maintenance and access, we can draw the stereotypes (feckless wastrel Disney-parent versus bitter, money-grabbing control-freak) for ourselves. I still haven’t assigned a gender. But I bet you have.
That’s the stereotype. But that’s not how it has to be. There are thousands and thousands of couples who have made divorce work for them and their children. Some of us are divorced couples who co-parent in harmony. Some of us are re-married couples whose blended families are happy and successful. Some of us are single parents who are raising our children ably and well. These are the stories we should be telling. These are the examples we should be learning from. As a society, we need parents to get better at managing divorce.
That’s why the current high-profile battle between Mumsnet and Fathers 4 Justice is such a huge disappointment, and a wasted opportunity. In case you’ve missed it, Fathers 4 Justice are accusing Mumsnet of giving a platform to gender-based hate-speech, committed by women, against men. There are a number of theories about the motivation and timings for these accusations, which – since I have no evidence to either support or disprove them – I don’t intend to review here.
The point is, there was an opportunity here. There was a chance for two groups defined by their parenthood to talk to each other. We could have talked about our grievances, about how to manage divorce and separation better, about how to better draw the distinction between parents who have simply stopped loving each other, and parents who are actively dangerous to their ex-partners and their children. Instead, Fathers 4 Justice took out an advertisement accusing the Mumsnet community of promoting gender hatred against all men and boys as a group, and encouraging the boycotting of advertisers who promote on Mumsnet.
I am one two-millionth of the Mumsnet community, and I don’t speak on its behalf. I am even less qualified to speak for Fathers 4 Justice. But of one thing I am certain: mothers and fathers love their children, fiercely and without reservation, and even when they don’t love each other. This divisive and hateful campaign does nothing to help us work better together at protecting our children in the event of marital breakdown. Children are not a marital asset. They are the people we love the most. We all – men and women, mothers and fathers – need to get better at putting them first.
We could have done all of this. Instead, we’re trading insults. Shame on you, Fathers 4 Justice. Shame on you.