A father and child reunion
SUNDAY afternoon is Fathers' Family Time at Wesley House in Dublin. Around the bright, airy hall, rugs and tables are scattered with toys and books, and children of all ages play, draw and read under the fond eyes of fathers who, for the rest of the week, see all too little of them.
Fathers' Family Time is a joint project, the work of the local Methodist church and an organisation called Parental Equality (PE). Non denominational and open to all, it was devised as an option for the "McDonalds Dad" the separated father you see in your local playground or hamburger bar on a Saturday or Sunday, pushing the swings, buying the burgers, enjoying what is possibly the only few hours he will spend with his children all week.
Fathers' Family Time gives him an opportunity to spend some of that time in a like minded group, where both he and his children can draw comfort and support from others in similar situations.
It's one of a range of initiatives organised by PE which was formed three years ago by chair person Liam O'Gogain to promote "shared parenting and equal treatment for mothers and fathers". Most of its members are men, but mothers, grandparents and other extended family members are also part of the organisation.
Liam O'Gogain's situation is unusual in that he was granted Joint equal custody of his two boys. "I had been advised by every solicitor I met that, as a man, I would not achieve this," he says, "even though I was accepted as a caring, nurturing parent. I had to fight all the way. The costs have been enormous, financially and emotionally. So often it would have been far easier to give up and accept the peripheral role of fringe parent. But it's been worth the pain and frustration.
"My experiences led me to form PE," he says. "I realised that I got joint custody because I've got a respectable lecturing job, I don't smoke, I don't drink, I'm articulate and I fought like mad. Still, I live in fear of losing them. So what, I thought, must it be like for men who don't have my advantages but still want to be involved with their children after separation?"
PRETTY grim, says Alan Beirne, another PE member, who would like to share custody of his six year old daughter, Aisling. "When she was born my whole focus on life changed, everything moved onto her. My feelings were so overwhelming that I think it may have been part of the problem in our marriage. Anyway, things deteriorated and when Aisling was about two and a half, I left and went back home to live with my parents.
"I applied for joint custody and such was my naivety about the system that I didn't expect it to be a problem. Although her mother and I were in a conflict situation, Aisling had a loving, scaring relationship with both of us. But it took the judge just 40 minutes to decide that my ex-wife was to be given custody and I would get visitor's rights."
Under current separation arrangements, such a judgment is the usual one the mother gets custody, the father gets access.
"What a demeaning term access is in relation to your own children," says Liam O'Gogain. PE's central demand is that sole custody should apply only in "very exceptional circumstances, where there are compelling reasons as to why joint custody should not apply". This method works well in the Netherlands, Denmark and some US states.
"When you're married you automatically have joint custody and joint guardianship," Alan Beirne points out. "It is the court which takes this away. If both parents are willing and able, why should it happen that way?"
But what of the practicalities involved? "PE recognises that you can't divide a child in two but joint custody does not necessarily mean equal division of time," says Beirne. "It's a state of mind, giving both parents parity of esteem, enabling both to make a full contribution, rather than one being perceived as the real parent and the other playing a secondary role."
CUSTODY is the central issue for PE at the moment, but it also campaigns on other equality issues around parenting child benefit paid to mother regardless of care arrangements lone parent allowance not paid in eases of joint custody deserted wife benefit paid on sole application and allegations of the wife no deserted husband category. An adversarial legal system and a judiciary poorly trained in gender and family issues are also major concerns of the group.
"The judge didn't want to hear me say I loved my kids," says one father. "That sort of language coming from a man seemed to make him uncomfortable."
Tinkering with the system will not be enough, says Liam O'Gogain. What is needed is a widespread change of attitudes.
"Women face the challenge of opening up the domain of child care which has traditionally been theirs and the parallel challenge for men is to question their conditioned addiction to career. We need new models and new language. The State has been incredibly slow to respond and it's not helped by a perceived feminist body of opinion which is holding them from moving their position."
Ah yes, feminists. While many of the stated aims of PE are similar to those of the women's movement, we are nonetheless in a zone of gender conflict here. When a marriage breaks up, arguments centre not just on children, but on property, maintenance, the whole money mess. For some feminists, to ask women to give up their advantages within the family at a time when it seems as if all other power structures are still stacked against them is asking too much.
Plus, they say, society is hardly afflicted with an excess of fat he ring. In the days when the world was ordered by men, they rarely chose to spend time caring for their children. And what about family violence and sexual abuse, areas where men are the problem in the vast majority of cases.
FURTHERMORE, on its Internet site, Parental Equality links itself to US and British men's rights groups which spend more time picking holes in feminist research than attacking the patriarchal system which created the inequalities that work against men as parents. Some such groups are actively engaged in a backlash against women's rights, and some of the men in PE are also prone to griping about women and feminism.
Liam O'Gogain is aware of this danger. "When people come to our organisation they are traumatised and their anger is often vented in a negative way." The irony is that many of the concepts for which PE is campaigning, even the language it uses, are rooted in feminist thought.
It is important to recognise that just because men are violent or sexually abusive more often than women, and more likely to run out on their families, does not rule out the possibility of other men being good fathers.
"I will not accept deionisation," says Alan Beirne. "I love my child and want to be with her. Fatherhood is changing."
Change in that direction is exactly what feminists have been calling for and can only benefit children. Children have a right to both parents, if both are caring, and many PE members blow the stereotype of the feckless father to pieces.
Liam O'Gogain also insists that we would have fewer feckless fathers if the system was not stacked so heavily against them.
"In a situation where one parent is given only access rights, in effect demoted as a parent often labelled a deserter treated as troublesome by custodial parents and courts if he differs with decisions on schooling or health care and faced with a stark choice between developing his career or his relationship with his children, is it any wonder that so many men throw up their hands in despair and opt out?"