'In each and every encounter I see
the power and the value of fathers.'By Karen Woodall: Today is Father’s Day in the UK and all around the land children will be marking the day for their dads. For some there will be no card or present, no telephone call or good wishes. For some children there will be no opportunity to give these and for others the opportunity will be denied to them. However we look at this, Father’s Day is a day when someone somewhere will be hurting and others will be celebrating, loss in the landscape after divorce and separation, makes Fathers Day both happy and sad, not one or the other.
Having just finished our alienated mothers retreat it is both a difficult AND an easy thing to switch from the issues facing mothers to the issues facing fathers. Difficult because I have been so fully absorbed in the archetypes around the alienated mother and easy because in doing this work with single sex groups, highlights the differences between the alienation of mothers and alienation of fathers and the underlying dynamics which cause this.
Whilst many cry out that this is a non gender specific issue, I beg to differ. For whilst both fathers AND mothers become alienated from their children, the manner in which they are alienated and the consequences of that are extremely different.
The impact of alienation is different for men and women too and each in relation to the loss of their child will feel that and express that differently. This is why campaigning as an alienated father, requires a different approach to campaigning as an alienated mother. What we collectively understand about mothers, does not apply to what we collectively understand about fathers, which is probably why the F4J stunt on GMB was not well received this week. Pulling out a pair of pink knitted balls on morning TV, Matt O Connor attempted to emulate the tradition of using knitted and handmade vaginas, called ‘pussyhats’ which are worn by women around the world in the somewhat (in my view) ludicrous approach to raising awareness of women’s equality. Unfortunately for F4J, the use of pink knitted balls to follow this tradition to raise awareness of fatherlessness in the UK, simply led to widespread horror and outrage. Which goes to show that what is good for the goose, is most definitely not good for the gander. Whilst I saw F4J doing they have done for many years now – using airtime to make people talk about the issue of fathers, others, including dads, were disappointed that their experience was somehow tainted by this.
From my perspective, it is not possible to gender neutralise the way in which we represent the needs of men and women because each experiences their own lives and the lives of others differently. Which is why sitting in a TV studio with a knitted vagina on your head brings applause and admiration, whilst pulling out a pair of knitted balls from your pants, makes people cringe. Women, in our current day stereotypes, are allowed to be a little bit outrageous and challenge stereotypes – we are supposed to ‘hear her,’ whilst men in this day and age are supposed to be apologetic for the balls they possess and grateful that they have women to teach them how to be better humans.
I come to this work with a background in gender mainstreaming, that is understanding how men and women experience things differently and how their different needs must be met in order for them to achieve equality of outcome. Those different needs for support are never more clearly seen than when I work with groups of mothers alone or groups of fathers. In alienation, the opportunity to attend to those different needs is essential because fathers face particular blocks to their parenting which are structurally embedded and whilst mothers face the unintended consequences of those too, their route to alienation has different markers.
When we look at the experience of alienation we have to look at the way in which fathers who do not see their children are viewed by the wider society. Fathering as an archetype has been systematically attacked and eroded (so much so that the GMB debate which featured F4J this week, was about whether Father’s Day was necessary anymore). Following on from the retiring President of the Family Division’s speech about celebrating the demise of the nuclear family and surrounded by media images of families which are made up of anything but a mother, a father and their children, it is easy to see why being a father must feel like being an endangered species. Rather than celebrating our dads, we are are collectively airbrushing them out of our archetypal awareness, which means that being a dad who plays the traditional role of keeper of the keys to reason and rationality, is becoming more and more rarified. Nowadays dads are expected to call their children ‘mate’ and the family hierarchy in which dad is top dog, is increasingly eschewed in favour of a sort of flattened approach in which mum is in charge of dad and the kids. The message this gives to children is that dad is something other than an adult, cannot be trusted but can be indulged if he behaves himself. This kind of shift in dynamic, prompted by decades of feminism and supported by rigid social policy control, does not benefit children in my experience and puts dads at risk of alienation even whilst the family still lives together. Little wonder so many fathers find themselves immediately pushed to the margins on separation, there is simply no space for them to have any kind of meaningful relationship when they have already been alienated into the space of being considered by all a fairly useless human being.
I am really concerned about children whose fathers are pushed into this space because their opportunity to draw from their fathers all those things which are essential for them in their psychological development are being denied. The role of fathers as protectors of mothers and then in bringing the outside world into the home as described by Winnicott is simply diminished in our society today. In diminishing this reality of how the biological and psychological functions intertwine in our parenting roles, we have set up confusing and perhaps for children, difficult to understand imperatives in the inter-psychic world. Whilst mothers used to be the people who were pregnant and through the act of carrying the child and giving birth became mothers psychologically as well as physically, the couple is now supposed to consider themselves pregnant, with fathers being expected as well as expectant, in the whole pregnancy landscape.
Whilst I am not advocating for a return to the days when dad involvement was too deposit the seed and then smoke a cigar in the waiting room after the birth of the baby, I am advocating a return to understanding how men and women relate differently to parenting and how their different needs for support in parenting are missed in the effort to gender neutralise the experience. I am also calling for awareness of the dangers of gender neutral approaches to anything to do with parenting. It is not the goal to gender neutralise, it is the goal to recognise the differences between men and women in parenting pre and post separation because it is in recognition of difference that we are able to fully meet the needs of alienated mothers and fathers properly.
In my work this week with alienated mothers, I have recognised again that the underlying dynamic for mothers who become alienated is their vulnerability to coercive control which is continued through the child. The vulnerability in the background is linked to a number of different things, including having a history of abuse in childhood. This is an area which is being researched and illuminated so that we more fully understand how the vulnerabilities lead to children being controlled.
In my work with fathers I recognise again and again how they are rendered powerless by the societal beliefs which have been seeded over decades and how their partnering with mothers with control issues, underpinned by narcissistic patterns of behaviours, leads them to fall prey to alienation. It is only in separating out the background experiences and the manner in which collective beliefs about mothers and fathers, coupled with tightly stitched social policy and legislation, drives outcomes which cause alienation, that the reality for alienated mothers and fathers can be understood. In understanding these, we are more able to put together responses which properly meet the needs of alienated parents. It is in understanding these that we can properly represent the experiences of the parents we work with.
As I left our mothers retreat this week I drove through England stopping off in places for cups of tea and a rest. In one of the motorway service stations I observed a dad with a baby, the baby had the biggest smile on his face as his dad sang to him, a smile so big it lit up the whole place. In another place I watched a dad teaching his little ones to stop, look and listen as they crossed to the cafe. In my work I watch dads do what they do with the courage and strength of old which is tempered by the tenderness of those things they have been told they should be. In each and every encounter I see the power and the value of fathers.
As a younger woman who brought up a child alone because her father wasn’t interested and as an older woman whose father disappeared out of my life with someone unknown six weeks before I got married, fathers are important to me. They are important not just for all the things they bring to their children but because I know the impact of their absence – I know what the gap in life without a father feels like.
And so for all fathers everywhere, for everything that you are, not just that which is acceptable to women, I wish you happy fathers day.
You matter, you make a difference and you are truly welcome in the world just the way you are.