Deconstructing dads

Instead of lecturing fathers about ‘doing their bit’, politicians would do better to understand the messy and complex reality of contemporary parenting.

Jennie Bristow

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‘[W]e can reverse the outdated and out-of-touch assumption that dads are a bolt-on family accessory – nice to have but not essential.’

So said the UK children’s minister, Beverley Hughes, launching a government campaign in November 2008 designed to encourage ‘families, public services and the voluntary services’ to ‘Think Fathers’, and to ‘dispel the myth that dads are the “invisible parent”’ (1).

But who, exactly, thinks that dads are an invisible, ‘bolt-on family accessory’? Presumably not most fathers, as they work to feed and clothe their children, whom they also discipline, play with and care for. Presumably not most mothers, who experience parenthood as a joint endeavour with their partner, involving interlocking ambitions, emotions, bank accounts and work pressures. And presumably, not most children, who love their fathers and depend upon them greatly.

In fact, the people in real danger of dismissing fathers as a ‘bolt-on family accessory’ are Beverley Hughes and her colleagues in Whitehall, who seem intent on denying the role that fathers actually play in family life in order to make them into something else. ‘Thinking Fathers’ means ignoring the importance of a father’s wage-earning role and castigating him for not changing enough nappies (or ‘bringing home the message’ that ‘parental responsibilities should be shared equally among parents’). It also means turning the (positive) fact that many fathers do not feel they need parenting advice from the authorities into a problem to be tackled, by getting ‘employers, children’s services, practitioners and voluntary organisations to look at what more can be done to give dads the support they need’.

Given the political elite’s sustained obsession with parenting, it is not surprising that Beverley Hughes should be attempting to get her fingernails into fathers. But were she only to read Richard Collier and Sally Sheldon’s superb analysis of the changing conventions surrounding fatherhood, she might realise that the government meddles at its peril. Just as the simplistic prejudice about the ‘invisible father’ reveals a lack of understanding and appreciation of what fathers actually do, policy interventions that attempt to ‘engage’ fathers in parenting services threaten to have a destablising impact upon both fathers’ and mothers’ sense of their own role and identity.

Fragmenting Fatherhood: A Socio-Legal Study is, as the title suggests, an academic book by two law professors. But in using material from across academic disciplines and with reference to important contemporary debates that are playing out through policy developments and media discussions, the book should gain much wider appeal. By analysing developments in legal, cultural and political understandings of what fatherhood means and what rights and obligations fathers have, looking specifically at the contexts of ‘natural’ reproduction and assisted reproduction, marriage, non-marriage and post-separation, Collier and Sheldon situate fatherhood as a central question in broader discussions about changes in the family and the relationship of parents to the state.

As Collier and Sheldon argue, decades of social, cultural and legal change mean that fatherhood is ‘open-ended, fluid and fragmented’; the lives of men ‘cannot be comprehended through the deployment of binaries of “good” and “bad” dads, “new” and “traditional” fathers, or, indeed, in terms of whether fathering is to be understood as the “same as” or “different from but complementary to” mothering’.

In some ways, the notions of fatherhood that Hughes derides as ‘outdated’ remain a powerful and positive influence upon family life. For example, Collier and Sheldon note that, ‘paid employment and the “breadwinner ethic” still remain of central significance in the formation of a distinct masculine identity for many men, and… not just fathers, but also other family members, perceive being a “good father” as something bound up with the role of breadwinner.’

In other respects, social changes – for example, the relative normalisation of divorce and ‘post-separation fatherhood’ – have clearly challenged the ‘traditional’ role of the father; and as legal developments around such issues as financial child support and parental responsibility have attempted to keep up with these changes, new ideas and expectations about fatherhood have come to the fore.

Taken together, the picture is, as Collier and Sheldon suggest, one of ‘complexity, change, inconsistency and contradiction’. That does not mean that it cannot be explained, however; and Collier and Sheldon do an admirable job of pulling apart the many strands of the fatherhood question in an analysis that is as clear and incisive as it is sophisticated and comprehensive.

One remarkable example of the confusion and contradictions surrounding ideals and definitions of fatherhood is presented in the debate about assisted reproduction. Fragmenting Fatherhood was published as the controversial 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act became law, and, as Collier and Sheldon note, the debates surrounding this Bill ‘provide in a microcosm, a vivid illustration’ of the continuing resonance of the tensions within the fatherhood debate as a whole.

Lesbian couples can now both be listed as legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated eggs, sperm or embryos; the new Act dispenses with the requirement that couples seeking fertility treatment provide the putative child with a ‘father’, substituting this with the requirement that they provide the child with ‘supportive parenting’. This shows, as Collier and Sheldon suggest, ‘the law attempting to recognise new family forms’. Yet as the law moves away from ‘natural’ norms in relation to recognising lesbian parents of artificially conceived children, it also seeks to give greater significance to the genetic father – as shown by the removal, in 2005, of anonymity for sperm donors.

‘The question of whether fatherhood ought to be grounded in a genetic link, the relationship with the child’s mother, or commitment to a (future) child, remains a thorny and central issue’, note Collier and Sheldon. I would suggest that the discussions around fatherhood that are played out in the debates about sperm donors also highlight the problems that arise when policymakers and regulators attempt to impose their own rigid ideas about fatherhood on to a far messier reality.

For example, granting parental status to the lesbian partner of a woman who has conceived a child as a result of donor sperm is a progressive move. But it rather assumes that there will be sperm available for her to use. Since the legal change in 2005 that allowed children born as a result of donated sperm to know the identity of their ‘biological father’ once they reach the age of 18, Britain has been struggling with a major shortage of sperm donors (2).

This was an entirely predictable outcome of the removal of donor anonymity – even I saw it coming, so to speak (see Seeds of suspicion by Jennie Bristow). There is, as most men clearly recognise, a world of difference between masturbating into a beaker for a few quid and somebody else’s benefit, and becoming a ‘father’ to a child whom you would not know until he or she came to claim you at the age of 18. Yet policymakers, in their infinite wisdom, decided that they knew better than those who were actually donating or receiving the sperm, and went ahead with the change in the law.

The importance of allowing children of donated gametes access to information about their ‘biological’ parent was given some credence by the argument that people have good reasons to know their genetic history. But it was clear from the start of this discussion that the cultural preoccupation with biological roots and personal identity had an equal – if anything, greater – role to play in the decision to change the law.

There is a presumption that a child has a right to know certain ‘non-identifying information’ about his or her biological father; and the information held on the register of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) includes: ‘Physical description of donor (height, weight, eye and hair colour, skin colour); How many children the donor already had (if applicable) and the gender of those children; Any other details the donor may have chosen to provide, such as their occupation, religion, interests and skills.’ (3) This bears no relation to medical history, or the potential problem of children born to sperm donors marrying each other. The register also contains a ‘goodwill message’ that the donor may have written when providing samples of his sperm. This message could be accessed by any of the 10 children the donor’s sperm is legally allowed to produce via fertility treatment.

Here we have a surreal situation: a bloke masturbates into a beaker and then goes off to compose a letter to the several children he may or may not conceive, which may or may not be read by these children in two decades’ time, and which may or may not form the basis of a relationship that the children go on to form with their ‘natural’ father, if such children happen to seek such a relationship.

The level of fantasy and abstraction that goes into setting up this process manages to flatter ‘biological’ fathers even as it insults them. It presumes that the donation of sperm gives somebody a right to an intimate connection with somebody else who does not yet even exist; at the same time it presumes that sperm donors are so glib about fatherhood that they are happy to have this connection without the responsibility of raising the child. This is on top of the ultimate insult to the man who actually raises the child conceived by donor sperm, yet who, after 18 years of love, responsibility and graft, finds himself trumped by a name on the HFEA’s register.

The fact that potential donors in these circumstances are deciding to keep their sperm to themselves indicates that real men have a rather more grounded and sensitive idea about what fatherhood involves than the policy wonks and regulators. Fatherhood may mean lots of very different things, and as times change so do the ideas, expectations and behaviours of fathers. But as most men, women and children know, being a dad is based on a real relationship with an actual child, not on the premature ejaculations of those who write the rulebook.

Jennie Bristow runs the website, Parents With Attitude and is co-author of Licensed to Hug: How Child Protection Policies Are Poisoning the Relationship Between the Generations and Damaging the Voluntary Sector published by Civitas, 2008. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Fragmenting Fatherhood: A Socio-legal Study, by Richard Collier and Sally Sheldon is published by Hart Publishing. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Children’s Minister: Call on services to better support dads, DCSF, 13 November 2008

(2) British sperm donor shortage critical, Reuters, 12 November 2008

(3) The HFEA Register – For Donors

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