Over the last 20 years, we have seen a greater tendency for women to enter into the higher occupational sphere and according to recent reports, many of these women feel that our current divorce laws, whilst evolving, do not reflect the fact that they are both homemaker and breadwinner while their spouses do not have to worry about household management as well as their careers.
However, I’m not entirely sure that it is fair to launch an attack on men because of this. In my experience, from acting for a range of professional men and women as well as men and women who have dedicated themselves to ‘homemaking’; the problems lie with our social-economic conditions.
Employment patterns are evolving, but not in an androgynous way. Many men, husbands and fathers want to play a more active role at home, but, flexible working for them, remains the ‘elephant in the room’. For many men, the fear is that a request to work a three or four day week would not be taken seriously, and in fact, many feel working from home is a taboo subject. Indeed, many feel that there is a stigma attached to the father who wants to spend more ‘day’ time at home and that employers feel less obliged, legally, to approve a father’s flexible working request. The corporate world is notoriously cut throat and not by any stretch of the imagination ‘family friendly’. For the corporate working hands on father, a flexible working request may portray him as less serious and less devoted, whereas women are, seemingly, more able to propose flexible working patterns without quite as much fear of professional ostracism.
Of course, women have had to fight long and hard for these rights, but those fights have not solved all our problems. The form and organisation of families remain tied to the shape and organisation of society. Whilst there are exceptions, the concepts of mothering and fathering have not yet been properly challenged and the corporate world’s version of ‘family friendly’ is inherently gendered. The result: women still frequently working doubly hard to compete in the corporate world whilst simultaneously running the household with less support than they would like, and men feeling forced to sacrifice precious time with their children because the same rights and privileges are not visibly on offer. These fathers also have to work harder to make up for their female counterparts’ fall in working hours and consequently, income.
Whilst I have had many a female client who has rightly complained that her contribution at home is taken less seriously than her husband’s contribution in the work place, (therefore undermining her financial claims upon separation and divorce), I too have had many a father who feels that our family laws are still structured to reflect the mother/child relationship as the core of the basic family paradigm.
Structural arrangements within society can be just as disadvantageous to men as women, although in different guises. Many fathers are wrongly precluded from working flexibly, taking proper paternal leave and are denied the right to spend quality time with their children. Many fathers want to get ‘stuck in’ with the daily parenting jobs but it is because of their working life that they are often wrongly labelled as ‘the weekend parent’ or ‘fun daddy’.
A client of mine, a father and regional financial services director, was himself caught up in a child residence and contact dispute with his ex-partner. From the outset he felt that
“the onus was squarely upon me to prove and demonstrate that I could manage and cope with work and parenting responsibilities, and there was little presumption that I could cope. I collect my five year old son and three year old daughter from school and nursery on Wednesday, I then drop them and collect them Thursday and Friday, this means 16 - 18 hour days Monday and Tuesday but it’s a compromise that benefits the children and reflects what they had become accustomed to prior to separation giving them the much needed continuity of sharing breakfast, tea time and quality social time with their father.”
In more recent years, we have seen an increase in the number of fathers applying for shared care arrangements, both in the traditional 50/50 sense and on the basis that they have generous overnight contact and holiday time with their children, for example 10-14 days in every month. We have also seen an increase in the number of mothers fending off a shared residence application by a father.
Despite the obvious increase in the number of fathers wanting to become more involved, the cereal packet instantiation of ‘family’ continues to influence social policy and the ways in which our laws are formulated and implemented for all of us. This is selling short not only the hard working dual role super mothers, but also the committed fathers who really do yearn for a more interactive family life, not just on weekends.