This week is Parents' Week, with events, pamphlets and campaigns planned across the country to help, however incrementally, to improve the way we "do" family life in Britain. Today, Margaret Hodge the Minister for Children, will launch an initiative to make this country a family-friendly one.
Not before time, I can almost hear millions of past and present harassed parents saying. These people know only too well how children, even the sweetest of sweet babies, are regarded by too many of their fellow citizens when they appear in public spaces. Have you noticed how smiles are often not returned, even in waiting-rooms of surgeries where parents are trying to comfort sick children. Huffy adults look this way and that and tut-tut their disapproval. It is as if they thought their taxes were meant to ensure that young Britons and their breeders would be kept in remote farms somewhere, anywhere in fact out of their sight. These are adults who either have no kids or were brought up to believe that society should only be expected to have a slight and uneasy tolerance of the young.
In media land, last week, yob children were the preoccupation, as was the delectable Michael Portillo, who warmed our cockles as he (childless himself) managed a household of several children. Watching Mr Portillo on the TV was like viewing the launch of a new sort of Center Parc concept - privileged ex-cabinet ministers slumming it for seven whole days with mouthy children, an experience guaranteed to make them feel even more supermanly than they know they are. And then came Gordon Brown, who told the world with a wonderful smile that fatherhood now mattered more than anything. Anything.
Parenthood, motherhood, fatherhood, grandparent participation, divorce are now taken seriously by politicians and others who know that although life is remarkably full of potential for increasing numbers of British children, there is also much social discord. Our divorce rates are now among the highest in the world, and many British children are coping with complicated allegiances and expectations and other influences which bear down on little lives - the impact of which we cannot know until it is too late.
We must rejoice that many British children are being nurtured and understood better than, say, a hundred years ago. The work/life balance is firmly on the agenda of big firms, violence against children is no longer sanctioned, and the voices of the young are listened to more. New fathers (they do exist, and in ever larger numbers, whatever some snide feminist may say) relate to their children with an intimacy which must flummox and irritate their own pops, who grew up believing that real men don't sing rhymes. We aren't there yet, and perhaps never will be, but enlightened child-rearing has been planted in our soil and the shoots are coming up nicely.
But some problems remain stubbornly in place, and new ones are shooting up fast, sometimes as a result of the good seeds that were sown. This week apparently, inspired by the biblical Bob Geldof, divorced fathers will be protesting, demanding that family courts bestow upon them a meaningful relationship with their children, a right to half the child, not unlike the dispute adjudicated by Solomon. For Geldof, a supporter of Fathers4Justice, the injustice is plain, and he has appeared in this paper ardently arguing his case. The current situation, where mothers on the whole are given custody with access rights for fathers, he believes is a burning abuse of the rights of a father, who in modern times is an equal carer to the mother.
He is profoundly wrong, as are the other campaigners, mainly because they focus on their own rights, and not the needs or choices of the children. Now, Geldof has obviously suffered real torment with the painful custody battles he had with Paula Yates and all the mess that was left behind when she shacked up with Michael Hutchence. Hutchence, of course, was later found hanged and his death was followed by the miserable demise of Yates herself in the presence of their young daughter. That daughter now lives with her half-sisters and a doting Geldof.
But his personal experiences - powerful and Shakespearean though they are - may be pushing him to head a crusade he needs to think about much more honestly and dispassionately.
Custody and the best interests of the child are difficult judgements, and they go way beyond the battle of the sexes. A universal "truth" has now been established that it is always fathers who are left out in the cold by manipulative mothers seeking to destroy their relationships with their children whilst emptying their pockets - often as revenge for the man seeking to go elsewhere. Another righteous belief is that divorced parents must be friends, and the third, growing fast, is that the only fair way is to split the lives of the children down the middle, with the offspring spending half their time with each parent.
Mothers leave too, of course, and women initiate divorces more than men do. The mothers whose children are looked after by the father believe that they too have an absolute right to be regarded as "equal" parents and are forever complaining about what victims they are of an unfair world. Some departed parents are indeed denied fair access, and in too many cases there is an expectation of automatic alimony even if the caring parent can or does work. As it happens, I never asked for any maintenance for myself from my ex-husband - that is my kind of feminism. But we all know what caring mothers have had to go through to get pathetically small amounts of money from their spouses, and the lies that are told about incomes and bank balances to reduce the cash they should produce for their own children.
Manipulation happens on the other side too. Parents who have new lovers want their old children to agree that their mother/father was unworthy and that it is much more wonderful on the other side. I have a treasured fax from my own dear departed to his son going through wild adolescence days (which the father never had to cope with) in which he goes through all my defects and then reassures my son that one day he too will escape. There are people who can be friends after divorce, but to insist that this is the only way is emotional blackmail.
New research by Carol Smart at the Centre for Research on Family, Kinship and Childhood in the University of Leeds found that a large number of children hate the fifty-fifty lifestyle. They feel like possessions and they are not. As the writer Angela Phillips points out, they not houses. And the best interests of the child are sometimes genuinely in conflict with the "rights" of the absent parent, who must surely learn to give way.
Parenting is not a right but an obligation for life, a duty which we take on in the west as a choice. I hope that our children will learn that as adults they too have obligations to us, the parents. Banging on the doors of courts barking for more rights over children's lives and complaining incessantly about parental inconveniences shows that we are still unable to see that our own self-gratification has to take a back seat if we are to be the good parents we think we are. That is what our children need and deserve.Reuse content