This paper examines post-divorce father-child relationships in the United Kingdom, and the ways in which fathers seek to maintain positive and meaningful relationships with their children even when they are living apart. The study, which draws largely on the perspectives of fathers, demonstrates that most fathers wish to stay involved with their children and that decreased involvement is often due to factors other than paternal apathy.
Author: Janet Walker, Peter McCarthy, Bob Simpson
Publisher: Newcastle Centre for Family Studies
Document Date: 1996
Category: Parenthood/Childrearing > Fatherhood
Related Categories: Divorce and Remarriage > Effects of Divorce, Divorce and Remarriage > Parental Divorce, Family Relations > Non-custodial Parent, Parenthood/Childrearing > Parental Involvement
By Janet Walker, Peter McCarthy and Bob Simpson*
Drop-Out Fathers and Dead-Beat Dads?
Marriage breakdown, however well managed, is almost always stressful, resulting in intense feelings of grief, sadness, rejection, anger, bitterness, hostility, and an overwhelming sense of loss for everyone involved. Much of the current anxiety about the high divorce rate in the UK has centred on the potentially detrimental impact on children. During the debates on the Family Law Bill, Lord Jakobovits referred to the ‘tens of thousands of children who might be crippled for the rest of their life’ (Hansard, 23 January 1996). It is not surprising, therefore, that increased attention is being focused on ensuring that parents take seriously their continuing responsibilities to their children. Since most dependent children reside primarily with their mothers when marriages end, in practice it is fathers who have become the objects of concern. The terms ‘drop-out fathers’ and ‘dead-beat dads’ are used more extensively in North America than in the UK, but there have been many references in this country to fathers who seemingly fail to live up to expectations. The aphorism ‘parents are for ever’ is oft repeated, and while few would argue with the sentiment, it is dangerously simplistic. Relationships between parents and children seldom emerge from family breakdown unscathed. How then, we need to ask, is parenting from a distance to be accomplished?
In most British families, fathers come to occupy a secondary position to mothers after divorce, and some seem to occupy no position at all. Bradshaw and Miller, in their 1991 study of lone parents, found that 35 per cent of non-residential parents (most of who are fathers) did not maintain contact with their children following divorce. Wicks (1991) estimated that some 750,000 children in England and Wales had lost contact with their fathers. Such statistics are viewed as unacceptable by politicians and policymakers and as undesirable by health and social work practitioners. ‘Drop-out dads’ are variously blamed for maladjusted and delinquent children, whose behaviour, some would argue, stems from parental neglect and lack of control and discipline. Are such accusations warranted? Our research suggests that parents have to surmount major obstacles in their endeavour to share parental responsibilities when they no longer share an intimate relationship as partners.
There has been little research in Britain on post-divorce families. Little is known about the implications for parenting of the father not living with his children, although Mary Lund (1987) and Edward Kruk (1993) have provided important data. Lund identified post-divorce fathering as a considerable challenge. Kruk highlighted the implicit bias of the legal system in discouraging fathers from seeking greater involvement in their children’s lives. He found also that, paradoxically, fathers who had close relationships with children before divorce appeared to be more likely to disengage from their children afterwards. Conversely, fathers who were more distant during the marriage often found that relationships with their children improved.
We embarked on our study of post-divorce fathering in 1991. Its distinctive contribution is threefold. First, we drew on data sets going back to 1986 – our original research on the divorce process allowed us to collect data about some 1,400 families, many of whom had taken part in follow-up studies. Secondly, we set out to examine the more positive aspects of being a father after divorce – to find out how some fathers manage to sustain or create an active parenting role from a distance. Thirdly, we explored this process primarily from the fathers’ own perspectives, in order to determine how these changed over time. In 1991, we identified 91 non-residential fathers, in families with whom we had maintained contact, who between them had 158 children who were still under the age of 16. We retrieved all the information we had on these families, sought more data about current contact arrangements, and subsequently talked to 20 fathers at length using a life history approach, seeking to obtain personal accounts of the complex transitions and transformations in their parental roles.
What emerged in the accounts of fathers were descriptions of divorce as a series of transitions in which renegotiating parental roles and responsibilities was characterised by multiple stresses and strains, with parents oscillating between conflict and harmony, determination and indifference, against a backdrop of allegation and counter-allegation and frequent despair and frustration. By 1992, some six years after their divorce, a significant proportion of the fathers were no longer in contact with their children, and for most of the others the amount of contact had decreased since the divorce. Only 34 fathers saw their children at least once a week, and 21 did not see their children at all.
Popular wisdom would have us believe that fathers, consciously or unconsciously, simply drop out – in other words, they lose interest in their children, they stop caring, and they abandon their responsibilities, all of which would explain why contact seems to decrease over time. This ‘wisdom’ was not supported by our research. Some 60 per cent of fathers who rarely saw their children were in dispute with ex-wives about the frequency of contact. Nearly half the fathers who never had children staying overnight described ongoing disagreements with their ex-wives, often centred around new partners. In most cases, the new partner identified by fathers as the source of conflict was that of the ex-wife – in other words, a potential or actual stepfather. Stepmothers, whatever fairy tales might indicate, were far less often a cause of conflict in respect of contact with children, at least in the eyes of the fathers. Of the fathers who had seemingly ‘dropped out’ by 1992, 74 per cent wished to change what was, for them, an unsatisfactory situation.
We developed a typology of father-child contact patterns: no-contact fathers – all contact lost (27%); parallel parents – fathers who stayed in contact with children but had no communication or relationship with their ex-partners (27%); and communicative parents – father who not only had good contact arrangements, but also reported co-operative, communicative relations with their ex-partners (46%). But, as the fathers in our study reminded us, such categories are by no means fixed and static. Fathers find themselves having to renegotiate contact arrangements and to reconsider their roles as circumstances and relationships change, and as children grow older.
In the no-contact category there were two distinct groups: the ‘resigned’ fathers who had more or less accepted the position, and the ‘angry’ fathers who were far from sanguine about losing contact. The latter predominated. As one man put it:
“I would like to see more of my children, but due to all the hassle and complications at my last attempt … I think it would be a waste of time.
In the case of nearly all the no-contact fathers, we had clear evidence that they had made a considerable effort to maintain positive relationships, and a strong sense that they had only given up owing to serious frustrations and wrangles. For most, the point had been reached at which the emotional, physical and financial costs of continuing to pursue contact in a hostile climate had to be weighed against the benefits of abandoning the struggle. Although some commentators would see this as ‘opting out’, the fathers were more inclined to see their decision as a sacrifice aimed at alleviating suffering all round. Fathers were not keen to ‘drag children through the courts’ in order to fight for contact. Even fathers in the other categories who had maintained contact described moments when ‘giving up’ seemed fairer to everyone involved.
The majority of no-contact fathers remained bitter about what they saw as a denial of their role as parents. There were high levels of resentment, and many described their ex-partners as vindictive and manipulative. The ex-wives, on the other hand, were prone to describe these fathers as irresponsible, hypocritical and selfish. Their versions suggest that their ex-husbands arrived late for contact visits, and that they were erratic in maintaining contact, and insensitive to the impact of these factors on the children. These counter-claims demonstrate high levels of mistrust. Communication between such parents seemed impossible, resulting in frustration and painful allegations on both sides.
Most of the fathers had sought legal remedies to maintain contact. They were satisfied that their lawyers had championed their cause, but disillusioned with a legal system that appeared to have little sympathy with, or understanding of, the plight of non-residential fathers. Mothers, on the other hand, told us that children themselves were resistant to contact because they got bored, or else that they resented being interrogated about the circumstances of their mothers, or that they were uncomfortable with new girlfriends or stepmothers.
What is obvious from these accounts is that there are many sides to every story. Indeed, trust, which we have found in earlier research to be a vitally important ingredient if parents are going to be able to negotiate arrangements effectively, was the one thing which was very often missing between these couples.
Trying To Be a ‘Good Father’
The fathers who had kept in touch with their children demonstrated marked differences in the way they accomplished this. The ‘parallel parenting’ fathers maintained a relationship with their children against a backcloth of non-communication with the mothers of their children. For these fathers, co-operative parenting was either undesirable or unattainable, and some were resigned to this situation. Hostility and resentment characterised this group. Significantly, these fathers recorded high levels of feelings of personal failure. The stresses of maintaining contact in a climate of mutual mistrust were considerable. Fathers in this group appeared deeply unhappy, and continued to experience a range of personal difficulties many years after the divorce. These included health problems, difficulties in establishing new relationships, financial strain, problems with in-laws, and a real concern that the divorce had harmed the children, coupled with a powerlessness to change the situation.
Children in these families found themselves in the middle, straddling a fence that divided two separate parental worlds – an extremely debilitating and uncomfortable existence, since they could hardly be unaware of the continuing bitterness and conflict. The inability of their parents to forgive past actions rendered reopening communication difficult. One father expressed this as follows:
I don’t feel it [the bitterness] strongly … I still don’t talk to her, and I’m sorry, I have nothing to say to her. She did a terrible thing, not only from my angle but also from the children’s angle. She broke the whole family up.
Given the hurdles and difficulties, it is perhaps surprising that some 46 per cent of fathers had managed to renegotiate a role that involved partnership with the mothers. Fathers in co-operative parenting arrangements had overcome some of the obstacles in order to form workable relationships with their ex-wives. For most, reaching this stage had not been easy and had involved considerable struggle. Time, energy and determination had kept them going. Making fatherhood work had been demanding, and continued commitment had frequently been at the expense of forming new relationships: many men in this category described themselves as ‘lonely’. The key to renegotiating fatherhood successfully was ability to separate emotions, feelings and memories surrounding the marital partnership from a focus on being a parent.
Father, Uncle or Friend?
But what is this renegotiated role? It is usually very different from that involving fathers and children in intact families. We would suggest that divorce splinters fatherhood into many fragments, and it is the ability to make something of the fragments, rather than to carry on regardless, which makes for the most satisfactory relationships. Men have to make sense of a role that they perceive themselves as stepping in and out of, or which at any rate intensifies during contact, and diminishes at other times. If they repartner and have stepchildren, or more children of their own, this fluctuation seems less obvious to them. Many men appeared to manage the relationship with their children by giving up a paternal role and recasting it in terms of friendship. This was manifestly easier with sons than with daughters, however: fathers were less likely to maintain contact if their children were all daughters. When ex-wives repartnered this introduced a further dimension since the potential existed for fathers to be displaced by stepfathers.
Fathers also recognised their limited influence as authority figures. Being responsible for disciplining children was clearly difficult when contact was sporadic, and enforcing discipline was not how most wanted to spend precious time with their children. The reality, it seems, is that fathers give up attempting to achieve what might be described as ‘normal’ fatherhood in an ‘abnormal’ situation. What emerges is a different sort of fatherhood in a different constellation of family relationships. However satisfactory this may be, fathers recounted a profound sense of loss. This involved a loss of parental control having a meaningful impact on children’s everyday lives; a loss of intimacy with children, as physical distance resulted in emotional distance; and a loss of routine: no daily round of bathing children, reading stories, saying ‘goodnight’, playing after school, acting as a ‘chauffeur’ – all the little things which make up the day-to-day experience of being a parent. All these factors contributed to the loss of a clear role for fathers after divorce. Instead, an ambiguous role emerged where the experience of being a father seemed a somewhat elusive and remote one. Fathers were more apt to feel like uncles or friends.
Changing Expectations: Possibilities and Constraints
The process of renegotiation is not simply a matter of personal choice and commitment. It is shaped and influenced by external factors. We found that frequency of contact with children was related to fathers’ social class, income and employment status – the higher these were, the greater the contact. The incidence of infrequent or nil contact among unemployed fathers was striking: 8 per cent had weekly contact, 17 per cent monthly contact, and 75 per cent little or no contact. Overnight contact was most common for high-income fathers. We concluded that the absence of an adequate income can have a profoundly negative impact on fathers, leading to an inability to pay maintenance or afford contact, treats and outings, as well as feelings of low self-worth and lack of self-esteem. An adequate income, however, does not ensure positive post-divorce parenting. Ongoing or recurring conflict in the family, particularly between the parents, is a crucial factor in undermining attempts to renegotiate fatherhood. Not all those who were amicable during the divorce managed to maintain this happy state as time went on. Conflict has a nasty habit of breaking out when the going gets tough – especially financially.
After divorce, fathers have to carve out a new role, one distinctly separate from that of mothers. The amount and frequency of the contact they have with their children is almost certainly related to the quality of the relationship they are able to achieve with their ex-wives. If this relationship is poor or non-existent, and contacts with children infrequent, there are few, if any, other means open to them of sustaining and supporting an active role in their children’s lives.
Our research shows that post-divorce fatherhood is far from easy or straightforward – that love is most certainly not enough. But where does this leave policymakers and practitioners? In terms of policy, it is crucial that legal processes and family law are supportive of parents in a way that acknowledges the complexities of post-divorce family life. The fathers in our study were particularly critical of the lack of dedicated support services. There is a sense that the family justice system does not give fathers support in renegotiating a meaningful role and relationship with their children.
Most fathers request help in finding a new role. Their experience with mediators, welfare officers and lawyers is that the professionals somehow assume a continuity in the fathering role, without realising that it will never be the same as before. Fathers made a plea for sound, comprehensive legal advice; more effective counselling and court welfare services; more access/contact centres; divorce information and education services; and recognition that non-residential parents have specific housing needs. Finally, they valued opportunities for forming self-help groups. One man spoke of needing to learn how to `be’ with his children, as he had never really taken sole responsibility for them before the separation.
It is essential that post-divorce parenting be acknowledged as the difficult, challenging role it is.
Second marriages may be at risk because of the severe problems one or both partners may experience in relation to contact arrangements or ongoing conflict with a previous spouse. It is too easy to marginalise fathers, to perceive them as non-caring, neglectful parents, and correspondingly to blame lone-parent families for the social ills of the 1990s. The challenge is to support them in a new role. In the USA, parenting groups for non-residential fathers are being developed in response to a perceived need for specific support, and parenting plans seem to focus parents’ attention on exactly what they will need to accomplish if children are not to be the innocent victims of separation and divorce.
Bradshaw, J. and Miller, J. (1991) Lone Parent Families in the UK (London: HMSO).
Kruk, E. (1993) Divorce and Disengagement: Patterns of fatherhood within and beyond marriage (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing).
Lund, M. (1987) ‘The non-custodial father: common challenges in parenting after divorce’, in C. Lewis and
M. O’Brien (eds) Reassessing Fatherhood (New York: Sage).
Wicks, M. (1991) ‘Research results of lone parent families’, letter to The Independent, 8 March.
* Bob Simpson is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Durham
The research on which this report is based was supported by the Nuffield Foundation. The full report Being There: Fathers after divorce (price £10.95 plus postage and packaging) a can be purchased from NCFS.
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