A Desperate Kind of Yearning


Family Law as it currently stands does not work.  It is rarely of benefit to the child, and promotes injustice, conflict and unhappiness on a massive scale… It is creating vast wells of misery, massive discontent, an unstable society of feral children and feckless adolescents.

Bob Geldof (Geldof, 2003)



The loss of the principle of fault from divorce legislation presented the courts with a dilemma: how to determine custody of the children.  For Mel Roman and William Haddad the solution was simple: a default position of a ‘rebuttable presumption of joint residence’ which would enable the courts to retain the ‘best interests of the child’ standard (Roman, Haddad, & Manso, 1979).  There is evidence that prior to the 1989 Children Act the courts were already moving towards this position.  Over the six years before the Act the percentage of shared residence orders had doubled to 26%, reaching a maximum of 22,897 orders in 1991 compared with 65,591 for sole custody.  There was wide regional variation and shared orders were most common in the south and rarer in the north.

The parent from whom most children were being estranged was, of course, the father.  Before considering the arguments for and against shared parenting, let us consider some of the benefits a father brings to parenting, and which so many children of separated parents are denied.  One of the most important influences a father has is in the quality of his relationship with the child’s mother.  A mother who is loved and affirmed will be more responsive, affectionate and confident; her children will be more respectful of others and less anxious, withdrawn, or antisocial (Gable, Crnic, & Belsky, 1994).  Evolution has ensured that fathers make the perfect biological and psychological complement to mothers.

Children who live in a married household with their biological fathers are significantly less likely to be physically or sexually abused or neglected: fathers play an important role in protecting their children from harm.  They are as excited as mothers over their new-borns, and bond with them at the same time and pace.  Fathers hold and rock more than mothers, and equal mothers in talking, kissing and imitating (Parke & O’Leary, 1976).  Infants form close attachments to their fathers as readily and deeply as, and at the same time as their mothers (Lamb, 1977) (Lamb, 2004), even at five months, boys who have more contact with their father are more sociable with a stranger (Kotelchuck, 1976).  Fathers use baby-talk less than mothers and encourage language development by talking to their infants in a more adult way, extending and challenging vocabulary.  They also use higher orders of language such as wit and sarcasm (Antrobus, 2010).  Growing up without a father permanently alters the structure of the developing brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, and produces children who are more aggressive and angry, and more prone to ‘deviant behaviour’, including drug abuse (Bambico, Lacoste, Hattan, & Gobbi, 2013).

Fathers play more and differently, and engage in more physical play, providing more unpredictable, stimulating and exciting interaction (Lamb, 1977),  When two-and-a-half-year-olds want to play, more than two thirds of the time they will choose their father over their mother (Clarke-Stewart, 1978).  A lot of physical father play corresponds with better, deeper friendships with peers among children.  Children learn self-control, how to manage and express their emotions and how to recognise others’ cues (MacDonald & Parke, 1985) (Youngblade & Belsky, 1992) (Snarey, 1993) (Gottman, 1997).  Through rough-and-tumble play fathers extend the limits of their children’s security and enable them to explore their strength and boundaries (Radin, 1986) (Radin, 1994).

Fathers tend to rough-house with their young children – infants and toddlers – they throw them up in the air, tickle them and so on, usually getting them all wound up and emotional, and, yes, sometimes alarming the mother.  But developmental psychologists view this as a good thing because it’s an opportunity for children to learn emotional regulation, and this is a very important developmental task (Eggebeen, 2010).

Fathers play a key role in developing confidence and self-esteem (Biller, 1993).  Fathers challenge their children, which results in higher cognitive scores (Clarke-Stewart, 1978).  Fathers encourage the development of new skills, and learning to take responsibility.  They provide role models.  Children who have good relationships with their fathers are less likely to experience depression, to exhibit disruptive behaviour, or to lie and are more likely to exhibit altruistic behaviour (Parke R. D., 1996).  Children who are brought up with their fathers are more likely to have good physical and emotional health, to achieve academically, and to avoid drugs, violence, and delinquency (Horn & Sylvester, 2002) (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 1996) (Harper & McLanahan, 1998) (Brenner, 1999).

Fathers boost children’s educational attainment; children with involved fathers have more confidence and patience and are better able to concentrate on their work (Antrobus, 2010).  In one study, children with involved fathers achieved grades 43% higher than other children (Nord & West, 2001).  Primary school children score higher on empathy if they have had secure attachments to fathers (Biller, 1993) (Biller & Trotter, 1994).  Fathers prepare their children for the real world and teach them independence through the introduction of more routines; children of single fathers have greater routine in their lives than the children of single mothers, have more regular meal times and are more independent and mature (Antrobus, 2010).  A close continuing relationship with a father and authoritative parenting are associated with better behavioural and emotional adjustment and with superior academic achievement (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999).  Fatherless boys are twice as likely to be excluded from school because single mothers invest less in them and are more likely to be emotionally distant (Bertrand & Pan, 2011).

In general, girls who have a warm relationship with their father and feel accepted by them are more likely to feel comfortable and confident when relating to the opposite sex.  During the teen years and later, a girl who has not had a rewarding relationship with her father is apt to feel insecure around males.  She may feel unattractive as a woman, doubt that any man could love her for herself, and distrust men in general (Warshack, 1992).  Girls whose fathers play with them a lot tend to be more popular with peers and more assertive in their interpersonal relationships throughout their lives (Parke, et al., 1989).

Fathers discipline their children more than mothers and are more effective at controlling behaviour because they explain, while mothers apply punishment without explanation.  A mother is more likely to relate bad behaviour to its emotional effect on herself and on other family members.  Fathers are less empathic and more logical and rational, setting boundaries and rules to prepare their children for a world of rules and laws.  A father’s positive influence extends well into adulthood, ‘Long-term benefits included women who had better relationships with partners and a greater sense of mental and physical well-being at the age of 33 if they had a good relationship with their father at 16’ (Sarkadi, 2008).

Fatherhood changes men biologically, and causes a significant drop in testosterone levels, leading to reduced aggression and the emergence of protective behaviour (Antrobus, 2010).  Fathers react differently from childless men to the sound of a baby in distress.  Novelist Louis de Bernières says, ‘until you have had children, you know nothing of human love’ (de Bernières, 2012).  It has been suggested a father’s pheromones delay the onset of puberty in girls, possibly as an incest-avoidance mechanism (Ellis, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 2000).  Father-absent girls begin puberty between 6 and 12 months earlier; they grow up faster and look older (Boothroyd & Perrett, 2008); one theory is that a father’s pheromones slow down maturation, another is that father-absence is more likely to lead to exposure to unrelated males whose pheromones may cause premature puberty (Ellis & Garber, 2000).  Alternatively this is an evolutionary response to enable fatherless girls to find a replacement protective male more quickly.  Girls generally are reaching puberty 18 months earlier than their mothers and 2 years earlier than their grandmothers (Sigman, 2006).  As many as 1 girl in 6 is entering puberty at age 8 compared with 1 in 100 a generation ago.  Precocious puberty is associated with depression, promiscuity, teenage pregnancy and academic failure.

Fatherless girls are 2.5 times more likely to become pregnant in their teens.  The teenage pregnancy rate in the UK is the highest in the developed world and 4 times higher than the West European average (Allen, Dowling, & Rolfe, 1998).  Half of these pregnancies end in abortion.  In 2010 in England and Wales there were 34,633 conceptions amongst girls under the age of 18, of which 49.9% ended in abortion (Office for National Statistics, 2012).  The other half results in by far the highest rate of single motherhood in Europe.

Fathers influence girls’ partner choice: women who had a good relationship with their fathers tend to marry men who resemble their fathers at the same age; they use their fathers as role models for partner selection and to learn about appropriate male behaviour towards females (Antrobus, 2010).  Fatherless boys are 14 times more likely to commit rape while fatherlessness increases by 9 times a woman’s vulnerability to rape.  The presence of a father is necessary for the normal sexual development of their sons; fatherlessness has been implicated in gender identity disorder (which can manifest itself as transvestism and transsexualism).  One study found that of the less disturbed males, 54% were fatherless; of the most profoundly disturbed, 100% were fatherless, and 75% had no father substitute or male role model.  The age at which a boy loses his father is significant, and in the study 80% who had no father had lost their fathers by the age of 5 (Rekers, 1986).

The link between crime and fatherless homes is inescapable, and the cost to Britain of youth offending has been put at £13 billion every year:[1]  Boys from lone-parent homes are twice as likely as those from two-birth-parent families to be incarcerated by the time they reach their early 30s (Harper & McLanahan, 1998).  Children aged 11 to 16 years were 25% more likely to have offended in the last year if they lived in lone-parent families (Youth Justice Board, 2001).  70% of young offenders identified by Youth Offending Teams come from lone-parent families (Youth Justice Board, 2002).  Half of all secondary school pupils have broken the law (Beinart, Anderson, Lee, & Utting, 2002), and one in four has a criminal record (Donnellan, 2004).  Though it is disputed, and denied in the official report (Singh, Marcus, Rabbatts, & Sherlock, 2012), it is probable that fatherlessness played a large part in the August 2011 riots.  Simon Marcus, founder of the London Boxing Academy Community Project and one of the report’s authors, subsequently blew the whistle on the politically-correct ideology which dominates Britain’s political class, bureaucracy, criminal justice system and social services,

I sensed the discomfort in the room as they spoke about absent fathers, family breakdown and the extent to which an over-generous welfare system had become part of the problem.  In many riot-hit communities, social services professionals spoke of ‘parent-carers’ and ‘significant others’, while most children spoke of families, mums and dads.  There sometimes seemed an iron curtain between the politically correct local government elite and the people they are meant to work for (Marcus, 2012).

The iron curtain is no figment of Marcus’ imagination: while politicians are united in their acknowledgement that fatherlessness is a serious problem, so are they also united in their misunderstanding of its cause,

What too many fathers also are is missing – missing from too many lives and too many homes.  They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.  And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.  We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception.  We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child – it’s the courage to raise one (Obama, 2008).

This perception that absent fathers are ‘deadbeats’ – an appalling expression apparently coined by Ronald Reagan – is without evidential support.  It is a hoax.  But is anyone actually asking why so many fathers are absent?  And is anyone inquiring how increased government intervention can help promote a father’s involvement with his children?  There is, after all, no point in looking to the state to resolve social problems if it is the state which is causing them.  Barack Obama’s opinion that fathers make a conscious decision to abandon their children is without corroboration.  The media parrot this consensus.  Hypocritically, politicians are too fond of parading their own children in front of us, and proclaiming their own ability as parents; Obama’s not very subtle subtext is that not only has he the virility to create a child, he also has ‘the courage to raise one’: he’s a man and not a boy.

Obama is wrong: there is no evidence to support his belief that the high incidence of father absence stems from fathers’ selfishness and irresponsibility.  There is an increasing body of research which suggests the reasons for the absence of a father from his children’s lives are usually more complex: he is more likely to have been thwarted by a hostile ex-partner or by his experiences at the hands of the family courts.  Even fathers who do wilfully abandon their responsibilities have been told they are second-rate, optional parents; they may conclude it is easier not to bother than to embark on the long campaigns many fathers are forced to wage.  Irish Times columnist John Waters fought with singer Sinéad O’Connor over custody of their daughter Roisin; he wrote,

I do not suggest that Irish men never walk away from their children.  But even those who do so cannot be said to have made free choices: to some extent, they follow a pattern dictated less by individual conscience than cultural conditioning.  A society that honoured fatherhood would not have this problem.

A society that makes it almost impossible for men to stay in the lives of their children has no right to judge those who choose footlooseness and alienation rather than insanity and despair (Waters, 2009).

Ninety percent of fathers’ disengagement is the result of obstruction by the child’s mother and her desire to break the relationship between father and child  (Kruk, 1992).  A third of fathers also report that they ceased contact because of their inability to adapt to the constraints of the contact regime, finding the traditional levels of contact entirely inadequate.  Fathers who eventually lose all contact with their children report the negative impact of adversarial litigation and in particular the degree to which lawyers exacerbate hostility and take over all communication between parents.  Lawyers discourage fathers from applying for shared residence and prevent direct communication between the parties so that the negotiation of matters of contact and residence can then take place only via solicitors, ‘in an atmosphere of competition, intimidation, and mistrust’, causing greater conflict, creating issues which needn’t exist, increasing legal fees, wearing parents down and making resolution next to impossible.

The adversarial nature of such negotiations makes it highly unlikely that a spirit of friendship and cooperation will survive the divorce; severe conflict is the end result of a negotiating environment which effectively forces each party to assume an extreme position.

One father said,

We originally had a joint custody agreement, and it was the legal system that tore this apart.  It destroyed it.  We had agreed beforehand and then this happened – the legal system intervened.

To be treated as a ‘contact’ parent by a former partner and by the courts, with contact regulated by the other parent, is deeply humiliating and degrading; Edward Kruk, Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, has compared these fathers with battered women and has suggested that some parents disengage in order to spare their children the ordeal of having to witness their degradation.

Using attachment theory, Parkes identified that, unlike the grief triggered by bereavement, the grief fathers experience as a result of enforced separation from their children does not diminish over time; fathers become stuck in the grieving process, feeling anger and guilt, blaming themselves, and sinking into prolonged and profound depression (Parkes, 1986).  The more involved the fathers’ relationship with their children before separation, the more prolonged and intense this ‘living bereavement’.  Grief is greatest where it is sudden and unexpected and fathers had not anticipated the loss of contact with their children.  Added to this is the loss of the spouse, hitherto the natural source of support in times of crisis, compounded by the loss of the family home, mutual friends, job, etc.  Kruk quotes a father from his study,

I think of them every day, almost constantly, although I never see them.  I feel I am constantly searching for my children, I think I see their faces in other children’s faces.  It’s a desperate kind of yearning.

There is a strong correlation between sole maternal custody and eventual father absence; fathers perceive that the law favours only one psychological parent for the child and watch an ever-widening gulf develop between themselves and their children.  Many withdraw entirely rather than suffer the chronic feelings of loss, rejection and depression (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).  Fathers are unable to control, change or mitigate the catastrophe that has befallen them and their children and distance themselves from their children as a way of dealing with the pain (Roman, Haddad, & Manso, 1979).

The father’s anxieties center around having lost his children, so he courts them.  But after a while the frantic drive to maintain contact with his children during a hurried meal, a visit to the zoo, the park and other entertainment places is too painful.  He feels as if his son or daughter has become his guest, someone he amuses for a few hours.  He has lost meaningful… contact with his children and, in time, often withdraws.  He protects himself by moving away from his children since the situation, as it exists, is emotionally too difficult for him and he can see no way to change it.

Fathers could not endure the pain of seeing their children only intermittently, and by two years after the divorce coped with this stress by seeing their children infrequently, although they continued to experience a great sense of loss and depression (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1978).

The best solution to missing fathers, post separation, is to allow fathers to share equally in the parenting of their children; Kruk concludes,

This expectation provides judges with a clear guideline and will avoid placing judges, in the absence of expertise in this area, in the position of adjudicating children’s “best interests” in non-violence cases.  It will preserve meaningful parental relationships between children and both of their parents, maximize parental cooperation and reduce conflict, and prevent serious family violence and child abuse.  It will divert parents from a destructive court battle over their children’s care, and will provide an incentive for parents to engage in therapeutic family mediation focused on the development of cooperative parenting plans.  Shared parental responsibility is in keeping with current caregiving patterns, as the majority of mothers and fathers are now sharing responsibility for child care in two-parent families (Kruk, 2008).

In his most recent book, to be published in the UK this month, Kruk shows that equally shared parenting post-separation is supported by the scientific community and by the public, as numerous opinion polls show.  Within the legal establishment, however, and in government it is regarded as ‘an outlandish proposition, an arrogant presumption of uninformed naïfs or a conspiracy of fathers’-rights extremists that must be strongly resisted’ (Kruk, 2013).  Where policy and practice diverge so far from current thinking government fails in its primary fiduciary responsibility towards society’s most vulnerable.


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[1] Figure from July 2006; the social and economic cost of crime is estimated at £60B a year for England and Wales according to the Home Office Research Study 217 published in 2000.  Young people aged 10 – 17 make up 22% of the people who commit crime and are therefore responsible for 22% of the cost of crime or £13B a year.