It is nearly time for Chapter 18 of my eBook which will start to look at public family law, but I thought first, albeit rather early in the year, I would write something about Spring and new beginnings.
There were some very optimistic and hopeful threads on the internet over the new year period from a varied assortment of individuals working across the post-separation parenting spectrum, but they quickly became derailed or turned to rehearse past grievances and rivalries. Perhaps this reflected the reality of returning to work and dealing with Divorce Friday. I am certainly not relishing the return to the day-job on Monday.
Undoubtedly there are people who want to work together over the coming year, and I have my own small list of individuals I would love to meet up with and discuss ideas around a pint or a cup of coffee. I suspect, however, that there is little appetite for new organisations or more formal liaisons.
It is in the nature of the shared parenting movement, and particularly in the fathers’ rights movement which is a subset of it, to fragment. Over the 40 year history of the movement there have been many splits and the formation of new groupings. There are numerous reasons for this but I would like to propose a few:
Firstly, people are simply different. I was, jokingly, suggesting to my wife caricatures of typical members of various organisations. Here is the FNF member, scrawny, bearded, with his tweed jacket adorned with elbow patches and lines of metal badges down his lapels showing his various allegiances. On his feet he wears sandals over his socks, and his trousers, which are slightly too short for him, are secured with cycle clips. Over there is his rival from F4J, overweight, a bit sweaty, with a tee-shirt stretched over his gut proclaiming loudly, “GIVE ME BACK MY KIDS!”
Mums Net are represented by a 30-something, dressed in Boden, drinking coffee all day and reading Virginia Woolf; Womens’ Aid by a crop-haired bespectacled pseudo-academic, she wears Birkenstocks, voluminous cardigans and tired-looking trousers.
It is easy to get carried away by this game, and I am opening myself up to a whole world of pain, but you get the point.
The second influence is that when people join support groups their thinking is heavily affected by their own case, often to the extent that they cannot see beyond it. Thus we have many fathers who think every case revolves around parental alienation or the threat posed by mum’s new boyfriend. Many mothers cannot see beyond the fact that their children’s father abandoned them, or was violent towards them. Similarly both mothers and fathers think that there is only a single solution to the failings of the family justice system, such as a presumption of shared parenting, or a presumption of maternal custody.
This very narrow, blinkered approach to understanding and campaigning is widespread, and seems to affect the majority of campaigners. Those who see a wider picture appear to be in a minority. Inevitably this sets up tensions within organisations as individuals dogmatically defend their own theories, and it is one reason why a consensus view has been impossible to establish. It also leads to sometimes irreparable disputes.
Over the summer I attended a fascinating training course run by my wife. One of the things that has most influenced my subsequent thinking was her presentation (using material provided by Nick Woodall) of the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of grief, represented as a rollercoaster. Applied to those going through family separation those stages can be described as: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance. An individual must pass through each stage, thus you cannot go straight from anger to acceptance.
This rollercoaster applies to members as they pass through support organisations. They enter at the bottom shocked, angry, confused, vindictive and eventually pass out at the top having resolved their case or at least accepted that it cannot be resolved. This also sets up tensions within organisations between those who are near the end of their path and those who are just starting and cannot see any light at the end of their tunnel and thus dismiss the ideas of those who can.
The characteristics of organisations perhaps reflect the stage on the rollercoaster their founders were at when they set up the organisation, thus FNF may represent the testing and acceptance stages, which is why their apparent complacency is so frustrating to those still at the denial or anger stage. F4J appears to be stuck in the anger stage, interspersed with occasional moments of bargaining, unable to move forward, and it rapidly loses members who have progressed.
One such former member is Glen Poole, and I was struck last year by his use of Spiral Dynamics theory which may be another way at looking at some of the same issues. Thus he positioned F4J on the Red vMeme which is “ego-centric, it is the vMeme of emperors, rogue dictators and rebellious teenagers”.
The Red vMeme is individualistic, impulsive, lives in the now and doesn’t worry about future consequences.
The Red vMeme believes it’s a ‘dog eat dog world’, ‘it’s a jungle out there’, ‘it’s every man and woman for themselves’.
From a gender perspective, a Red vMeme human could be a ‘feckless’ young dad fathering children left, right and centre or a single mum on benefits with four kids from four different dads.
The Red vMeme includes the Men Going Their Own Way Movement as well as the pro-feminist Michael Flood. The next rung up is the Blue vMeme, characterised by the first wave men’s movement and white, Christian, heterosexual, homophobic males. Glen places Movember, male cancer charities, outcome-focused education and mentoring schemes on the next rung, the Orange vMeme. In the Green vMeme are to be found Men’s Health Forum, The Fatherhood Institute, Respect, White Ribbon UK, Men’s Advice Line and the Centre for Separated Families, as well as the source of many of the problems that men face, including gender inequality, poverty, racism and homophobia.
The thrust of Glen’s argument – as I read it – is the need for the men’s movement and parenting movements generally to transcend these lower rungs and move into the Second Tier Yellow or even Turquoise vMemes. These are characterised by being able to see the wider picture, to transcend feminism without being anti-feminist, to work with others without imposing a single approach, and by a freedom from dogma and ideology. Glen warns,
While Second Tier approaches can skilfully integrate the best of First Tier, it can be difficult for Second Tier to fully operate from with[in] the First Tier. This often leaves Second Tier men’s workers limited to working to improve existing first tier structures or setting up new structures which can tend to be small and inclusive. The Second Tier ability to see strengths and weaknesses in all approaches can at times confuse and alienate people and at worst Second Tier men’s workers can be arrogant and aloof.
As 2014 develops, I hope that Glen and those like him will be able to extend a hand to those of us scrabbling about on the lower rungs and enable us to climb that little bit higher, break through the tree canopy, as it were, and see wider, further and more holistically.