The father love that dare not speak its name

By Bob Geldof

When it comes to access to children, divorced men haven't a chance, writes Bob Geldof. In a world of dual-career couples, the law needs to recognise the hands-on parenting role played by many fathers

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. Most custody rulings show no understanding of contemporary society.

The contention that women are inherently better nurturers is wrong. Custody rulings appear to be based on the "sugar and spice and all things nice" school of biological determination rather than on anything more significant. If a woman "mothers" a child, a warm universe of nurturing is conjured. If a man "fathers" a child it simply implies nothing more than the swift biological function involved in the procreative act.

If the later 20th century saw the transformation of women's lives, then the 21st century is seeing the transformation of men's lives, and by definition the lives of their children. Nearly half the workforce is female and men now hold a different view of parenting. There are no studies which suggest that a child brought up by a man (as I was) displays any psychological or emotional characteristics different to one raised by a woman.

My complaints are not the moans of the unsuccessful litigant at the hands of family law. I, in fact, was "successful". This is someone dismayed by the inappropriateness of the law to the everyday. Nor is this the complaint of the proto-misogynist - indeed the law is so inept that it produces misandrists in equal measure - but rather the irritation and anger of someone who sees exact parallels with women's struggle against bias and prejudice.

What's sauce for the goose, as they say, is sauce for the gander - except, of course, in the eyes of family law, where the man ceases to be an equal partner in anything but name. A husband had better hang on to his marriage or risk losing everything he has had and be forced under pain of pursuit, prosecution and imprisonment to be a wage slave for life. There is grave injustice here.

Many may read Bob the embittered, abandoned husband in this. They would be quite wrong. My personal response to my situation was shock and dismay, pain, emptiness and loss. I was embittered only with the law and my consequent lack of rights as a man.

I am only too aware of the pain that women suffer in divorce, but it is equally true that it is as nothing compared with the financial and emotional loss suffered by men. She may lose her man, he loses the lot. If he is the offending party, people believe that it's right that he should leave the house and kids and pay for them. He even half-thinks this in his guilt. But rarely does he think: I've got a new woman, I'm happier, so I'll just take the kids and go off to this new life. Indeed, society would view it askance if he took the kids. Why? We don't if she does precisely the same. Why?

It is this type of confused thinking, lying at the heart of family law, that allows it to be unjustly weighted in favour of women. This is acknowledged by most commentators and lawyers when they are being honest.

I can accept that this was not the intent. The intent is that the law should always act in the best interests of the child. We all agree with that. But the unspoken assumption is that the interests of the child are nearly always best served by the presence of the mother.

This is simply wrong. Only in exceptional circumstances will a man be allowed to raise his children - something that outside the justice system and within society is assumed to be inalienable upon his child's birth.

The law is creating vast wells of misery, massive discontent, an unstable society of feral children and feckless adolescents who have no understanding of authority, no knowledge of a man's love and how different but equal it is to a woman's.

It also creates irresponsible mothers, drifting, hopeless fathers, problem, violent and ill-educated sons and daughters, a disconnection from the extended family and society at large. So many of us are hurting and yet the law will treat the man in court (if my case is typical) with contempt, suspicion, disdain and hostility. He is a father who has already lost his wife, his children, his home and, of course, his money, often his health and frequently his job. Good, eh? No doubt professionals will decry this view. But it is a commonly held one.

Everything can be tolerable until the children are taken from you. I cannot begin to describe the awful pain of being handed a note, sanctioned by your (still) wife with whom you had made these little things and had felt them grow and kick and felt intense pride and profound love for before they were even born.

You had changed their nappies, taught them to talk and read, wrestled and played with them, walked them to school, picked them up, made tea with them, bathed and dressed them, put them to bed, cuddled them and lain with them in your arms and sung them to sleep. You have felt them and smelt them around you at all times, alert even in sleep to the slightest shift in their breathing. And then you're handed a note that will "allow" you "access" to these things who are the best of you.

What have you done? Why are you being punished? When did she assume control? She wants to leave. What's that got to do with the kids and me? Were I to issue her a similar note, what would happen? I still ask these questions.

Why is the language that of the prison visit? Why is the person (and I'm being restrained because it is nearly always the woman, but we're actually not meant to say that for fear of being labelled misogynist) who has taken the children, or been left with them, given immense emotional, legal and financial power over the other party?

It is at this juncture that things spiral into acrimony, bitterness and hate. Losing control of one's life is a desperate experience - having someone else being able to exert control over it is worse. Some readers will know better than I the incidence of serious illness and alcoholism in men arising from divorce. Isn't this serious enough to insist on change?

Count the economic and social cost if that means more to you than the human. What more is required to make men the same in the eyes of the law as they are in the eyes of their children? Both parents must have equal status after separation. There must be an immediate presumption, as there has been in Denmark since January 2002, that the children, where possible, will live with the father 50% of the time. Isn't that eminently civilised?

The principle of 50% of everything must pertain. Children are genetically 50% of the man and that selfish gene which drove him to express genetic infinity with his partner through their children cannot just conveniently disappear in some legalistic, Stalinist coup de théâtre.

We have seen the rise of dual-career couples; now we need dual-carer couples. An equal child-sharing arrangement would be advantageous in many ways, not least because it would help both parents to be free to earn a living and pursue their independent lives, and thereby achieve and maintain greater amicability between them, which will in turn benefit their children. As to those who can't or won't participate in this arrangement, then the parties can work out something of mutual convenience and benefit to the children.

The implication of any order determining the father's allotted time with his children is that he was always of secondary importance. Reasonable contact is an oxymoron. The fact that as a father you are forbidden from seeing your children except at state-appointed moments is by definition unreasonable. The fact that you must visit your family as opposed to live with them is unreasonable. "Contact" with your children should not be infrequent and odd. In public parks on Sundays you can watch the single men with children drag themselves through the false hours in a frantic panic of activity, every second measured and weighed in a moment of state-sanctioned time.

I know that what I have written spills from coherent thought into pain and anger. The problem is that this issue is bound up with pain. The law is profoundly flawed. Its laughable pretext of gender neutrality and impartiality must be removed and the true face of bias, discrimination and prejudice fully displayed. There is no harm in being radical when the status quo breeds injustice. I am suggesting:

My "50%" proposition has already begun to be assimilated into the mainstream in Denmark and frequently in the United States. I fought for it myself. I had always worked from home. I had money. I took care of the children. I had ample accommodation and a stable relationship with a woman they knew and liked. My former wife worked. Why couldn't the children be with me for 50% of the time? I could not and still don't understand why there was so much opposition.

Eventually I succeeded, but I had nearly to bankrupt myself in the process simply to be able to live with my children. How is that in their interests? Finally I was granted full custody. But I never wanted or asked for that. My former wife was not a criminal, so why this punitive measure of taking our children from her?

If I disagree with it happening to men, equally so with women. I was given full custody because the professionals involved would not agree that split residence was acceptable, despite the urging of the judge in the case who had sat on international benches making those judgments daily.

As I entered court on my first day someone leant over who felt he was doing me a favour. "Whatever you do," he said, "For Chrissakes never say you love your children."

Bewildered, I asked: "Why not?"

"The court thinks you're being unhealthily extreme if, being a man, you express your love for a child."

For two years I shut up while I heard the presumptions in favour of a mother's love. Finally I began articulating the real love that dare not speak its name - that of a father for his child. No law should stand that serves to stifle this.

This is an abridged version of a chapter entitled "The Real Love that Dare not Speak its Name" by Bob Geldof, from Children and their Families, Hart Publishing, Oxford

 © Bob Geldof  

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