National Post

Tuesday, November 24, 1998

Fatherhood is not about to be eliminated
We need fewer court battles, vindictive acts, and 'ugly' divorces

Roy MacGregor, Senior columnist
National Post

If sports can teach us useful lessons -- as used to be said rather more so than today -- then it should be required of all politicians that they return, even if briefly, to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The moment is the 400-metre semi-final, with British runner Derek Redmond collapsed on the track with a torn hamstring. He has already lost the race, yet he struggles to his feet and begins hobbling, in terrible pain, down the track toward the finish line. An older, larger man in the stands pushes through the crowd, hurling Spanish security guards out of the way as he bulls his way onto the track and begins running toward the injured runner. The new runner on the Olympic track is Jim Redmond, Derek's father.

The son is astonished. "You don't have to do this!" he shouts through his tears.

The older man shakes him off. "Yes," he says, "I do." And together, the son's head buried in the father's shoulder, the two runners made it to the finish line - and over.

Yes, I do. The words of love, obviously, but also of responsibility, of obligation, of duty. They are words to consider by all parents, all children, husbands, and wives, however arranged, to consider this week as the final touches are delivered to the joint Senate-Commons report on custody and access in divorce proceedings.

We are living, it appears, in changing times, if not interesting. As parental relationships and obligations seem under new discussion everywhere in Canada, a new Compas Poll -- commissioned by Southam News and the Toronto-based National Foundation for Family Research and Education -- has been released which seems to suggest many of our presumed opinions are out of step with the people.

In a nutshell, both Canadian men and women are demanding that the rights and obligations of divorced fathers and their children be considered in new light. Not enough consideration has been given to fathers, and not enough attention has been given to the wishes of those most directly involved: the children. Pollster Conrad Winn even says, "I can't find an adjective to describe the intensity of public dismay" over this matter.

We would like to help Mr. Winn with his adjective but this, fortunately, considers itself a family newspaper -- and as such, we have our own obligations to keep abreast of this issue.

The people are demanding that the rights and obligations of fathers be reconsidered from a common sense point of view. Harsh when necessary, understanding when appropriate and, hopefully, progressive in the end. Despite some of the best science fiction, the male job isn't about to be eliminated. Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, may have been dead right when she claimed that, "Human fatherhood is a social invention," but, like God and Death-by-Chocolate, it would likely have been a necessary invention if we did not already have it.

Fathers sure aren't perfect, but some of us have a vested interest in thinking them useful. "My mother taught me the ABCs," the late humorist Lewis Grizzard once wrote in a column. "From my father I learned the glories of going to the bathroom outside." We like to think there can be even more to it than that.

What the parliamentary joint committee needs to understand, and perhaps well understands, is that most definitions don't hold long in society. Just as morality keeps changing, so do roles. "Fatherhood," as it is cloyingly referred to these days, is a fairly recent phenomenon. "Patriarchal," hopefully, is a fading one. The role, lacking much consistency, has tended to confuse -- even those who have taken it on.

Perhaps it was easier when families stayed on farms or in crafts for generations, but it's been some time since all that changed. It has also changed since the father was the sole breadwinner and made dominant in family affairs by economic reality, yet peripheral by the time constraints of excessive work. We require, today, a sense of the role that moves beyond the anger and backlash, beyond the lost with their copies of Iron John and their drums and their wails for "Daddy!" to come back as he once was.

It ain't going to happen. What is needed is new understanding. What is needed as an end to describing every divorce as "ugly." What is needed are fewer court battles and vindictive acts and far fewer beepers going off in youngsters pockets -- the modern indicator of how difficult it is for the fragmented to keep in touch as well as how desperate most are to stay in touch.

It's a pretty simple order that rises up out of this splendid poll. It calls for common sense. And it suggests that a father has a specific role to play in the family unit, usually in production but always in maintenance.

Certainly, necessary protections need to stay in place. The complexity of denied access means that young innocent lives have both been lost and saved, but where danger does not exist, let common sense prevail.

We are all of us in the same race, all of us hobbled by our weaknesses, and all of us in need, at times, of a shoulder to lean on.

Relevant Sites

Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access
Contains minutes of all meetings.

Child and family services of Central Manitoba

Fathers Are Capable Too advocacy page.

Children's Aid Society

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