The Times

November 5 2000

The novelist Ian McEwan won custody of his sons last week against the wishes of his former wife. He is one of an increasing number of men willing to fight to keep their children after divorce. Margarette Driscoll reports

Who cares wins

by Margarette Driscoll
The Sunday Times

One of the hardest-fought separations ever to come before the courts reached its final chapter last week: the novelist Ian McEwan won custody of his children after a lengthy battle with his former wife, Penny Allen.

The author of such dark novels as The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers became one of a growing number of men who, against the odds, keep their children after their marriages fail.

Allen had sued for divorce in 1994, and at first they both retained access to their sons, William, now 17, and Gregory, 15. But when Allen moved to France to pursue her career as a meditation tutor and faith healer, she wanted the boys with her.

In the end courts in both England and France preferred the boys to be with their father. Each case, of course, has its own merits. But to many the prospect of a father winning custody of the children in a divorce battle would have seemed remote barely a generation ago.

The numbers who succeed are still small, but more and more men are no longer willing to stand on the sidelines of family life, giving up their children without a fight.

British courts still tend to view families through the prism of the 1950s, with mum at the centre of hearth and home and dad hovering somewhere around the perimeter. This meant that men won custody of their children only if, as in the case of the late Earl Spencer, father of Princess Diana, their wives "bolted", leaving the children behind, or if they could prove their wives to be unfit mothers.

The battle lines, however, are shifting. There are now about 140,000 fathers in Britain who are lone parents. The Child Support Agency (CSA) is chasing more than 50,000 women for maintenance, mostly due to ex-husbands who are looking after children. During the past couple of years, both here and in America, working mothers have lost custody of their children in precedent-setting cases.

The change was summed up during one appeal court case to decide whether a two-year-old boy from Cambridge should live with his father rather than his mother.

"Fathers," surmised Mr Justice Cazalet, "are much better equipped to look after children nowadays than they were 10 years ago." He was backed up by another judge who ruled in the father's favour.

Such cases remain unusual, but they seem to presage a change of attitude in the courts, away from the notion that the "best interests of the child" always means being with the mother.

"The pace of change is painfully slow," says Jim Parton, chairman of Families Need Fathers, the biggest organisation providing support for men in custody battles. But we are witnessing a change to the pattern of British family life.

Robin Cracknell was always close to his son, Jake. Not long after the boy was born, Cracknell's wife, Alison, went back to work full-time. Cracknell virtually gave up his successful career as an illustrator, and put his energy into looking after their son.

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Daddy's boy: Robin Cracknell
and his son, Jake

"I was the one he wanted if he woke in the night. I was the one who pushed him around in the rain in his pushchair," he says. "Alison worked long hours and she was often not home until late in the evening. I have no criticism of her: she is a good mother. But that's just the way it was. I was the one with Jake 24 hours a day."

But when the marriage foundered and Alison decided she wanted to separate, the court system seemed weighted against Cracknell. There seemed to be an immediate assumption that Jake would stay living with his mother.

"My lawyer told me right away that I could forget about custody," says Cracknell. "My wife would automatically get Jake - he was just coming up to three years old then - and I should cut my losses and fight for decent access. But I couldn't accept that. I'd fallen in love with this child and I didn't see why he should be taken away from me. I'd given up work. My income had dropped to almost nothing, £8,000-£10,000 a year.

"If I'd had a fling, or beaten my wife or something, anything, it would be different. But the simple fact that I was a man wanting to continue to care for my child was seen as somehow perverse."

Cracknell, an American living in southwest London, hired lawyers to press his case, but found it hard to overcome the prejudices. He changed lawyers three times, not content until he had found somebody he really felt understood his position.

"Even then it was a lottery," he says. "I can't count the number of times I heard lawyers say, 'I pray we don't get judge B, he hates men,' 'Let's hope we get a young judge . . . an old judge.'

"Though it's all supposed to be about the best interests of the child, your actual input into the child's life and the kind of future you can offer seems to matter less than a judge's likes or dislikes.

"It's a crapshoot. And between legal fees and a financial settlement it cost £165,000, enough to pay for school and clothes and food for Jake for life. For what? To decide what was always in his best interest in the first place."

Right up to the last day of the eight-month battle, Cracknell thought he would lose, and it put enormous strain on what had at first been a fairly amicable separation. But eventually he prevailed.

"Alison got the same advice from lawyers as I did, that she would win, and it came as a huge shock to her to lose," he says. "But now we have the occasional glass of wine, we discuss Jake's schooling, I help with her garden. We get along fine.

"I think deep down she believes what happened is for the best, but it's hard on her - I understand that - and other people do think it's strange that she doesn't have Jake."

Life as a single father didn't take much adjustment, as he was already caring for Jake. But as a househusband, when Jake was a baby, he did feel isolated: "Men don't have the supportive network of mothers all around them." Simple social situations can be tricky too: "Innocent invitations - fancy a coffee after the PTA meeting? - sound like pick- up lines."

Nevertheless, Cracknell feels perfectly at home cooking, cleaning and tending to Jake's every need. And he's not the only one, according to Adrienne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed, a history of fathering.

"The trend is for men to spend not just more time with their children than they used to, but to really engage with them on a one-to-one basis, especially younger children," she says.

"It used to be the case that men would never challenge for custody because they felt children were the women's sphere and it was not right for them to interfere. But men - some men at least - have great confidence in their ability to care for children and they want at least an equal share of time with them."

Exactly how many men seriously pursue custody every year in the 60,000 disputed cases that go through the family court is impossible to know. Family cases are heard in secret and no statistics are kept - which Burgess says is "a scandal in itself".

Of lone fathers, who constitute a tenth of single-parent families, a quarter are widowers. The rest have won the children in court battles, or the children have come to them by choice, or simply been left with them. Burgess says it is often the case that children who live with their mothers initially either opt to live with dad later on, or are forced to do so if their mother cannot control them.

Christopher Rumble, 41, a police crime scene examiner from Ormskirk, Lancashire, took over the care of his children Amy, now 14, and Ben, 12, when his wife left him eight years ago and was unwilling to look after them when she remarried.

It was daunting but, after 16 years in the army, Rumble was a good organiser and a competent cook.

The children had little contact with their mother. Rumble has managed to cope, with the help of his parents, who have been "invaluable", providing babysitting, guidance and support to all of them.

Everybody who has dealt with the children has been sensitive and kind, he says. "At school, when all the other children were making cards for Mother's Day, Ben's teacher said, 'Make one for your dad,' " he says. "They always made sure they didn't feel odd or left out."

Rumble finds, to his surprise, that as a single dad he is treated not with suspicion, but with admiration. "I find it embarrassing because people are always saying, 'I take my hat off to you,' because the children are so well-mannered and so nice. But I'm nothing special, just someone who loves his kids."

Do more men deserve to win custody of their children? The rising number of local support groups formed to air men's grievances about the raw deal they get from the courts reveals that something is wrong with the system of allocating custody as it operates now.

Much of the resentment over the CSA was caused by men being chased for money to support children they never see: within a few years of divorce, 50% of men lose contact with their children, worn out by the strain of forced conversations and dreary visits to the park on their one-day-a-week access.

The court system as it stands reflects family life as it used to be, with the mother as primary carer. But family life is changing. In interviews earlier this year with a group of 33-year-olds who have been followed from birth under the National Child Development Study, 36% who were brought up in two-earner families said that their fathers had been the main carers.

Of those who are now in two-earner families of their own, most said they shared childcare equally. Fathers and Families in the UK, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published last year, said that, "although men might see themselves as less skilled than other carers, their contribution can be crucial".

The answer, however, may not be to award men more legal custody, but to adopt more of a compromise.

The tendency towards winner-takes-all arrangements reflects the notion that children need a single, unchanging home to provide a stable base. But that idea is now being challenged.

In America the courts are increasingly deciding on "shared residence" rather than awarding sole care to one parent, with limited access for the other. And in America, say experts, men get to play a larger part in their children's lives than the sad old "Saturday dad" so familiar here.

"We know that kids can cope perfectly well with moving between 'Mum's place' and 'Dad's place'," says Adrienne Burgess, who is also co-founder of Fathers Direct, an information and support service set up last year with Home Office funding.

"I think increasingly the courts will go for joint residence. It doesn't have to be 50-50. It can be 70-30. The important thing is to recognise that both parents can still offer somewhere the child sees as home."

Additional reporting: Adam Luck and George Dearsley

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.