The Independent

Why should women win custody of the children?

My experience is still that women win and that sometimes the case against a father is grotesquely unfair

By Deborah Orr
The Independent
24 April 2002

My four-year-old son, the other day, displayed to me yet again his sophisticated and ruthless talent for emotional manipulation. During a protracted negotiation for something or other – a chocolate frog, a viewing of his Scooby Doo video, whatever – he dropped his voice, cuddled up to me and confided: "You are my favourite parent."

What can one do in the face of such a blatant invitation to collude with your child against his father? I had two choices. First, I could enter into the conspiracy, accept the accolade and keep the secret. Second, I could preserve a united parental front, and inform his father of this latest gem in the same way that all the others are breathlessly relayed.

But while the first option seemed fraught with difficulty, the second did not seem easy either. Maybe it would hurt my husband, who is hardly less involved with the boy's parenting than I am, to learn of his close-but-no-cigar status. After all, I wouldn't like to be told such a thing myself.

As I mused on my dilemma, an awful thought occurred to me. Perhaps my son was even more devilishly manipulative than we gave him credit for. Perhaps he had told his father the same thing. My mind was made up. That evening I asked my partner if the magic words, "You are my favourite parent," had ever caressed his ear. He shrugged nonchalantly, and smirked dismissively: "Yeah. He tells me that all the time."

This revelation devastated me, and I realised how much I had accepted my child's comment as a verbalisation of something I already assumed to be true. Small children, after all, are expected to be more emotionally enmeshed with their mothers, and usually are, for all sorts of reasons. Now, it turned out, I'd spent only seconds as the favourite parent, while my husband was awarded favourite parent moments "all the time".

Having enjoyed watching the stricken look on my face, my husband then revealed that he was joking, and that actually he'd never be told, "You are my favourite parent". He didn't seem at all bothered by this. Our parental front was united, it seemed. We both took it as read that children tend to maintain a small bias of affection towards their mother no matter what, and that as long as our son was not playing one of us off against the other, it was no big deal.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that in these days of parental disharmony, the existence of this normal childish attachment is sometimes – far too often – used as a violent weapon against fathers. I was amazed last week to read an article by Dina Rabinovitch in the press that commented on a Family Court ruling that denied care and control to the primary carer in a divorced couple simply because that primary carer was the father, not the mother, of the family.

Ms Rabinovitch hailed Lord Justice Mathew Thorpe's decision as "a genuinely radical judgement" that stood bravely against the politically correct orthodoxy of "shared parenting" that rules the family courts and "in practice was about bending over backwards to accommodate fathers' wishes". She went on to make the astounding claim that "far from fathers being discriminated against in the family law courts, they are actually using their financial clout to deprive mothers of time with their children".

This claim is astounding, not only because anyone with the smallest interest in the subject of parental access knows that miserable contact centres across the country are full of supervised men – not women – trying to form a parental bond from an hour or two a week in a shabby institutional room, but also because this particular case involved a man who was a "house husband" and whose wife had been the wage earner.

Because the details of family court cases are rightly kept secret, we do not know the ins and outs of the case. It is even possible that the marriage broke down because the husband stubbornly insisted on staying at home, while the wife felt she had no alternative but to work, and eventually found the strain of missing her kids growing up intolerable. Who knows? Not me, not Ms Rabinovitch. But what anyone can see is that in this case there was not much likelihood that the plaintiff was using his "financial clout" to deprive the mother of his children of time with them. In this case, mum held all the aces, and won.

My own experience is anecdotal, but is still that women win – on time and on money – and that sometimes the case against a father is grotesquely unfair and damaging. While I've seen the disintegration of many relationships involving children over the years, I've only once known a woman to lose a care-and-control case. That was Julie Burchill. If Ms Burchill has not lived her life as the exception that proves the rule, then young gunslingers have never been hip.

I have, however, witnessed a good friend moving with her children to another country almost entirely to make things hard for her ex, a man victimised by outrageous claims of sexual abuse against his son by his former wife; several mothers handing over their children to their fathers by thrusting them silently out of the door while they hid behind it; and a woman signing an affidavit saying that her husband should not be given access to his children because he was a terrorist (totally fictitious and insane).

I've seen men behaving outrageously too, playing fast and loose with arrangements, failing to cough up financially, referring to time spent with their own children as "babysitting", or trying to buy their children's affection with a succession of treats instead of really forming a relationship with them. Sometimes, men only become good fathers after good mothers have made a huge effort to educate them in the importance of their role, whether the parents are partners or not.

I've also seen both men and women managing to set their differences to one side in order to maintain a functioning relationship as parents, settling things between themselves, understanding that however they feel about each other, their children remain genetically half of each of them, and have a need to know and understand both parents well.

They manage to acknowledge each other's importance to their children like adults, instead of infantilising themselves by resorting to the Family Court. Theirs are usually the children least affected by their parents' break-up.

Lord Justice Thorpe ruled that upholding the father's claim would be to "ignore the realities involving the different functions of men and women". But the main function of men and women, when they have had children together, is being parents. The very flesh and blood of their children is testament to the equality of that function and its interchangeability.

To me, Lord Justice Thorpe's world view appears not radical but reactionary, and may well extend to embrace the view that women are too maternal to need much education, too unpredictable to hold positions of responsibility in the big world, or too emotional to be trusted with such matters as commenting in the newspapers on the rulings of judges.

Any more knee-jerk arguments about how mothers are really important, so somehow fathers can't be, and his views will be looking uncomfortably common. If I ever find myself tempted to use my "favourite parent" status to punish my husband, I'll remind myself that this kind of behaviour plays well before the likes of Lord Justice Mathew Thorpe.

2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd