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Posts Tagged ‘equality’

Rob Williams writes in the Guardian about the practice at Basildon hospital of excluding fathers to be from ultrasound scans. He suspect[s] that the policy to exclude men from the scanning room is rooted in a belief that men are not important to the process of bringing a baby into the world. Whilst I sympathise and think this policy creates more issues than it resolves, I suspect it’s not that simple.

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The article publishes in full correspondence in response to a complaint about this policy, along with answers to a Freedom of Information Act request. Rob Williams complains that the Trust’s claim that the policy is ‘to protect technicians from violence’ is not borne out when one looks at the statistics – only one incident of violence towards a sonographer in the two year period covered. But in fact, this is not what correspondence from the Trust says. It says that in part the policy results from very real concerns about ‘the reactions of partners when they are in the scanning room’. It seems fairly clear to me that what is likely to be behind this is not a concern about direct aggression towards staff, but the risk of an adverse reaction towards the patient herself, particularly at dating scans where a woman may be caught out in a lie. We know that domestic violence often emerges or worsens when women fall pregnant and I suspect that this policy relates to the risk to women patients, and of course the risk that staff may be caught in the crossfire. And a woman in an abusive or controlling relationship may not have been able to prevent her partner from attending the appointment, or may be unable to voice her preference to attend the scan alone.

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That said, I don’t think its a policy I support. I do think that it minimises the role of fathers and operates on a presumption that they will be disruptive or unsupportive. If we can manage to involve fathers routinely in the birthing process we should be able to make arrangements for dating scans to be carried out in a way which doesn’t exclude dads, whilst safeguarding vulnerable women. If this means that staff need to be watchful, sensitive and adaptable so be it. It shouldn’t result in women who wish to have their supportive partner with them being denied that support. Having experienced both the awful moment when the sonographer confirms that the baby has no heartbeat, and having gone through subsequent scans with my heart in my throat clutching on to my husbands hand for dear life, I cannot see that this policy is right. And allowing for the partner to be brought in after the initial scan does not solve this problem.

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We should not see all men as potential perpetrators. Violence against women is bound up with gender stereotypes and such a policy runs the risk of perpetuating them.
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Equally, the campaign which sought the information from the Trust seems to have been so focussed on rights and equality that it had a bit of a blind spot as to the very real issue that the Trust was quite legitimately trying to address.

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Just a thought. I’m not trying to be controversial or nuffing. But it did occur to me today that whilst the clamour for a presumption of equal parenting is all well and good (I agree its a solution that should be given serious consideration in most cases, but not that this should be elevated to a presumption) its something which is really completely novel as far as the history of the family is concerned. And I began to think about what equality really means in the context of parenting.

I’m all for equality of opportunity as far as parenting is concerned. It doesn’t matter to me whether its Mr Mom or Lady Cab Driver. Or a shared arrangement that defies the traditional homemaker / breadwinner paradigm.

However, whilst I’m no historian, I can’t think of any time in history or any culture where the role of primary carer is or has been generally  split equally between both parents. Aside from cultural norms and historical societal organisation into very gendered roles, there remain all sorts of practical and financial reasons why one parent most often carries out the bulk of the care of the children. It’s still most often the mother who performs this role, but there is no reason why it needs to be her as opposed to him.

I pause here to observe that even for topsy turvy families like mine where there is a gender role reversal from the traditional female carer : male breadwinner, it is quite often very hard for both of us to shed our guilt for not providing (him) or not being there to kiss it better (me): gendered expectations about our roles as parents are deeply ingrained in us all whatever our philosophy or intellectual belief. I go out to work: I feel like a bad mother, even though I know better. But there is no reason why the carer has to be the mother. And courts must ensure no prejudice in that respect.

But I want to draw out a distinction between avoiding discrimination in our attitudes to who should provide primary care and the quite distinct proposal that the primary care should be split equally between the two parents on separation. When families are together shared care and equal divisions of time are far from the norm, and I’m not sure why they should be the norm when they aren’t together.

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Fathers seek equality in matters of family justice. Equality to me means that each parent should have equal treatment from the courts, equal status as a parent, equal importance in the life of a child. It’s not a mathematical equation and it can’t be expressed in binary. What is legitimate to ask for is that the court, when faced with applications for residence from two parents, does not make its decision based on prejudice or gender stereotype. What is not legitimate is to prioritise a parent’s desire for recognition or affirmation over what is right for the child in any given case.

The complaint is often made that the overwhelming majority of residence orders are made to mothers, ergo discrimination. Well I don’t agree that this equals discrimination, because I don’t think you can tease out from that that brute fact that, in spite of big changes in society over recent decades, the way in which most families still continue to organise themselves is with mum as main carer, and that when most disputes come to court it is from the starting point that the children are used to being cared for by her. Which is not to say there isn’t discrimination in individual cases, but only that the statistics reflect the general trends in society that persist.

In private law disputes the title and status of ‘primary carer’ can become a much sought after prize, the symbol of victory in the battle for equality. The goal of 50% of a child’s time I think is often a symptom of competitiveness between parents, determined on securing a victory in their own conflict. Parents who count up how many nights a year they have and demand an extra 3 nights per annum to balance it out have really lost the wood for the trees – their kids aren’t counting. They are wondering why daddy / mummy is so angry all the time. The 50:50 approach fundamentally misunderstands the way in which our children see us as important figures in their lives. A breadwinner is no less of a parent than a homemaker / carer. My dad worked hard, he didn’t get home to put us to bed often and the patterns and nature of my relationship with him as a child was very different from that I had with my mother. But my parents are equally important to me, regardless of who bandaged my knee or made my sandwiches or who stumped up the pocket money. It is only adults who need to quantify their relationships in hours. Insistence on shared residence can be to impose the judgment of Solomon on children, if not tearing them limb from limb forcing them to be constantly moving from pillar to post in order to share themselves equally between their parents.

Shared parenting works well for some. Equal splits of time also for some. There are any number of combinations or arrangements. But, when there are two homes the practical and geographical problems can often make shared care stressful or impractical. For the bulk of families, whether separated or together the only practical solution is to take different but equal roles. Children understand that in their own way and think no less of us for it. Sometimes I think that the more parents try to demonstrate their equality through carving up the weeks into 50:50 shares, the more they force children to choose between them.

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I know that fathers rights / equality campaigners don’t think that the welfare checklist / best interests test achieves a non-discriminatory result, but I think a presumption of shared care would subjugate the welfare of the child to the straitjacket of dogma. But what if instead we were to legislate to remove any perceived discrimination by identifying what is impermissible for the court to take into account: a codification of the principle of non-discrimination by, say, a provision that the court must not make decisions about the care or residence of a child on grounds of gender.

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These are just my Friday night musings and I’ve had half a glass of wine (baby related abstinence means even this results in mild squiffiness). But I do think there are more creative ways to think about how we promote equality for mums and dads and I think that the debate about this needs to be both more rigorous and more innovative.

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I was disappointed to read in the Guardian this week that the campaign for a Creche in the Inns of Court for the children of barristers has STILL not got through and sounds as if it may get turned down on costs grounds.

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A bunch of women were trying to get this off the ground when I was first pregnant in early 2007 (and even before that I think), but I fled the city and took my practice nearer to the support of family and cut down my commuting time. I don’t know how we could have made it work otherwise.

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Shame on the bar if it can’t find a way to make remaining at the bar after starting a family more manageable. Too many good female barristers just disappear from practice because they decide the compromises their families are expected to make are too great, that the sums just don’t add up.

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Fatherhood Season

The BBC is running a Fatherhood Season starting on Monday at 9pm with A Century of Fatherhood (BBC4). More information here and here. All interesting stuff; nothing it seems dealing with single or separated fathers.

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Pootling around on the internet in the light of this weeks horse painting shennanigans I came across Matt O’Connor’s new blog Father4Justice, the new F4J website (be warned, it looks nice but plays annoying music which won’t turn off) and facebook group for the recently relaunched Fathers 4 Justice. Matt O’Connor’s first substantive blog post explaining the decision to re-enter the fray and to relaunch F4J is (as ever with Matt O’Connor) punchy, hard hitting and well crafted – it roused my rabble – and I’m “the enemy”.

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But seriously, although I don’t buy into many of the conspiracy theories about the anti-male agenda of the system, there is a place for campaigns for reform of the family justice system – dads, mums and kids do very often get a raw deal. And although I recognise that for many I’m part of the problem, I like to think I do my bit for justice, even though I do it from within the system.

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Nearly Legal flags up new guidance following two judgments in the European Court concerning the rights of the children of migrant workers to education. This is important because where the right exists the parent and primary carer of the child will be entitled to benefits and homelessness assistance that they might otherwise not have been able to access. This is not the sort of stuff you want to read for fun unless you really need to get to grips with the issues for the benefit of a particular client (and I don’t so I haven’t), but do be aware that these judgments may give clients in a vulnerable financial position access to financial and other assistance that a local authority / benefits agency might have refused them in the past.

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A colleague emails:

…When looking through the LibDem manifesto this week, I noticed an express commitment, buried deep in the document at page 52, which may be of some interest (and reads, as follows)….
“The Liberal Democrats will “introduce a default contact arragangement, which would divide the child’s time between their two parents in the event of a family breakdown, if there is no threat to the safety of the child”
I’m wondering (a) what the default position will be (b) how many cases I have had in the last 4 years where a care and contact pattern has not been completely tailored to the circumstances of the particular family (less than 1 hand of fingers) and (c) how it would be implemented….?”

He’s right on the nail there as far as I can see. But I don’t see the other two parties as being exactly a family lawyer’s dream party either, so this won’t change my vote.

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The Lib Dems will also incorporate the UN Convention on the rights of a child into UK law, publish anonymised Serious Case Reviews and they make a number of generalised pledges about such things as the reduction of child poverty.

Thanks AC for the heads up.

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