This is a guest post by Sarah Phillimore, who blogs at Child Protection Resource.
NB I will allow comments on this post as I usually do, but I will not permit comments which are offensive or insulting (robust challenge is ok as ever) and I will not permit comments which I consider are or may be impermissible or inappropriate for legal reasons.
The sad case of Rebecca Minnock has provided manufacturers of stilts for nonsense with a bonanza couple of weeks. See this post from the Transparency Project if the details of this case have escaped you so far.
Various online groups have unleashed a tsunami of ill-informed and prejudiced opinions against fathers and male judges, their view appearing to be that as women give birth and nurture their child, women are better parents and if they say the father of their child is an abuser, then he probably is, court judgments be damned. Into this fray steps Maypole Women, offering the view of one of their volunteers ‘Karen’ to explain why Rebecca Minnock was on the run : Rebecca Minnock on the run. In brief, this is because the family courts refuse to recognise the importance of primary carers.
No further information about Karen is offered so I can only hope that her qualifications, expertise and experience in child development, law and psychology are impressive, given the confidence with which she asserts some very broad and bold propositions. Nor does Karen want to distract us from her opinions by providing any support for them, via links to any reported cases or published research. But Wikipedia does get one mention.
So if I am about to be very unfair to Karen in my analysis of her argument, if I have actually missed some recent and seismic shift in either law or child psychology I am happy to apologise and admit I was wrong. Disclaimer: there is so much in this article that I think is wrong, I haven’t attempted to debunk each and every example of such wrongness. Please don’t assume that if a particular assertion by Karen goes unchallenged, it means I agree with it. Because I almost certainly don’t.
First, some general points. Karen makes a half hearted stab at reassuring us that she isn’t just talking about ‘mother’s’ as primary carers – family courts are going against nature, ‘whatever the sex of the primary carer’. But Karen is not being honest. It is stated explicitly elsewhere in this article that you only qualify as a ‘primary carer’ if you have a uterus:
The over-riding focus of ‘equality’ obliterates the history of all mankind, the very nature of mankind, in which mothers are primary carers biologically and, whether by nature or nurture, usually psychologically too.
Way to go family courts! Even your most florid detractors have not previously claimed that you ‘obliterated the history of all mankind’. Any how. At its beating heart, this article revolves around the psychological frailty of some women, who have identified with the role of mother to such an extent that any perceived threat to that status is a threat to their intrinsic well being. Not only must this frailty be recognised and respected argues Karen, it should be honoured and must be reflected in the development of family law and policy.
Karen describes these women thus:
What parent dares put their child first, in the centre of their heart, when the pain of loss – not just of your child, but also of your main purpose and identity in life – can be so devastating?
Because some women react to parenthood in one kind of way does not mean that all women do, or should. It certainly does not mean that we permit law and policy to develop to suit the psychological dysfunction of a minority.
‘Primary care’ is described by Karen as the ‘continuous mental process of overseeing, organising, knowing, caring, safekeeping and reassurance’. No one else is capable of understanding the ‘inner world’ of this primary carer. This primary care function is ‘fundamental to the wellbeing of the primary carer’.
This model of parenting described by Karen is dysfunctional. That doesn’t mean I am suggesting those who practice it are mad or unpleasant or trying to do anything other than their best. I am saying that it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work for two reasons: first, it is a potentially absurd and dangerous elevation of parenting to an unsustainable gold standard which simply isn’t achievable for the vast majority of parents who have anything else at all going on in their lives. If you have to ‘continuously’ oversee, organise etc one child, where do child two and three fit into this? Where do your relationships with your family, friends and partner? Your work? Your hobbies?
Second, by putting an emphasis on how this role of the continuous overseer is ‘fundamentally’ important for the wellbeing of the primary carer, is neither healthy nor helpful. I suggest there is a real risk here of simply conflating what is right for a child with what the primary carer thinks is right for her. If we accept that ‘self-efficacy’ (defined as people's beliefs about how they can exercise influence over events that affect their lives) is something to strive for, given its positive impact on people’s sense of wellbeing, then we need to be concerned about anything that is likely to detract from that – such as setting up a child as simply a means to an end, by providing a primary carer with her identity.
Madeline Levine, an American psychologist and author of ‘Teach Your Children Well’ noted that there is a danger here of confusing ‘over-involvement’ with ‘stability’ and promoting the view that it is both good and noble to sacrifice yourself for your child. The children however, say something different here.
...you should hear what most kids say about this... while you think you’re giving your kids everything, they often think you are bored, pushy and completely oblivious to their real needs. But lets look at this very simply. If you are willing to give up your whole life and identity, what’s the message you have sent your kid about the value of other people, mothers in particular
Primary care is how every child, in every family, has their needs met. Primary care is a product of society, culture and biology. Primary care, to give and receive is a human right.
Karen’s position here is curious. I last studied child development 20 years ago, but I am not aware that what my OU text book says about other cultures has been challenged. The ‘monotropic’ image of biological mother as pre-eminent and sole ideal figure for infants is by no means universal across cultures. Many cultures pattern child care differently and the relationships that form around a new arrival can take many different forms’ – older siblings, fathers, grandparents, others in same household, nannies and child minders etc. The roles played by these other carers will inevitably dilute or even eradicate the possibility that a child has a primary carer, being that person who ‘continuously’ organises, oversees etc
Looking particularly at grandparents, research supports their significant involvement with raising their grandchild. For example, research jointly undertaken by the University of Hertfordshire and the Family Matters Institute in 2009 found that 60% of grandparents were involved in some form of child care, either on a regular or occasional basis. 28% regularly cared for their grandchildren in the evenings or at nights.
Not only is it likely that many children will have a wider network of adult carers than simply their mother, it is untrue to suggest that all mothers are automatically in a culturally sanctioned position where they can or wish to be ‘continuously’ providing ‘overseeing, organising, knowing, caring, safekeeping and reassurance’. For example working mothers are now the majority of mothers. The ONS shows that in 2013 72% of married or cohabiting women with dependent children worked; 60% of lone mothers. A probable explanation for this high rate of working mothers is that society is structured in such a way to promote home ownership as every adults’ goal and yet homes are so expensive both halves of a couple must work to afford one.
Mothers working outside the home must devote a significant proportion of their physical and mental energies to something other than their child and must contract out much of this ‘continuous overseeing’ to other people or organisations.
Take a personal example. My daughter from the ages of 7 months to 3 years spent her waking hours each week as follows: 40 at nursery, 30 with me and 14 with other carers. Who was her primary carer in this scenario? If it wasn’t me, does that make me any less her mother? Is my understanding of her welfare deficient?
With regard to biology, Karen might be on firmer ground. Mothers are indeed biologically very different to fathers; mothers give birth to children after a gestation period of nine months. Women are more likely to take time off work after birth to take care of children. I do not dispute therefore that pregnancy and birth have more of an immediate impact on a woman’s life than on a mans. A mother often has more opportunity when a child is a baby, to be the one who is primarily aware of and meeting his needs.
It is often argued that it is the mother’s breastfeeding that supports her role as more engaged parent, but given the lamentably low rates of breastfeeding in the UK, this is not very convincing. The NHS Information Centre’s Infant Feeding Survey in 2010 showed that only 12% of infants at four months were exclusively breast fed, dropping to 1% at 6 months.
In any event, childhood spans far longer than then 12 months of babydom or even the 24 months into toddlerhood. Does this initial advantage in the primary carer race for the mother on the basis of her gestating and giving birth, turn into a fixed advantage for the next 18 years? I do not think so. Other adult carers can become attuned to the child’s needs and able to meet them. We all know fantastic parents who didn’t give birth and who didn’t breast feed. Even if one accepts the mother’s superiority by virtue of her biology, this is directly relevant for only a short window in the child’s life.
Primary care is a human right
‘Primary care’ is not a human right. You are entitled to argue that it should be, but it currently is not. You cannot sue anyone for breach of your ‘right’ to be a primary carer. A ‘right’ is not simply something that an individual can declare. A ‘right’ exists only if it is recognised by a legal system that will protect and enforce it. Otherwise it is just an irritating and meaningless phrase, used in an attempt to cloak spurious arguments with some degree of legitimacy.
Family law treats child care as a logical transaction, passing a child from one parent to another....The overriding focus of equality obliterates the history of all mankind, the very nature of mankind... the family courts’ lack of understanding of the primary carer function... results in practice that is, at times, barbaric. It is no different to wrenching children from unmarried mothers in the 1960s or from poor mothers in Victorian workhouses’.
This is nonsense in its purest form – it makes no sense. No one could allege this in good faith who is aware of section 1 of the Children Act 1989 and the panoply of case law which explains and expands upon the clear driving principle of that Act – that the child’s welfare is the paramount concern.
There is no ‘overriding focus’ on equality. There never has been. I find it impossible to understand how anyone in good faith can draw parallels between a legal system in 2015 enforcing an Act which takes the welfare of children as its paramount concern and historical and thankfully long gone stigma against unmarried mothers or the poor. This profoundly inaccurate hyperbole is neither convincing nor helpful. The courts were not proposing to ‘wrench’ Rebecca Minnock’s son away from her. The courts were simply saying that if she persisted in making up allegations against the father and refusing to allow her son a relationship with him, that would have an impact on how often and in what circumstances she would be allowed to have contact with her son, to protect him from her emotionally abusive behaviour.
Research shows women make false allegations in 2% of cases / How does the court know the allegations were false?
What research? What cases? We don’t know because Karen doesn’t tell us. I would be interested to know what she is talking about because my experience over 15 years in the family courts suggests that the percentage of allegations either fabricated or exaggerated is significantly higher than 2%. In this case however, the court found that the mother had ‘positively invented’ allegations against the father so presumably she is one of this 2%. Not according to Karen. Just because she couldn’t prove her allegations in court, doesn’t mean they are false.
This is true. Judges are human hence fallible. Mistakes are made. But what alternative system of divining facts does Karen suggest? Shall we ask the neighbours? Cast runes? Or do we entrust that decision to a legally trained professional, who has heard evidence from a variety of sources over many months and made a decision based on that evidence? What system would Karen like to operate if she were subject to serious accusations?
Good parenting is not about continually devoting yourself to understanding and anticipating your child’s every need. To make your own identity contingent on your role as ‘mother’ is unlikely to benefit either mother or child in the long run. Children as they grow need space to find out who they are and what they want. They are unlikely to be able to do this in the shadow of a constant overseer. Parents need to have the confidence to recognise the benefits to their children of a variety of adults in their lives who love them and look out for them. The model of primary care outlined in this article is likely to be a stifling and overly containing model of parenting for the majority of children.
Most of us, most of the time, are good enough parents - and most of our children, most of the time, benefit enormously from having us in their lives. To permit any parent any automatic right to limit or curtail the other parent’s involvement in a child’s life, is simply wrong. And when your arguments act as encouragement for vulnerable women to feel justified in breaking the law, these arguments are not merely wrong, but irresponsible and dangerous.