A happy Father’s Day ahead – well, for some men at least

August 30, 2012


Every year, tens of thousands of Australian children are not able to wish their dad, or their granddad, a happy Father’s Day due to their parents being separated or divorced.

What does that tell us, that fathers who don’t see their children are “deadbeat dads”?

In a recent case federal magistrate Tom Altobelli made some surprising admissions in awarding a mother sole custody of her two children: “Their mother has indeed alienated them from their father … the mother’s perception of the father is based on illusion not reality … She is not being malicious or malevolent, she is quite simply shackled by a distorted frame of reality … She believes the father is a risk to the children when he is not.”

It is remarkable, and a relief, that Altobelli wrote the children a letter explaining his decision. But the isolation still felt by their father must be extreme. Many fathers – or mothers in similar situations – experience debilitating mental health issues while they work through various aspects of being a separated non-custodial parent.

Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention 2008 research shows younger men are more at risk of suicide when separated. Recent findings from the Australian Institute of Family Studies show that men experience a greater degree of loneliness and isolation compared with women after a divorce.

On a slightly brighter note, I can testify that by far the majority of non-custodial parents I meet do eventually find a balance in their life, stepping up as best they can without losing their dignity. Less often are they able to maintain a robust and healthy connection with their children.

Extreme acts by fathers wanting to redress what they consider an injustice occasionally come to our attention; Michael Fox’s 2011 Sydney Harbour Bridge protest, Ken Thompson’s 2010 cycling trip through Europe to find his son. Thompson succeeded and was able to bring his son back under the same legal rights that an Italian father is currently trying to invoke to return his daughters to Italy. In this case the mother brought them to Australia for a holiday and then refused to return them. There’s no doubt his extreme act is to survive the emotional, financial, legal, and logistical hardship that goes with fighting a somewhat bizarre court case in a foreign country.

Occasional outcries from desperate men are not to be confused with acts of violence in any form. It is painfully obvious that many men, and some women, too, commit acts of violence when under similar pressures. As a society we are doing some good things, and certainly need to do a lot more, to prevent family violence and to care more effectively for the victims who are forced to suffer in so many ways.

What is especially alarming is the phenomenon coming to be known as “fatherlessness”. World leaders, including President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron, have begun to give attention to this, but not so much to the underlying institutional pressures.

In a recent article, “Father Absence, Father Deficit, Father Hunger”, in Psychology Today, Canadian Edward Kruk points out it is “divorce and non-marital childbearing” that present the two greatest threats to fathers’ active involvement in children’s lives. Even when fathers have the best of intent and a genuine commitment to be an active parent, the weight of institutional processes often works against them.

With more than 50,000 families breaking up every year in Australia, this amounts to a massive annual wave of incoming children at risk of fatherlessness. Kruk observes that a string of modern-day perils such as diminished self-concept, truancy, youth crime, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, to name a few, all have “absent father” as a prominent factor.

The institutional pressures working against children enjoying a meaningful connection with both parents need to be addressed. This Father’s Day, separated dads – and all the family, friends, professionals and agencies who support them – can be confident they are not alone as they keep demonstrating the patience, compassion and wisdom needed to live life meaningfully and non-violently through such adversity.

Gradually, this is how community awareness can grow to inform and support the legislative and procedural changes needed for a healthier post-separation environment.

Dean Mason is national chairman of Dads In Distress Support Services and author of Daddy’s OK: fathers’ stories of divorce, separation and rebuilding.

Mensline: 1300 789 978

Lifeline: 13 11 14

DIDSS support: 1300 853 437.

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