If no-one speaks of dreadful things « Karen Woodall

February 5, 2013
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Spring sunshine on a Tuesday morning and I am musing on the emails and letters that I have been receiving over the past few months from mothers, fathers, grandparents and other family members, all on the subject of family separation, some on related issues such as family violence, false allegations and prevention of relationships with children.  Some of these letters are truly heart breaking and they make me feel, in turn, angry, ashamed and bewildered that such hideous stories are being lived out up and down the land without anyone, anywhere, turning a hair.

Those familiar with the fathers rights movement will be familiar with these stories but too many outside of that will either never have heard them or will be easy in their dismissal of them.  The idea that the abuse of men and boys is routine and systematic in our country is an issue that I have heard being laughed at, ridiculed, and simply ignored.

I used to be part of the women’s movement back in the day.  I remember a time when women’s issues were treated in just this same manner.  I went on to be active in that movement for many years, fighting for equality and justice and truth in every aspect of life, including the family.  Never for a minute during that time was it my intention to achieve all of that at the expense of men, I believed and still believe in true equality in which difference is valued and supported. I am deeply ashamed of the way in which the pendulum has swung so far that men and boys are suffering to a truly desperate degree.

Now before anyone gets on my case about this, I am aware that a) I get these letters because I write about family separation and b) because I articulate the experience of fathers in many of my posts.  I am sufficiently aware that this attracts fathers to read what I write and that this leads to them writing to me.  I am aware that in every case that I write about, there is another case that represents the experience of mothers which is not represented on this blog.  As one scathing commentator noted on a mumsnet thread recently ” thank you, I am aware of the one sided propaganda that is Karen Woodall’s blog!” (ouch).

I make no apology however for routinely articulating the experience of fathers in family separation.  I do this not because I am biased in favour of fathers or because I am a father’s rights activist.  I do so because a) there is genuine discrimination in operation against fathers in this country and b) there are not enough voices speaking up about it and c) the lack of voice is leading to the loss of good men (and boys) through suicide and self harm and loss of selfhood and in my view it is a national scandal.

Two recent letters that I received however, exemplify to me this scandal.  These two letters were sent by ordinary people, one a company director and the other the sister of a milkman, two letters from two ordinary people, doing ordinary things.

Those who write about family separation from the perspective of mothers, the same people who use flawed statistics to uphold the argument that fathers are not routinely prevented from seeing their children and when they are it is because they are indeed decidedly dangerous, will no doubt read this post and dismiss it as me being in favour of fathers over mothers.  And those who simply cannot believe that discrimination is as routine as the fathers rights movement make it out to be (it is oh so easy to dismiss the rantings of the rights based movements), will simply ignore it. But those who know that there is something wrong but can’t quite put their finger on it might want to take a moment to read and digest it because this is the reality for ordinary men in the UK.

Tony is a company director, he is in a powerful position and earns a six figure salary, but this is not the way that he describes himself in his letter to me which begins thus

I am in a terrible and awful emotional state, my hands shake and I cannot seem to stop crying. It is six weeks now since the final hearing when I was told that I would not be able to see my children again and that all I can do, from now on, is send them a card on their birthdays and a letter each month.  My two wonderful, beautiful, children.  Those little babies that I held in my arms and cried over with joy at their perfection.  Those little ones whose hands I held and faces I adored, who would be waiting for me when I got home and who would wake me up by bouncing on the bed in the morning.  How can it have arrived this way, how can I have been so clearly and firmly and coldly excluded from their lives.  I am an ordinary man, I am not one of those men who climbs up things to demonstrate, I am not an angry man, I am just an ordinary man.  I loved my wife and I thought she loved me, I never dreamed it would end up like this and the worst thing about it is that I cannot understand how it did.  I was one minute a husband and the next a criminal.  I came home one day and found my wife with another man, I knew she was seeing someone but I didn’t know it was my best friend.  I was so shocked I couldn’t speak for two days but I didn’t do or say anything, other than I wanted a divorce, which she too wanted of course.  Suddenly though it was as if I was a different person.  She began to tell me about all of the things I had done wrong in our marriage and how it was my fault that she had started up this affair, she said she no longer loved me and that I should move out (which I did), I now know that this was the beginning of the end for me and my relationship with my beautiful children.

This letter goes on to describe the way in which this man was accused by his wife of violent behaviour (she said he had broken a drawer by banging it and that he had shouted at her during the argument over him returning home to find her with another man), there had been no physical violence other than that mentioned and no previous history of violence either reported or alleged.  His efforts to establish a routine in terms of his relationship with his children however had been thwarted by his children’s mother and so he had been forced to resort to the court process where he expected that ‘justice and fairness and common sense would prevail.’ His closing remarks in his letter represent so many of the parents who are denied all three through the court process, he said –

‘I went into court hoping that I would get the kind of routine in place that would benefit my children, so that they knew when they would see me and we could rebuild the relationship that had been so badly damaged by the separation.  I came out of the court process feeling dehumanised, despairing and suicidal.  I had been forced to attend and IDAP course as a condition of my retaining the potential to see my children, this came at great personal cost (as well as the fact that I had to pay to be so humiliated) as I was told that I should feel ashamed of myself and that I should accept the mantra  ’once a violent man, always a violent man’, I felt beaten, tortured and in deepest despair at the hands of women who appeared to me to enjoy their power over me.  When I finished the course my ex wife told the court that she was still afraid of me, which lead to more exhortations to change my behaviour if I wanted to see my children.  In the end I gave up, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t cope with anymore.  I went through the final hearing in a state of complete and utter helplessness and hopelessness, no-one cared, no-one listened and no-one, at any point in the proceedings, ever seemed to think that it even mattered at all whether or not I saw my children and they me.  I am a broken man and I do not know how to put myself back together again.

In our training workshops with practitioners we often use the stories that we are told by parents to determine the level of empathic understanding of the experience of mothers and fathers.  Whilst this is a relatively new story, it is remarkably similar to so many more that we have been told in our work.  When we use these stories we do so to draw out the way in which practitioners have been influenced to think about the parents that they work with, they usually fall into two distinct camps –

Camp One – the feminist inspired – he’s lying, there’s always two sides to a story and anyway the courts don’t stop contact unless there is a very good reason, we would like to hear his ex wife’s side of the story.

Camp two – the personally inspired – the poor man, he has gone through exactly the same thing as my brother/uncle/friend went through, its just horrible what they do to fathers in the courts.

Our training aims to get everyone into

camp three which is the equalities inspired – this is wrong, the system is inherently discriminatory because it was designed to ensure that mothers care and fathers pay and therefore any father (or mother) who does not wish to fit this stereotype (by, for example, sharing care), risks being judged unfit and wanting and losing their relationship with their children.

I should be very explicit here and say that camp three is not the same as the equal parenting argument.  Equalities based support of parents is not about 50/50 shared care, its not about presumption and its not about parental rights.  Equalities based support enables parents to make choices about the way in which they are involved with their children on an ongoing basis after separation and it values mothers and fathers for the different things they bring to children’s lives.  Equalities based support of separated families begins with the equal opportunities statement ‘men, women, different, equal and it seeks to establish the kind of support services that enable children to have relationships with both of their parents in ways that are configured around their changing needs.  Equalities based support of separated parents offers the kind of empathic responding that recognises and acknowledges the reality of the barriers facing fathers in our legislation and seeks to enable the overcoming of these.  Equalities based support has no truck with any rights other than those of the child and the right of its parents not to be routinely humiliated, tortured and left despairing in the attempt to continue to be there for them.  Equalities based support starts and ends with valuing both parents for the different things that they bring to their children.  And it requires those who espouse it to speak, even in the face of ridicule and even in the face of cross fire from both sides of the rights based fence.

So what about the milkman and his story.  Well, suffice to say that his is not too far away from Tony’s story, ending also in the loss of family and the loss of dignity and the loss of the business in the end due to depression and inability to sleep making it difficult to get up in the morning and deliver milk.  Sadly, though this was not the very end of the milkman’s story as he ended up dead in a ditch, freezing to death due to exposure after drinking himself into oblivion in an effort to kill the pain.  His sister wrote to me to tell me his story and she ended with the words ‘we tried everything we could to keep him alive but the despair and the grief and the sheer downright injustice of it all just got to him in the end.  He couldn’t function, he lost all of his spirit and his dignity and he just drank himself to death.  It wasn’t a surprise actually when they found him but it has left me eternally angry that his life was taken by people who think they are doing the right thing when all of the time their agenda is to just get rid of the father so that the mother can go on and do as she likes. We will have to live with this loss for the rest of our lives and, actually, so will his children, who will one day no doubt, want to know what happened to their dad.  He wasn’t a bad man, he was just a man and it seems to us, from where we are looking, that was what went against him.  All we can do is ask why and hope that someone, somewhere, will do something that makes it different for the next lot of dads that come along.’

So, people in places of power and influence, tell me again that our family justice system is working and fathers are only excluded because they deserve to be.

I want a family justice system which is fair for all who encounter it and I want family services that start and end with valuing the things that mothers and fathers bring to children’s lives and I want fairness and equality for all of our families.  I want to live in a world where fathers are not routinely humiliated just because they are male and I want to live in a world where dignity and choice and relationships are routinely upheld and supported, not destroyed and damaged beyond repair.

A world in which mothers and fathers who suffer through the experience of family separation are helped to work together, not be torn further apart by the legislation that surrounds them and the lopsided practice that upholds the wellbeing of one over the other.

And without doubt a world in which the effort to maintain a relationship with one’s beloved children does not result in despair or even in death.

But If no-one (but the fathers rights movement) speaks of dreadful things, then these dreadful things will continue to happen.

Men, women, different, equal.

Let it start and end with the value we have for each other.

(This post is in memory of ‘Daniel’, who died in 2012)

Source: If no-one speaks of dreadful things (http://karenwoodall.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/if-no-one-speaks-of-dreadful-things/)

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