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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Shutterstock/Pikul Noorod

Dispossessed dads ‘Fathers are second-class parents and given limited access to children’

Separated dads are getting a raw deal when it comes to custody arrangements and it’s hurting children most, writes Dr Roisin O’Shea.

THE LOSS THAT we suffer after the breakdown of a long-term relationship or marriage, particularly where there are children, can be very close to the emotional loss we suffer when a close friend or family member dies.

I have experienced both, and went through the same stages of bereavement. I had the same sense of numbness and disorientation, and felt quite overwhelmed for a long time by a powerful feeling of being cast adrift. I became a stranger to the life I once took for granted, and slowly realised that the life I had was gone, and that I needed to get to grips with a new reality.

Bitter and vengeful partners

In my years carrying out doctoral research in the Irish family courts, and my subsequent work with hundreds of mediation clients, I have yet to come across a situation where two people fell out of love at exactly the same time, shook hands and happily went their separate ways, while amicably co-parenting their children.

The reality is that one person reaches the conclusion that the marriage or relationship is over, before the other, and may delay dealing with that reality to protect the children, or may delay communicating their feelings to their partner for fear of what might happen to their own relationship with their children. When it is finally communicated to the other person, it is often experienced by them as an inexplicable bolt out of the blue. Anger, fear, grief and distrust follow very quickly.

Dads are sidelined

dad 2 Shutterstock / Soloviova Liudmyla Fear is very real for fathers, and is founded in the reality of how we view their role as parents. Shutterstock / Soloviova Liudmyla / Soloviova Liudmyla

Fear is very real for fathers, and is founded in the reality of how we view their role as parents, and how that view is generally reinforced by our family courts. Many fathers feel that they are viewed as second-class parents, who may be granted limited “access” to the lives of their children, even where they previously shared parenting responsibilities with their partner.

Yet when a family is intact or where a father becomes a sole parent as a widower, and it is our brother, our uncle, our cousin, we do not immediately assume that a father cannot be a good parent. It would seem that it is only when we are angry or in conflict that powerful current societal norms rise to the surface, and push fathers back to a secondary or lesser role as a parent.

The fascinating part for me as a researcher is looking at the evolution of parental rights and indeed, ownership. In the late twelfth century we (Ireland) adopted English common law, and children were deemed to be the property of fathers, essentially part of the chattels of the marital union. Paternal rights dominated, and mothers had no right of access to their children where the marriage ended. It took until 1839 and the Custody of Infants Act, for mothers to have a right to seek visitation rights with their children, or to seek custody.

Think of the children

So looking at both ends of the societal pendulum we can see that over 177 years in Ireland roles have reversed, and maternal rights now dominate, and it is fathers who must seek visitation rights, where parenting arrangements cannot be agreed. In this world of competing rights, where are the rights of children? Should we not begin with a child’s fundamental right to know and spend time with both parents, unless there are clear welfare issues?

We all agree that children should not be dragged through bitter divorce court battles, that they should not feel like they have to choose between one parent and the other. International research shows us that children do not suffer long-term damage because their parents separated, but suffer multiple difficulties when their parents remain in prolonged conflict with each other.

We need to radically rethink how we as a society provide timely appropriate supports to parents and their children who are distressed, angry and hurting, and a courtroom is the last place these families should be.

Dr Roisin O’Shea is a partner in Arc Mediation and a researcher in the Waterford Institute of Technology Family Mediation Project. She is presenting on her research findings at the Men’s Voices Ireland conference today.

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