Gorell Barnes: No Legal Presumption of Parenting Equality is ‘Malign’

February 12, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Perhaps in an effort to slow the sharp decline of its readership, The Guardian newspaper has actually run an article that’s only a little contemptuous of fathers and their efforts to maintain meaningful relationships with their children following divorce (The Guardian, 2/6/18). The paper’s circulation has plummeted an astonishing 48.2% in just seven years, so the editors may be feeling desperate.

Whatever the case, its review of social worker and family therapist Gill Gorell Barnes’ recent book, although it traffics in the usual Guardian tropes, makes important points about the failings of the current family law system in the U.K. For example,

Gorell Barnes, who remarried after the death of her first husband and has an extended family of her own, thinks men have been ill-served by the popularity among her professional peers of an interpretation of attachment theory, holding that the primary familial bond is between infants and mothers. “Fathers were positioned as being secondary across the spectrum of family life or, in many cases, ignored as irrelevant to the child’s wellbeing,” she writes.

Yes, that’s the theory of attachment that’s been roundly refuted by social science since John Bowlby popularized (and then abandoned) it. It’s the theory that Goldstein, Solnit and Freud peddled to an unsuspecting public back in the 70s. And it’s the theory that, as Dr. Richard Warshak has explained, 45 years of research has shown to be incorrect.

I suspect that part of the confusion comes from the fact that mothers are more likely than fathers to be primary caregivers to children. Fathers tend to play a backup role. That’s because the parenting hormones produced by mothers have receptors in different parts of the brain than do the same hormones produced by fathers. Those hormones produce parenting behavior in both sexes, but, at least in the case of oxytocin, fathers tend to play the secondary parent, filling in when Mom is tired, absent or, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t be the child’s main parent.

All of that is fine as far as parents are concerned; Mom tends to be the primary parent. But it’s different for kids. As Warshak and 110 eminent scientists worldwide have pointed out, for children, there’s no hierarchy of parents. Children don’t attach to their mother any differently than to their father. Each is necessary to a child and valued. Those attachments begin during the earliest weeks of the child’s life.

Accordingly, fathers may be secondary in mothers’ eyes, society’s eyes, the legal system’s eyes, employers’ eyes, etc. But they are not secondary in children’s eyes. So if our public policy truly wants to serve the best interests of children (and it claims to want exactly that), it’ll start respecting fathers’ contributions to their kids equally to those of mothers.

She argues, too, that legislation has had a malign effect, the 1989 Children Acthaving made no presumption of shared parental responsibility, and the 1991 Child Support Act having emphasised fathers’ financial responsibility but not their rights. While she thinks the antics of Fathers for Justice activists have not been helpful, she understands their sense of injustice.

“The main thing they represented was feeling cut off from the best part of their lives. I think men do regard their children in this way and, when they are dispossessed, would like them to be part of their lives again and, through that, to get in touch with their own better feelings.”

Indeed. Those who defend the current regime of family laws in the U.K., like the chronically and often comically wrong John Bolch, urge us to notice that the law encourages judges to allow parenting time to both parents post-divorce. That’s true. What’s also true is that that same law nowhere defines its terms to require judges to order meaningful parenting time to fathers. That, together with the fact that judges routinely order primary custody to mothers and sideline fathers in their children’s lives, add up to exactly the malign effect to which Gorell Barnes refers.

Good enough so far, but alas, this is The Guardian, so no article on fathers and children can be allowed to state the whole truth. So writer David Brindle made sure to distort what he could of Gorell Barnes’ message. For example, fathers who don’t have access to their kids aren’t victims of a discriminatory legal system. No, they’ve got mental problems.

Gorell Barnes, now 74, has specialised in fractured and reformed families, learning to see divorce and repartnering from the child’s point of view. In a new book, Staying Attached: Fathers and Children in Troubled Times, she focuses on men and children who live apart, their relations often complicated further by mental health difficulties – an issue largely neglected in family therapy, she argues.

Brindle follows that by devoting about half his article to a few fathers who indeed did experience mental health disabilities. Of the other 99% of dads, he has nothing whatever to say.

After all, according to Brindle, fathers actually having relationships with their kids and vice versa isn’t what’s really important.

She has always done NHS and court work as well as having a private practice, which she continues, and finds herself devoting much time to helping men discuss their feelings. Success may be achieving just that, not bringing about any lasting reunion of fathers and children.

Yes, imagine saying something similar about mothers shoved out of their children’s lives by a court system that hasn’t a clue about their value to their children or their children to them. In fact, if you want such a statement, you’ll have to imagine it; you’ll never read it in The Guardian.

Still, at least Gorell Barnes delivers a bit of reality to Guardian readers on the importance of fathers to children and the deficiencies of the U.K.’s family court system.

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