To Have and To Hold- Guest Post by Fenner Pearson
I’m given to understand that little girls – and teenage girls and girls in their twenties – dream about their wedding day. Is it something in the human psyche or, as Suzanne Moore says in her article in The Guardian on Saturday (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/12/suzanne-moore-marriage-tax-breaks), just a cultural artefect? I’d have thought the former but I’ll defer to Suzanne, as I’ve no doubt that she’s better informed than me. (And I don’t intend that to read sarcastically.)
Either way, I do agree with anyone, even Iain Duncan Smith, who says we spend too much on making those dreams a reality. On the other hand, I disagree with the grumps who don’t enjoy weddings. Ever since the first one I attended – as a page poy, aged four, when my granddad amused himself by getting me to pretend to be a milkman and take orders from people during the service – I’ve always enjoyed the fun of a bunch of friends and relatives getting together and celebrating.
Ultimately, though, I’m ambivalent about marriage (even though I’m on my second one). If two people want to make a lifelong commitment, that’s fine. Is it realistic? It depends on the couple. Do I think it’s meaningful? No, not really. Years ago, I worked with a divorced woman who had been married for a couple of years. Since her divorce, she’d seen her ex-husband once, in a supermarket. The marriage might not have been for life but the separation was obviously working out very well.
However, compare that with my own divorce, when my ex-wife and I could have done with a bit of time away from each other. We couldn’t have that successful separation for the simple reason that we had four daughters. It’s not marriage that binds you for life, it’s children. With the dishonourable exception of those runaway, absentee father, of course, and they bring me to my first main point in writing this: the CSA and the consequent implications for how the state views fathers, a view sustained by The Guardian.
When the CSA was first introduced, it laudably went after those fathers who had apparently abandoned their children (and I’ll return to that ‘apparently’ in a moment). In the end though, it took the easier road of harrassing those fathers who were already in touch with their children and helping to support them. And, like solicitors during a divorce, the ‘help’ provided often was a source of renewed antagonism between the estranged parents.
What a lot of people don’t realise, though, is that if you are the father of a child but were not married to the mother, then whilst the CSA can pursue you for support payments, you have no right under law to see your child. That’s right. The law recognises you as the father as far as making you pay is concerned but doesn’t grant you the right to see and love that child.
I know three people in this situation. One of them is allowed – by his daughter’s mother – to see his daughter for the afternoon, every other Saturday. Can you imagine how hard it is to sustain a meaningful relationship under those circumstances? To try and keep loving someone even though it means you spend your time, apart from that one crumb of an afternoon, feeling heartbroken and a failure as a parent? Can you see how some men might be unable to cope and to sustain that? That they might become absent for a reason?
Nearly ten years ago a friend of mine rang me to tell me his on-off girlfriend was pregnant and my immediate advice to him was to marry her. Was this because I felt it was, morally, the right thing to do? Did I see it as a fairytale fix to a troubled relationship? Or did I have a canny eye on those tax breaks touted by the government to encourage us to love each other under contract? No, I told him to marry her because it would give him a legal right to see his own child.
I’m sorry Suzanne missed this argument for getting married out of her article. The thrust of it, of course, was about tax and the government’s rewards for those who are lucky enough to enter and remain in a happy marriage, so I’m not criticising her. But if she was looking for a counterargument, a reason as to why people should marry, then this is it, at least for the men. If there are children in your relationship then, marriage or no marriage, that relationship is for life. And if you want a right to see your children, then marriage is the answer. Or part of it, for even if you are divorced, then access to children is, by default, controlled by the mother. So, although Suzanne says “There are two separate issues. One concerns the people who don’t get married in the first place. The other is divorce”, the truth is that for men, both situations bring the very similar issues. The difference, though, is that as a divorced man, you do have a legal right to access.
Furthermore, the fear aspect of divorce, which, as Suzanne points out, once preserved the sanctity of marriage, is still there. But it is no longer the woman’s fear of “shame and blame” but also the man’s fear of losing contact with his children. Is it right that two people who no longer want to be with one another remain bound by the fear that one can stop the other seeing his children? Of course not.
Coincidentally, though, Suzanne is directly on-message with The Guardian, which is happy enough to print random, unsubstantiated and often ill-thought out diatribes against men by a small group of ‘feminists’ but doesn’t give sufficient space to those men who have have a genuine grievance against the law. Woman can be both as fair and as unfair as men and it is completely wrong to leave the access to the children in their hands.
On 18th November 2005, Polly Toynbee wrote an article with the subtitle “Every father should be forced to hand over 15% of his income direct to the mother from the day they split” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/nov/18/society.publicservices) I was so dismayed by her article – I was an avid reader of hers at the time – that I emailed her about it, challenging some of the things she’d said and making it clear the situation was not as black and white as she portrayed it. I received a simple reply: “Access is legally a separate issue – and I agree some mothers can be obstructive. But the evidence is that men not paying is a vast problem.” Although I replied, Polly didn’t, so I’m still not sure how access can be legally separate except in the vague sense that payment is catered for by law and access isn’t.
As marriage becomes more of a statement and less of commitment, as divorce becomes commonplace, perhaps people will be shallow – or desperate – enough to marry for tax breaks. I don’t really care. But I do care about the fact that unless a father marries his children’s mother, the state cares only about his money and not about his right to love his children. In this respect, Suzanne is spot on when she says “But sexual satisfaction is hardly part of the emotional and economic equation the Tories are making. Theirs is a marriage of fiscal and social conservatism veiled with concern for children.”
Images by Kendall Kessler: