Fatherhood is a vital part of new family life

Radical social changes should not be allowed to deprive children of positive paternal influence

By Deborah Levy, September 7, 2010

So often when I attend court on residence or contact (formerly known as custody and access) disputes, the court welfare officer, who sits with the district judge to give impartial guidance, emphasises the importance of fathers in children's lives.

When most men were heads of households and sole or main breadwinners, fathers' roles were relatively small. But there has been a marked increase over the past three decades in the number of women who go out to work. In the second quarter of 2008, more than two thirds of working-age women with dependent children were in employment. Fathers now take an increasingly active and more hands-on role in the upbringing of their children.

Judaism has always given prominence to the part that men play in religious practice yet, although the family is central to Judaism, it has changed dramatically. Not only is the working mother a fact of modern life, but working hours are longer, the extended family no longer lives close by and, of course, divorce and separation have increased spectacularly. Fathers may be more involved in day-to-day child-care but many have to strive very hard to maintain a meaningful relationship with their children.

Additionally, the increasing number of international marriages and relationships means that children are not always a permanent fixture in a father's life. Until recently, primary carers (usually the mother) have often been permitted by the Court to remove their children permanently from the jurisdiction. In these circumstances, the father may lose contact altogether or have it limited to possibly once or twice a year.

The legal climate is changing, however. In one recent relocation case, the mother's application for leave to permanently remove a five-year-old child to France was refused. The judge made reference to the recent Washington Declaration on International Family Relocation (a gathering of 50 judges from all over the world to discuss cross-border family relocation), which, he said approvingly, "supplies a more balanced and neutral approach to a relocation application, as is the norm in many other jurisdictions".

While the courts take a very hard line on mothers who seek to alienate children from their fathers, in reality, the remedies of imprisonment, change of residence, cost orders and parenting classes are not ideal and judges can be reluctant to impose them either because they do not offer ideal solutions or there are funding issues.

In 2006, the Chief Rabbi made a public statement, the contents of which I endorse: "Fatherhood is usually the neglected part of the equation in situations of breakdown… it is actually fatherhood that makes humanity different from most primate species. Usually it is the females who look after the young, while a few weeks after birth many males do not even recognise their own children.

"Motherhood is biological and almost always strong. Fatherhood is cultural and almost always in need of support… children need some time with both and it is their needs that really count".

Research shows that children whose fathers are more engaged with them enjoy a distinct social and economic advantage. The value of both parents in children's lives should not be underestimated. It is crucial not to give greater weight and value to one over the other.

Deborah Levy is head of matrimonial at WGS solicitors

Last updated: 12:24pm, September 7 2010