A tricky, emotive topic, and I’m no legal expert, but here goes anyway.
The UK legal system starts from the assumption that contact with both biological parents is best for children up until the age of twelve. If one, or both parents do not want to be involved in a child’s life, then they cannot be forced. A child under the age of 12 is not deemed able to decide what is in their own best interests, and therefore regardless of their feelings and experiences, this can result in it being decided, for them, that contact is in their interests. If you are able to prove abuse, it is possible that the contact will either be indirect – letters and phone calls, or supervised. Proving abuse is actually difficult, and if the abuse was psychological, nigh on impossible.
Here are some things most people probably do not know. A person can rape their partner and still get access to the children. A person can hit or sexually abuse a partner in front of their children, and still get access to the children. A person can murder their partner, and still get access to the children. I think this raises some very interesting questions about what we understand ‘best for the child’ and ‘good parenting’ to mean.
Now, coming at it from the other angle, a step parent, who has done all the raising, all the caring for a child, is not considered, by the laws of the land, as being as important for a child’s development as access to the birth parent. So imagine a scenario, in which the father has been disinterested for the first 8 years or so, and then wants to be part of the child’s life, having them stay over alternate weekends and for three or four weeks of holiday through the year. That the child has a stable family and has grown up with someone else in the role of father won’t count for a lot.
When relationships break down, a child cannot demand that a parent makes time for them, but a parent can demand access to a child who does not want to see them. As contact with both parents is assumed to be best, the child can then find themselves living between two houses. This is not a recipe for stability, continuity, or a sense of place. What happens when one parent decides to buy the child’s favour with expensive gifts, late nights, all kinds of undisciplined indulgence that will, very literally spoil the kid? The parent who says ‘no’ will inevitably lose influence and become unpopular, and again the child does not benefit from this.
How important is the biological act of parenting? For a woman, the act of carrying and bearing a child has a huge impact, whether the child is kept, or not. A man can become a father and not even know it. For men who are actively engaged in parenting, the process of becoming a father can be just as dramatic and life changing.
If you give your eggs or sperm as a donor, you don’t have parental rights to the child that may come from this, so far as I know. A woman who becomes pregnant – whether by choice, accident or force, and who does not terminate the pregnancy, cannot avoid all of the implications and responsibilities of parenthood. Should we give the same rights to a man who gets laid and doesn’t hang about? How about a man who was misled and thought the woman was on the pill, and would not have impregnated her had he known, or who would have chosen active parenting had he been given a chance? And when it comes to putting the whole mess before a judge, parties may have different takes on what happened, and varying levels of honesty. Finding the right way through must by nigh on impossible in some cases.
But we start with assumptions about ‘best’ for the child.
I talk a lot about relationship in druidry. I think it matters whether a child has had a good relationship with the birth parent. I think the shape and nature of the relationship between the parents does matter, because it’s so easy for one parent to use the child, or the courts, to harass the other, and that’s not remotely in the child’s interest. I firmly believe that ‘one size fits all’ solutions very seldom fit anybody. I also think that if someone hasn’t had a chance to parent, then giving some space s a good thing, but not at the expense of what security and identity the child already has.
In the last few years I have talked to so many people about this kind of scenario – I’ve lost track of how many. I’ve heard shocking and depressing tales. I’ve met perhaps one or two parents who have felt ok about the process. If there is any decent measure of justice, the people involved have some sense of being treated appropriately. The system at least should make sense. The assumptions underpinning it should be logical. It should have enough flexibility to cope with the uniqueness of everyone coming into it. If we started valuing engaged, active, caring, supportive parenting more, perhaps we would put less emphasis on biological parenting and treat the whole issue very differently.