A Hard Time to Be a Father?: Reassessing the Relationship Between Law, Policy, and Family (Practices)

Date01 December 2001
Published date01 December 2001
AuthorRichard Collier
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 520–45
A Hard Time to Be a Father?: Reassessing the Relationship
Between Law, Policy, and Family (Practices)
Richard Collier*
This article seeks to unpack the way in which a constellation of ideas
around what it means to speak of ‘good fatherhood’ has come to
inform a series of debates, after the election of the New Labour
government in 1997, around the content and contours of paternal
responsibility. Via a focus on family law and recent developments
around the idea of `work-life'balance, it discusses the concepts
underpinning present debates. In questioning the still-powerful (if
frequently unspoken) influence of social constructionist ideas of sex/
gender, it explores and question how men’s `family practices'have
been understood.
The legal status, responsibilities, and rights of men who are fathers –
whether they be married or unmarried, cohabiting or separated, biological or
‘social’ in nature – is a topic with a long and well-documented history in
family law scholarship. In recent years, however, it is possible to detect,
across western societies, a distinct heightening of societal concern about
whether ‘families need fathers’ – and, if so, what kind of fathers these
should be. Not only is a debate about the ‘future of fatherhood’
a now
ubiquitous feature of a range of cultural artefacts; the question of what is
happening to contemporary fatherhood has become central to both cultural
representations of, and political debates about, the shifting parameters of the
heterosexual family. For some, indeed, no less that the very future of the
‘family’ is what is at stake in the contestations taking place around the legal
ßBlackwell Publishers Ltd 2001, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
*Newcastle Law School, 22–24 Windsor Terrace, University of Newcastle
upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, England
1 A. Hochschild, ‘Understanding the Future of Fatherhood’ in Changing Fatherhood,
eds. M. van Dongen, G. Frinking, and M. Jacobs (1995). See, also, J. Mitchell and J.
Goody, ‘Feminism, fatherhood and the family in Britain’ in Who’s Afraid of
Feminism? Seeing Through the Backlash, eds. A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (1997).
status of fatherhood.
What follows seeks to consider why fatherhood should
have emerged as a problem to be addressed by law at this particular moment
and in the way that it has (generally, as something now widely seen as being
as in need of change or reform). The article seeks to unpack, in particular,
the way in which the belief that law itself might be used to promote ‘good
(enough) fathering’ has come to assume a growing importance within a
range of conversations about the legal regulation of family life.
The article is structured as follows. First, I question how a constellation of
ideas around what it means to speak of ‘good fatherhood’ has, across diverse
areas of law, come to inform aspects of policy relating to the family in
England and Wales.
A key feature of debates which have taken place in the
field of family law reform from the late 1980s through to the present day has
involved the making of an assumption about what is, in essence, a progressive,
‘optimistic’ model of fatherhood. This is premised on the idea that there has
occurred a significant convergence of women’s and men’s lives within
different areas of social life, most notably in relation to changing patterns of
paid employment and attitudes to parenthood. The article will map how these
well-established – yet, I shall suggest, problematic – ideas about fatherhood
have more recently come to inform a series of debates which have taken place
subsequent to the election of the New Labour government in 1997 around the
content and contours of paternal responsibility on the part of men. The
discussion will focus on both ‘subsisting’ (whether marital or cohabiting) and
post-divorce/separation heterosexual relationships.
The article proceeds, secondly, to unpack the conceptual underpinnings of
these debates about law and fatherhood. It will be argued that legal policy
debates concerning fatherhood have historically been, and continue to be,
premised on a particular understanding of the relationship between the body,
sex difference, and gender. In questioning and undermining the still-
powerful (if frequently unspoken) influence of social constructionist ideas of
sex/gender, what follows seeks to focus on how what men do in their ‘family
practices’ has been understood in these debates. Far from rendering men
invisible, unspoken or absent in an account of the relationship between law,
family, and gender, it is my aim to place the practices of men at the centre of
an analytic frame concerned with developing an understanding of the
changing nature of heterosexual ‘family life’ and shifting gender relations
between women and men at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
2 See, for example, D. Blakenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most
Urgent Social Problem, (1995); N. Dennis and G. Erdos, Families Without
Fatherhood (1993); P. Morgan, Farewell to the Family?: Public Policy and Family
Breakdown in Britain and the USA (1995). Compare L. Nicholson, ‘The myth of the
traditional family’ in Feminism and Families, ed. H.L. Nelson (1997).
3 On differences within family law policy between Scotland and England and Wales,
see, further, A. Blissett-Johnson and C. Barton, ‘The similarities and differences in
Scottish and English family law in dealing with changing family patterns’ (1999) 21
J. for Social Welfare and Family Law 1–21.
ßBlackwell Publishers Ltd 2001

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