Some years ago, I was outside a pizza restaurant when a young woman turned up, pushing a pram. She was preceded by a small boy who must have been about four years old. He stopped at the door, whereupon she said: ‘Well, open the f***ing door, you little s**t.’
I think my disillusionment with the idea that there was something sacred, sublime and beautiful about mothers and motherhood began on that day.
Shortly after, I spent some years working in a truancy centre, where we tried to give a little general education to children who had missed years at school. In many cases, it was clear that the reason for these absences had been mothers who kept them at home either because the women were lonely or because they needed the children as babysitters.
The point is that while there are many good mothers in the world, there are plenty of bad and often abusive mothers, too, yet we still have a Family Justice system that prizes mothers and motherhood, but devalues fathers.
When David Cameron wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph one Father’s Day, he made a point of attacking absent fathers. I snarled with contempt and threw the paper across the room. He clearly had no idea that a very high proportion of fathers are absent because they are forced to be so by vindictive and possessive mothers, and the family (in)justice system that backs them up.
David Cameron has young children, and he ought to consider what it might be like, if, God forbid, his marriage ever ended, to find that the courts are against him — and that any orders they made giving him access to his children were unenforceable.
He might win the right to have them for half the time, but if Samantha withheld access to the children, there would be absolutely nothing he could do about it, except apply for another order she could ignore.
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Judges of both sexes are the kind of people who have never had to change a nappy in their lives, and don’t see why any man would want to. They also seem to have a strangely warped moral sense.
Now that family (in)justice is under review, any male MPs with small children ought to take note of what might be done to them the moment their marriage or relationship goes wrong, as mine did two years ago.
Since then, as patron of Families Need Fathers, I have received many letters of support, many of them telling dismal and heartbreaking stories.
The surprising thing is that most of them come from grandmothers. They write about their sons’ repeated breakdowns, caused by being separated from their children, or about how children are brainwashed to reject their fathers. This is called ‘parental alienation’ by those in the know.
I have had letters from paternal grandparents who are desperate with grief, because ever since their grandchildren were abducted (as they see it, and so do I), they have never seen them again.
Lest I seem misogynist, I should say that the passion you have for your children is the most powerful and overwhelming emotion you can have, and the behaviour of some mothers is entirely explicable because of this.
One of the reasons I became a father was that a friend of mine told me that until you have had children, you know nothing of human love. I have since found out that he was right.
The problem is that when you go through a break-up, this extreme passion results in an equally extreme selfishness with respect to sharing them.
If I had my way, I would have my children all the time. I had a vision of how their childhood was going to be, and I was not going to give it up. The trouble is that your ex feels the same.
Some people resort to dirty tricks, one of the commonest and most successful of which is to accuse the other parent of sexual abuse or violence. The authorities will take several years failing to investigate, during which time the accused will be allowed little or no contact with the children.
A judge is then equally likely to rule that the children have got used to the separation from their parent, and should not be disturbed by having it reversed.
It is not illegal or punishable for someone to accuse you falsely in this way, and nor is it illegal for a solicitor to suggest it as a tactic.
The courts are seemingly unaware that women are almost as likely to be violent as men, and so the same accusations against them are less likely to be believed. As I once had a girlfriend who attacked me every time she got drunk, I am not inclined to fall for any myths about the gentler sex.
Another dirty trick commonly employed by mothers is to move a long way away and take the children with her. In this way, while a man may have the right to have the children three days a week, if the mother has moved to the other end of the country, or even abroad, it makes fatherhood impossible.
British Family Law doesn’t, in short, give a damn about men. A judge in Cambridge told me that he was appalled by how often men were simply treated as sperm donors and cashpoints.
The more you can withhold the children from a father, the more maintenance he has to pay because the mother — having turned herself into the primary carer — is less likely to be able to work, and will have more costs to bear.
There seems to be little expectation that mothers should make a financial contribution, even though we all know mothers who successfully go out to work or run their own businesses, and despite school hours meaning it’s perfectly possible to get part-time work. Middle-class mothers will be relieved to know they are considered too delicate to have to go and stack shelves in Tesco like everyone else.
There is, therefore, a very strong financial incentive to make sure that fathers have their children as little as possible.
A big part of the problem with Family Law, as practised at present, is that it is adversarial, and this has given rise to hordes of lawyers who exist to exploit the hurricane of emotions that overtakes you.
They raise the level of aggression and acrimony, and some of them will clean you out of every penny you have. They are masters of delay and of creating new things for you to argue about and hate each other for, and the vituperation and litigation will not end until one of you cannot pay them any more.
My solicitor was agreeable to the idea of mediation right from the start, and I estimate that her charges came to about one-third of what my ex had to pay. My solicitor and I were open-mouthed with amazement when, at one hearing, they turned up with three lawyers.
Early on in the break-up, I found myself receiving orders from these enemy solicitors, who seemed to have a fantasy that they actually had some authority over me.
I was to have the children every other weekend, and the weekend was to begin on Saturday morning and end early on Sunday evening. I was not to go and help out in my son’s nursery during the early days, when that was the only way I could get to see him.
I said to my solicitor: ‘Why can’t I just go and kidnap them back?’ But I was advised not to get involved in open warfare.
Even so, I am not the kind of person who reacts kindly to being told what to do by people who knew neither me nor my children, and who, I believe, just wanted my head as another trophy.
Their firm’s propaganda clearly displays their pride in duffing over the eminent or rich. They began a prolonged war without it ever occurring to them to ask my ex if she thought she was really doing the best or the right thing.
Luckily, the judge in Norwich wasn’t going to take any nonsense. The first question he asked was ‘What about a process of reconciliation?’ The second thing he said was that, with all respect, lawyers were part of the problem, and why didn’t we do everything by mediation?
We did sort out the sharing of the children by mediation, which turned out to be quick, easy and cheap, although painful at times. During the inevitable rows, the mediator just looked out of the window until we had finished.
My ex did not want to deal with finances by mediation, however, and that became a fantastically long and expensive ordeal that ultimately took no account whatsoever of the fact that a writer’s income fluctuates wildly from year to year.
The general public may not know that family law is ‘judicial’. That is, it is made up by judges as they go along. There is no proper code of practice and no proper code of laws, except that judges tend to follow previous rulings.
You are faced with a situation in which you and your solicitor have no idea what the likely outcome is, because, as I was often told: ‘It all depends on the judge. You might be lucky, and you might not.’
The judge in Norwich I have already described. The one in London dealing with the question of finance was mainly starring in her own show, immensely enjoyed her own robust humour, did not let me speak at all and did not let my barrister finish a sentence.
So what is to be done? Any review of family law has to take account of the fact that times have changed. Fathers now do things that only mothers used to do. We enjoy it, we want to carry on doing it and we want to remove the anomaly and injustice involved in the judicial habit of thinking that mothers count and fathers don’t.
Many countries have equality as a default position, and I have not heard of this causing any problems. Children are sometimes annoyed about having to live in two places at once, but that is all it is — a bit of an irritation.
I’d be mildly vexed if I was halfway through a jigsaw puzzle and had to leave it at one house to go to the other, just as I am certainly vexed when I discover that all my children’s socks have disappeared because they are at their mother’s house.
Women continue to struggle for equal rights in the workplace, and I have always supported them in this, ever since I became interested in feminist issues in the Seventies.
Women were demanding that men should take more of a share of domestic responsibilities, so that their talents could flourish in the wider world. Well, we have — and a lot of us have grown to love it.
I have my children half the time now, and I only feel truly happy when I have them in the house. The love exchanged between us makes any other kind of love a bit of a sideshow, which in some ways is a pity, but I wouldn’t change it.
My ex and I live harmoniously not very far apart, and the more the legal horrors recede into the distance, the easier it becomes to get along. A pleasant friendship and companionship has reappeared, which help me to push away the anger and resentment that still frequently perturb me.
There was, however, a time when I was utterly bereft. For some months, I was helpless with rage and frustration and an overwhelming sense of injustice, always aware that any extreme expression of my despair would inevitably be used against me in order to show that I was unstable.
Of course I was unstable! Isn’t that normal when you’ve been thrown into Hades? I am very surprised that there are not more murders and suicides relating to parents separating, although there are many such.
I was only able to carry on because I never gave up hope, and I knew that the most important thing was to give the children a good future.
I was also given a cause to fight for. Our children, their fathers and their fathers’ relatives have got to have rights enshrined in law, because our pains and pleasures, our joys in our children, are as pure and profound as those of mothers and their relatives. The children need all of us.
On Mother’s Day next weekend, I hope David Cameron publishes an article in a newspaper pointing out that it is more often fatherless children that become delinquent, not motherless ones.
The film of Louis de Bernieres’ novel, Red Dog, is now released nationwide.