Fall-out from the nuclear family

July 19, 1996

Divorce, single parenthood and live-in lovers have changed the variety and complexion of the British family. But one thing has not changed - the woman who has a man and the child who has a resident father are still held in most esteem. Lucy Hodges continues our series on work and the family

When the Child Support Agency was set up in 1991 to ensure absent fathers paid properly for the maintenance of their children there was an extraordinary reaction. Despite cross-party support, the agency met with violent demonstrations and threats to CSA officials.

"It really did seem as though something very deep was at stake for people," says Juliet Mitchell, psychoanalyst and writer. "What was interesting was the strange alliance of different groups in opposition to the agency." Misogynist men's groups made common cause with feminist women's groups; in particular, the feminist Campaign Against the Child Support Act, (the former Wages for Housework campaign in new guise), appeared on the same marches as militant men.

What was going on? Mitchell, visiting fellow at the social science research unit, London University, and Jack Goody, emeritus professor of anthropology at St John's College, Cambridge, decided to investigate. They point out that because of the changing face of the family the new legislation pits women against women. It is not just men complaining at having to fork out for the children of the wives they have left - in 90 per cent of cases fathers are the absent parents - but second wives complaining about not getting their share of the male loot.

All of which caused the pair to reflect on what had been happening in the institution of the family.

The most important change is, of course, the huge growth in divorce, which has created lone parents and composite serial families. At the same time, as the bonds of marriage loosened, some people did not bother to get married at all. Women had babies on their own, without a spouse.

Moreover, under changing legislation, custody shifted from being largely paternal to being almost always maternal. Before the 19th century men got automatic custody of children. Nowadays women do. And there has been a profound change in women's sexual rights and socioeconomic position. Women are no longer tied to the home and dependent on men. They can work or they can claim benefits from the state and they can assert themselves by suing abusive men for divorce.

These factors are not new, according to Mitchell and Goody. Frequent divorce was found in Ancient Rome, the Middle East and Africa. Single mothers - and cohabiting couples - were common in 18th-century England and Holland. For Europeans, however, divorce, maternal custody and equal sex rights are new; and it is these changes, combined with women's relative economic independence, that have created such a toxic mix. "The Act and the protest against it both seem to us to be responses to these critical changes," they write in a book to be published in the autumn, Women in the Time of the Backlash, edited by Ann Oakley.

Under the Act, maintenance payments for children were based on a strict formula that assessed the means and needs of the absent parent and of the parent left with the child. Fathers had to contribute something, even if they were unemployed or on benefit. Moreover, the CSA had wide-ranging powers. The courts had proved unable to enforce maintenance orders. The CSA was able at a stroke to dock payments from absent fathers at source.

Such fathers resented being forced to pay more. They could not support their new families, they said, if they paid the amounts demanded. One is reported to have said that he had reached a settlement with his ex-wife of Pounds 216 a month but the agency required him to pay an extra Pounds 200. "They ignored the fact I was supporting stepchildren," he said. But Mitchell and Goody point out that his stepchildren should have been the responsibility of their father, just as his own should have been entitled to a fair share of his income.

That complaint was so widespread that henceforth stepchildren were taken into account in the maintenance calculation. The protests thenlargely faded away. Another opposition group to the CSA was lone mothers, represented at its most extreme by feminists from the former Wages for Housework Campaign. They argued that bringing up children was work that should be paid for by the state. This group spoke for women on benefits, as well as for low-paid or unemployed men and impoverished second families.

The third group - largely male - saw the new law as part of a wider conspiracy against men. Including groups like Dads After Divorce, the UK Men's Movement and Families Need Fathers, their main complaint was that fathers were being marginalised, and that the Act made no allowances for guilt, for instance, if wives had been adulterous.

Looking around, Mitchell and Goody found that absent fathers worldwide were failing to pay for child support. The British Act was modelled on New Zealand and Australian legislation, but there were differences that made enactment more problematic in Britain. One was the collection of maintenance payments. Absent parents in Britain have to pay maintenance directly to the abandoned spouses. In New Zealand the state makes the payments and collects the money from absent fathers. The same indirect method of payment is used in Denmark, Germany, France and Belgium, which is probably why there has been less opposition there.

What do the protests say about the changing role of fathers today? Single motherhood and divorce or separation mean that fathers are distanced from their "first'' children, explain Mitchell and Goody. They are not with them physically, and they may find it difficult to see them. Some difficulties may be of their own making but others may be down to the mother. So, even if these fathers were originally prepared to contribute to their children's maintenance, they become reluctant to do so because they then link support with access.

In England as many as 40 per cent of absent fathers no longer see their children after the first two years. In the United States it has been said that divorced men are more likely to meet their car payments than their child support payments.

Unlike some doomwatchers, Mitchell and Goody emphasise that the dissolution of first families does not imply the end of marriage or the end of the family. What it means is more marriages, more families and more unconventional living arrangements.

Pre-marital sexuality and cohabitation may be the norm but most cohabitation leads to marriage, they point out. Divorce leads to second or third marriages. As many as seven in ten children at age 16 live with and have always lived with their own parents. So, it is not true to say we are a society without fathers.

Nevertheless divorce has brought big problems. The annual divorce rate has risen more than sixfold since 1961 and is responsible for much of the increase in lone parenthood. Between 1971 and 1991, the number of divorced mothers rose from 120,000 to 420,000. There was a similar increase in the number of single mothers. Latest figures show there were 1.4 million lone parents in 1992. Single-parent families in Britain comprise one in five of the total, a lower percentage than in the US but higher than in Mediterranean countries. But lone parenthood has always been with us, Mitchell and Goody explain. What is new is the increase in lone motherhood as a result of divorce.

Until this century divorce was forbidden by Christianity. In the past a lone-parent family might have been created by death, but there is a big difference between that and loss by divorce, according to Mitchell and Goody. That difference is crucial to understanding the protest against the Child Support Act. "One major problem is that our society has been unprepared for the serial coupling that has overtaken it. The increase in divorce in a society that has been dominated by small conjugal households has radical consequences."

It is not divorce on its own that has produced the dramatic changes but divorce combined with the mother's custody of children. It creates small or solitary households and leaves poverty in its wake. Separation of parents changes children's lives. Children - as well as spouses - feel deserted. They may experience problems with school work or find relationships difficult. Their pain is compounded when the absent parent fails to make payments or to visit.

Second families are seen as the legitimate families because the father is in residence. "The woman who has the man and the child who has the resident father always tend to be more highly valued," say Mitchell and Goody. "The weight of convention and social approval has thus, ironically, shifted to the second family."

The changing face of the British family

Comparison of young adults born in the 1950s with those born in the 1960s or later

Born in 1950s

Young men first leave parental home at median age 23 (women at age 21) 55% of young men and 66% of young women leave parental home to live with partner 75% of women enter their first partnerships by the age of 24 20 per cent of women by the age of 24 cohabit 10 per cent of women have a child out of wedlock in their first cohabiting unionBorn in 1960s Young men first leave parental home at median age 22 (women at age 21) 40% of young adults leave parental home to live with partner (comparatively more leave to become students at university/college; reflecting the expansion of HE in past 30 years) 67% of women enter their first partnerships by the age of 24 (More women spend comparatively longer living with friends/in student accommodation before moving in with a man).

40 per cent young women cohabit by the age of 24 20 per cent of women have a child out of wedlock in their first cohabiting union.(One half of women having their first child in their first cohabiting union can expect to become a never-married single mother through the dissolution of the union) Data from the British Household Panel Study, University of Essex.

Research by John Ermisch, professor at the ESRC research centre into micro social change in Britain, University of Essex.

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