Father's Day: Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, needs her dad
Sidelined, ignored, treated as an optional extra or even a risk, dads are often seen as somehow a lesser parent than mums – and Holyrood has inadvertently done the same.
A baby no more, Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, is a fictional child born in May 2016 at the beginning of the last parliament in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland.
She was created as a way of looking at whether policy passed in Scotland is improving life for children like her.
But what about her dad? Kirsty is five now, she is just about to start school after the summer, and yet we have barely mentioned her dad, Scott.
This wasn’t a clever device to raise this issue now. We, like so many in Scotland, assumed she lived with her mum, assumed that her mum would be the main adult in her life and that her dad would only see her for visits.
And those kind of presumptions are something real life dads are struggling with in Scotland today.
Although she has seen him regularly and stayed overnight, Kirsty has never lived with Scott, so he will be classified as a non-resident parent, which embeds that idea that he is somehow lesser.
“You can so easily end up marginalising fathers through the language you use,” says Jeremy Davies of the Fatherhood Institute, adding: “It’s like this binary definition of family life, where children live in one place, so they live in one place with both parents or they live with one parent and the other one by definition is ‘non-resident’ in inverted commas, which equals, in our heads, not involved, less important and all of that.
“And all of that is reflected in how we collect the data about families, how policy is developed, how funding is allocated, and benefits and all of that. It’s very binary.”
As a non-resident parent, Scott’s relationship with Kirsty is less likely to have been studied and we know less about what level of contact he or dads like him are likely to have with their children than about mums or dads who live in the same household.
Longitudinal studies of families such as the Growing Up in Scotland cohort study focus mainly on the household where the child is normally resident, usually the mum’s, and they don’t tend to interview the non-resident parent.
Caley, Kirsty’s mum, might have been asked about Kirsty’s dad, but she may give a different answer about his contribution and how much time he spends with Kirsty than Scott would, as when separated parents have both been interviewed they often have different estimations of the amount of contact.
“It’s all a bit of a mess,” says Davies about the data.
The Fatherhood Institute carried out the 2018 study ‘Where’s the Daddy?’ looking at UK research on parental relationships.
It found a complex picture of research outlining different types of relationship, but with a tendency towards a binary resident/non-resident parent classification that “overlooks the complexities of contemporary family life and couple relationships”.
In Sweden, where around 40 per cent of children whose parents are not together spend equal time living with each of them, for example, week about, much more extensive research has been done around the impact of different types of parenting relationships and the benefits of more equal involvement, particularly by the child psychologist Malin Bergström.
She has worked on the Elvis project (named for the Swedish word växelvis, meaning alternating), a longitudinal study that specifically compares the outcomes for children brought up in equal shared parenting arrangements with those in intact two-parent households, as well as ones where the child lives mostly with one parent or only with one parent.
This kind of shared parenting arrangement would not only have benefited Kirsty, it could help the whole family.
“The positive involvement of fathers is of benefit to children, women and fathers themselves.
Research has also conclusively rejected any notion that fathers are inessential in the lives of families and children,” says Dr Gary Clapton in the Fathers Network Scotland report ‘Dad Matters’.
Benefits to Kirsty suggested by various studies include everything from higher educational attainment to better self-esteem to better relationships, both as a child and as an adult.
It would also avoid perpetuating the gender stereotype that only mums look after children, while dads go out to work.
A more equal parenting arrangement could help Caley too.
Kirsty’s mum has struggled with having Kirsty at home all the time during lockdown, and her mental health has not been good.
If she and Scott had been able to share the parenting roles, it would have eased the pressure on her.
Depending on what arrangement they came to, Caley might even have been able to work part time, giving her more money and a chance to interact with other adults.
“I think it’s just something that we just accept as a society, we just seem to accept the idea that a proportion of men will lose contact with their children,” Davies says. “And we seem to think that that’s fine.
“I don’t really know why we do, to be honest. Because actually, it’s really bad for the children. And it’s really bad for the father.
“It’s probably really bad for the mother too, because what she’s doing is she’s taking on a disproportionate amount of responsibility and the hard work of looking after children, and the mental load, and all of that is falling on her shoulders. That’s probably not good for her either.”
While it is thought shared parenting arrangements are in place in five to ten per cent of non-cohabiting families in Scotland, it certainly didn’t occur to Caley and Scott that they might do that.
In fact, Caley’s sister, who doesn’t like Scott, is always encouraging Caley to break off contact with him and not let him see Kirsty. Kirsty is seen as belonging to Caley.
Practically speaking, too, it would be difficult. Unlike in some European countries, state support such as child benefit cannot be split between parents in the UK, so Caley gets all the financial support.
And because Scott works, he pays child support, but if Kirsty spends an average of a night per week or more at his, the amount he pays Caley is reduced, dropping down to nothing if he has her for half the time.
Although Scott and Caley argue, they have managed to agree arrangements between themselves so far and do not need to go to court.
If they did, though, with Caley classed by the court as the resident parent and Scott as the contact parent, the starting point would be that Caley would have Kirsty most of the time, with Scott taking her perhaps on some weekends and holidays.
This confrontational, winner loser scenario also embeds the perception that one parent is the ‘real’ one who is more important than the other.
This is in contrast to Belgium, where a law was passed in 2006 creating a presumption in favour of equal parenting, which has led to a significant increase in shared parenting over the last 15 years.
In Scotland unmarried fathers only got parental rights for the first time in 2006 – if their name was put on the birth certificate.
Ian Maxwell, of Shared Parenting Scotland, says that while there have been improvements in a number of areas, “given that the focus that the Scottish Government says they want [is] to be the best place in the world for children, you need to look at the countries that are above you in the various indexes and find out what they’re doing and try and copy them, rather than just thinking, oh, well, we’re doing it okay, because, unfortunately, we’re not in some areas”.
Because of the way fathers are often treated, Scott may not realise that his relationship with Kirsty matters or that he has rights.
“I actually think that there’s a lot of fathers especially who don’t know that and don’t understand that and therefore don’t think that they’re important, but I think there’s a lot of structures and systems in our society that don’t make that easy for dads to understand,” says Thomas Lynch of Dads Rock, an Edinburgh group which offers support to dads, including a fathers playgroup, workshops on things like nappy changing and hair styling, specialist support for young dads and most recently, Edinburgh’s first dads-only buggy walk.
“We know that children have better outcomes when the fathers are involved, and that’s our aim, to improve outcomes for children,” he says, but adds: “We’ve been doing this for nine years and dads will still say to us, nobody spoke to me, nobody asked me, a professional asked mum, they went straight to mum, they never asked me.”
This exclusion is even more so in the case of young dads like Scott, who Lynch describes as “invisible” and “one of the most marginalised groups of people in our country”.
Scott may have experienced exclusion right from Kirsty’s birth.
A survey by Fathers Network Scotland on how fathers were treated by maternity services found that, for example, 29 per cent of fathers said they were never spoken to directly by staff at antenatal appointments, 40 per cent were never addressed by name and in 61 per cent of cases there was no discussion about the father’s role.
During home visits after the birth, 47 per cent said there was no discussion of the father’s role and nearly a third were not addressed by name. Fathers Network Scotland is working with various professionals to improve their engagement with fathers.
There are a lot of myths around single mothers and absent fathers, which influences the way services interact with both parents, Davies suggests.
The Fatherhood Institute does a lot of work in early years settings with midwives and health visitors and “that label of single mother is bandied about a lot, even when you’re talking about families in the early days of parenthood, where actually very few families … are separated in any sense”.
“It’s like a story we like to tell ourselves for some reason that there are armies of single mothers marching around and the father is not involved,” he says.
“Actually, there’s very little evidence of that. And, in fact, there is a lot of evidence the other way, that even in the most disadvantaged families where maybe there is separation early on in the child’s life, in the first couple of years, the men are around and they are involved in some way… but this single mother idea is a very powerful one.”
This negativity about fathers come across in portrayals of family life in public information too.
Two studies carried out on behalf of Fathers Network Scotland, ‘Where’s Dad?’ and ‘Where’s Dad Too?’, found multiple examples of family groups featuring only mums and children, whereas dads appeared in images and case studies relating to domestic violence.
There was exclusionary language too, with ‘parent’ used interchangeably with ‘mum’ or a contrast between referring to ‘the mum’ but ‘the father’.
A similar situation around exclusion could have an impact on Scott’s involvement when Kirsty goes to school later this year.
During COVID, Shared Parent Scotland have been aware of issues among separated parents where a child perhaps spends a couple of nights with one parent during the week but that parent doesn’t get the necessary information about the schoolwork from the school and so is prevented from helping with the home learning.
But even for parents that are together, Maxwell says they have difficulty getting both parents’ details included in an equal way, with some local authorities in Scotland not allowing for that on their forms.
“It’s about breaking down these gender presumptions or stereotypes that it’s the mother’s responsibility to look after the school, which it’s not,” he says.
“It would be rare for a school to actively pursue a policy of engaging with fathers,” Davies says.
Mainly, he suggests, this would be simply the line of least resistance, that whichever parent turns up gets the letter, but there may also be issues of not wanting the hassle of keeping extra details up to date, believing separated parents must be in conflict and not wanting to get involved in that, and simply assuming that the fathers aren’t interested.
But it seems that communicating directly with fathers does make a difference.
The Fatherhood Institute runs a programme called Father’s Reading Every Day, or FRED, in early years and primary settings to encourage dads to read with their children “and almost without exception, when you do the things that we do, which are really basic, like get the phone numbers of the dads and text them and write a letter that explicitly says, Dear Dad, we would love you to come to this event… they come. And they come in their droves,” says Davies.
This is echoed by Lynch: “A lot of organisations will say to us, how do you engage with dads, we don’t have a lot of dads, and I’ll quite often say to them that it’s not rocket science.
“We don’t have any secret sauce, you just need to make something that speaks to dads.
“You need to use the word ‘dad’. You need to have pictures of dads. Otherwise, as adults, we self-select and say that’s not for me.
“You know, there’s still mum and toddler groups that call themselves that. And therefore, that doesn’t feel very welcoming.”
Davies and Maxwell both emphasise that this isn’t about masculine gender roles but simply about having two engaged parents. “I think there can be a tendency to over-egg the idea that this is about masculinity or that these fathers are bringing some magic ingredient that comes from being male,” says Davies.
“In fact, the evidence would suggest that it’s more about being another pair of hands and another heart and another brain that is there for that child.”
If Scott can stick with it and keep involved, perhaps with the support of some of these organisations, the evidence shows he can make all the difference to Kirsty.