I’m tempted to start this post with “I have a dream”. A dream, in which the love for a man or a woman is absolute and never-ending. In which men and women walk as equals, joining hands in their pursuit of love and happiness. In this dream, we conduct our struggles with dignity and respect. And even though love may fade, a father and a mother remain connected in their love for their children. “I have a dream”, these famous words by Dr. Martin Luther King have inspired millions; and they never fail to inspire me. After all, a dream is all I’m left with at this point.
Most of us, who have children will go out of our way to care for them. And this won’t change, even if we decide to leave our significant others before our children have reached a mature age. With divorce and break-ups becoming more and more commonplace among parents, one would think that lawmakers and family courts would support a parenting concept that would look at mothers and fathers as equals and that would help them protect precious family bonds.
Reality, however, couldn’t be more different. Especially when custody for children is contested. In such cases, lawmakers and family courts are still deeply rooted in tradition and foster a parenting model that focuses solely on the mother as the primary guardian. It’s an outdated two-class system that assumes that women, just by virtue of being women, are better suited and more qualified to care for children than men. It’s a system that often turns even devoted fathers into exiles in their own families and leaves them with little else, but to assume the role of an occasional stand-in parent and a check-writing resource.
But do women naturally make good mothers? Is being motherly really a genetic phenomenon, or is it just a role women have been brainwashed to fit into, since the beginning of time?
Israeli sociologist, Orna Donath has made a startling discovery in this field. While motherhood may be synonymous with personal fulfillment, pleasure, love, pride, and contentment for may women (Arendell 2000, Donath 2015), many others perceive it as a realm of distress, helplessness, frustration, hostility, and disappointment (Beauvoir 1949, 1993, Rich 1976, Donath 2015). Although Donath’s study was only comprised of twenty three Israeli women, it triggered a massive public debate. Under #RegrettingMotherhood, hundreds of women have now come forward and openly shared their feelings of being unhappy, frustrated, and overwhelmed by being a mom. Some even regret having children in the first place and admit that they would not have children again, if given the chance of a do-over. Naturally, it’s a heavily-contested subject, where neither those women who embrace motherhood, nor those who regret it, are representative of every woman. It may just offer a hint that we will need to look at women, turned mothers, in a more differentiated light, if we want to avoid that our children are raised by the wrong type of mother.
On the flip side, there seems to be ample evidence that more and more men openly embrace fatherhood and excel in raising even small children. In Norway, for example, it’s already an established practice that fathers go on paternity leave, whereas mothers go back to work. This new and Swedish-inspired parenting concept is even lived by prominent public figures in Norway, including the minister of childhood, equality, and social cohesion, Audun Lysbakken or former minister of justice, Knut Storberget, who didn’t see anything special in changing his baby daughter’s diapers, cooking meals, running errands, and taking care of the family home, while being on paternity leave for three months. Accepting that fathers are equally qualified to assume an active and critical role in their children’s upbringing may seem like a logic consequence of women seeking equality in the workplace; it’s nevertheless far from being commonplace. While in Norway, now 90% of all fathers take at least twelve weeks of paternity leave, and countries like Iceland, Germany, the U.K., Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, and France offer similar opportunities to both birth parents, the family courts often cling-on to old stereotypes and highly-favor women, whenever child custody cases need to be decided.
It’s a complete disregard of more than twenty years of social evolution and the very reason why I decided to write about this. As those close to me know, I have been struggling for three years now to enforce my parental rights in France. It’s an uphill battle, as me being a man is not the only stigma I need to overcome there. I’m not French and I don’t live in France. While this should be of no consequences, especially within the European Union, I was quick to notice that it is; especially in rural parts of France. With that said, it may not seem overly surprising that my first appearance before an ambitious and openly hostile French family court judge was nothing short of a disaster. While I was awarded shared custody for my now 10-year old American born son, I was essentially denied any visitations outside of French territory. For a devoted father, who doesn’t live in France, it was a severe blow and a textbook case of French bigotry and Kangaroo Court Justice. The appeal against this discriminating and deeply un-European order has been in the making for more than a year now; and, as time goes by, caused a rift in the relationship to my son. For the time being and pending a fair and workable custody arrangement, both my son and I will be stuck with his conniving French mother, who has stopped at nothing to interfere with a healthy relationship between father and son.