As Mr Howard put it "The situation at the moment is that the presumption is that custody will be given to one (parent) or the other. What we're looking at is to alter that so the presumption is that it will be a shared arrangement unless circumstances suggest otherwise. That is turning the existing arrangement ... on its head."
Mr Howard gave as his reason for the joint custody proposal the need to get men back into boys' lives. He announced to Parliament,
Far too many young boys are growing up without proper male role models. They are not infrequently in the overwhelming care and custody of their mothers ...
If they do not have older brothers or uncles they closely relate to - and with an overwhelming number of teachers being female, in primary schools in particular - many young Australian boys are at the age of 15 or 16 before they have a male role model with whom they can identify.
Mr Howard is to be congratulated for upholding the importance of fathers in family life. This pits him against the likes of Christopher McLean who complains that,
It seems to be a taken-for-granted truth that boys can only learn to be men from other men, and that school programs for boys need to include a major emphasis on male role-models and mentors.
I think this is a highly dubious and quite dangerous proposition ... I believe that boys need to learn to be ethical human beings, not "men", and women are perfectly capable of teaching this.
Don't dismiss Christopher McLean as some irrelevant left-wing crackpot. The above quote is taken from the Tasmanian Department of Education website as part of its "gender equity" policy.
Christopher McLean's view is, in fact, quite a logically consistent one for liberals to take. If you are a liberal male, and you believe that you should be self-created by your own reason and will, then you have to reject the idea that you are a product of something you are born into, like your gender. Therefore, Christopher McLean is, from the liberal perspective, showing how "liberated" he is from his own gender, by replacing the whole category of being "male" with being "human" and by displaying clearly his rejection of masculine loyalties in giving to women the authority and responsibility to teach boys.
It's not hard for conservatives to rebut this liberal attitude. The reality is, of course, that we are not just products of our own individual reason and will, but that unchosen factors such as gender play a significant role in shaping who we are. In terms of boys and masculinity, for instance, the researcher Steve Biddulph has described how nature normally takes its course so that,
At around six years of age, a big change takes place in boys. There seems to be a sudden 'switching on' of boys' masculinity and little boys seem to 'lock on' to their dad ... and want to be with him, learn from him and copy him. They want to 'study how to be male'.
A more difficult objection to the Howard position has been put forward by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward. She points out that if men want to have joint custody they will have to prove willing to undertake half of the mothering tasks of young children. In her own words,
I think this is a great opportunity to start talking about the role of men in families and their rights and responsibilities. It's about changing nappies, wiping up after a sick child, dreary hours spent on the floor playing blocks. Equal parenting is not the 16 minutes of child play a day that is the average amount of time that men spend with their children.
Leaving aside some of the anti-male and even anti-motherhood undertones of this comment, Pru Goward is making a significant point. If the solution to the divorce problem is joint custody, then men will have to undertake motherhood tasks while they have custody of the child.
Some "masculinists" would be more than happy to take up Pru Goward's challenge. These men basically support the liberal view that men and women are interchangeable, and that individuals are oppressed by being "forced" into traditional sex roles.
For example, a group called the Australian Men's Party has as part of its charter that,
Both men and women have been denighed [sic] rights and given unequal responsibilities because of their traditional gender roles. We should give equal concern to the lack of rights and unfair burdens that both sexes have suffered because of their gender roles.
Or again that,
Masculism believes that both men and women have been victims of their assigned traditional gender roles. Masculism does not blame one sex for the predicament we find ourselves in - as both sexes have contributed to the definition of traditional gender roles.
But are traditional gender roles artificial and oppressive? Or do they relate to the real instincts, drives and talents of men and women?
Quite often, men who attempt to switch gender roles find that natural drives and instincts are hard to conquer. Take the case of Jonathan Myerson who describes his experiences as a Mr Mom as follows:
I'm bent over the three-year-old who's bent over the toilet seat. I'm struggling to win the right to wipe his bottom. He's fighting back and yelling 'I want Mummy to wipe me ... Go away.' Eventually might triumphs and the bottom is wiped. I survey the screaming, tearful child and wonder 'Has it all been worth it?' Is new manhood all it's cracked up to be?
He complains, having looked after three children, that:
after all this bonding and their experience of Daddy as Active Parent, when Firstborn falls over, he calls for Mummy; when Secondborn crawls into the early morning bed, it is Mummy she wants to cuddle; and when Thirdborn wants anything, he wants it from Mummy.
He concludes in frustration that,
All I know is that the bond between mother and child seems dominant, necessary, effectively unbreakable ... the father is in these early years an adjunct, a satellite. (The Age 24/8/97)
Nor is it just from the child's side that the relationship with a mother is "dominant, necessary, effectively unbreakable." Mothers, too, frequently feel a bond to their babies, and to baby care, which is different to the male experience.
Columnist Sally Morrell, for example, felt alright on her first day back at work, having left her baby at home with her husband Andrew. However, on the tram ride home she began to feel a sense of loss:
By the time I jumped off the tram I was in a state of near panic. I ran home, scrambled to get the key in the door and hurried to James' cot.
He was asleep, his chubby fists were closed and puffs of breath came out from between softly parted lips. I was crying by the time Andrew found me there.
I felt a bit of a goose at first for reacting so strongly. Then again, I think many mothers go through the same sort of turmoil and not just when they first leave baby behind.
I guess you are never so close to your child as during those first few months when baby needs not just your love but your most intimate care - the dressing, the feeding, the bathing, the nursing, the carrying, the putting to bed." (Herald Sun 8/9/94)
For women, baby care can be more that just an awkward chore, as it is for a lot of men. Women can find it an emotionally rewarding experience, which bonds them closely to their baby.
Joint custody, therefore, is not a solution to the problem of divorce, as it removes young children from the important relationship with the mother, a relationship which most men will be neither willing nor able to adequately replace.
Of course the current "solution" to divorce, in which fathers are supposed to work to support their families, whilst being banished from the family home, is also unacceptable, as it is not only callous to men, but deprives children of the important influence of their fathers.
The real solution is to radically reduce the incidence of divorce. This, however, would require a challenge to the liberal belief that the highest good is the freedom to do as we will.
(First published at Conservative Central 30/06/2003)