Thursday, October 09, 2008

Premier Brumby: children don't need fathers

I won't often get the chance to praise Ted Baillieu, the Liberal Party leader here in Victoria.

He is very much a liberal, rather than a conservative, on most issues. However, he did draw a line in the sand in a parliamentary debate on Tuesday.

Premier Brumby put forward legislation giving greater access to IVF for single women and lesbians. Ted Baillieu argued against the proposal, arguing that IVF should only be available to married or de facto heterosexual couples:

Kids deserve the basics. Every child has got a father and mother and I think that ought to be the starting point.

Premier Brumby countered by claiming that the legislation was in the best interests of children:

Good parenting was about giving children unconditional love, he said, not necessarily the family structure into which they were born.

I suppose that at first glance Brumby's statement might sound nice and open and accepting. But the logic of it is not so sweet. If all a child needs is unconditional love, then any kind of family arrangement can be argued for. A child could be brought up without a mother by two men, or by a host of unrelated adults in a commune, or by a mother and her various boyfriends and so on.

What is especially damaging is that, by Brumby's logic, fathers are no longer necessary to their children. By passing legislation which deliberately creates fatherless families, the state is officially approving the idea that men aren't needed by their children.

In a letter in today's Age, one single mother defended exactly this idea:

For more than a decade I was a single mother. My fiance and I split when I was 16 weeks' pregnant. My daughter has never met him. She has only one legally recognised parent - an extremely proud, loving mother ...

Ted Baillieu suggests that the Assisted Reproductive Technologies Bill is wrong to open up fertility treatment to same-sex couples and single women as children will somehow be disadvantaged if they are born into such families.

My daughter is now 12 ... She has certainly not missed out by not having a father.

There is a popular TV show airing in Australia at the moment called Find My Family. On a recent episode a daughter who had not met her father since she was a small girl was finally reunited with him. It was touching to watch, and it made the claim that children can happily be denied contact with a father seem dubious. As the show's website puts it:

So many Australians have grown up without a mother, father, brother or sister, and often that absence leaves a gaping hole in their identity.

On Find My Family, long-lost loved ones are reunited and that hole is filled with tears of joy.

What would happen if men really accepted that their children would be equally well off without them? Wouldn't couples be more likely to divorce during difficult times in a marriage? Wouldn't men invest less time and energy in the raising of their children?

Premier Brumby's idea is best suited to a society in which men have only a sporadic connection to family life, and in which women bear the greater burden of both childcare and paid work.

There are women who realise what is at stake and who are willing to argue strongly for the paternal role. Here, for instance, is Stephanie Dowrick writing in support of fathers:

...fathers matter. And, good or bad, the effects of their parenting will go on reverberating throughout their children's lifetime ...

....[parents] will also have roles that are specific and distinct. When two adults become parents for the first time, the new father may best support both the baby and his unfolding sense of himself as a father by giving most of his support to the new mother: meeting her needs so that she can meet the inexhaustible needs of her new baby.

This requires considerable selflessness. Yet it is being able to step up and play this essential role that will set the tone for fatherhood ahead and for his individual strength and confidence.

As children grow older, the role that fathers play changes fast. Even with both parents in the workforce, fathers still often "represent" the outside world and its values more powerfully than mothers do. How fathers interpret the outside world and bring it home to their children through discussions and especially through example sharply impacts on the way children see themselves in the social universe.

What Dad values and believes, where Dad gives his time, how Dad offers or withdraws his encouragement or interest, how Dad deals with disappointment or conflict, whether Dad is able to be consistent and reliable, when and how Dad "takes charge", the willingness with which Dad takes responsibility, and how loving Dad is to Mum: these are all factors that will have a huge impact on the psychological development of children.

But perhaps nothing matters more than for a man to recognise while he is in the thick of it just how important family life is to him, and he to it.

Consider the difference in attitude between a man who shares this positive assessment of his own role and a man who, like Premier Brumby, believes that families are just as well off without a father.

The difference is profound and is likely to have far-reaching consequences for society.


  1. Dowrick makes an excellent point - fatherhood is just as important for the growth and development of the father as it is for the children.

  2. Of course, IVF is just plain wrong and nobody should have the right to use it.