What Adrienne Burgess thinks about fathers

‘Bringing fathers in’: International perspectives on father-inclusive practice

Excerpts from the address by Adrienne Burgess on “bringing fathers in” at the International Forum on Family Relationships in Transition at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 15 May 2007

It’s good to be here this afternoon and it’s very nice not to have to tell you (but I will!) that, although I am from the UK, I am nothing to do with Batman climbing Buckingham Palace or other widely reported antics of ‘fathers’ rights’ groups.

It’s really interesting that the word ‘father’ has become so colonised by the separated fathers discourse that I have constantly to explain that we at Fathers Direct have a much broader brief. That we do not focus on separated fathers at all, but look much more at the wider family services, starting with antenatal services, looking at how to help them be more inclusive of fathers.

As I listened this morning to the description of the new family law system emerging in Australia and where it came from and what was driving it, two big worries crossed my mind. The first was that it seemed that the courts were being asked to operate much more of a kind of shared parenting model, and they were being asked to do this in isolation from other services, because all the other services don’t operate in that model. These other services may say they are ‘parenting’ services or ‘family’ services, but really they are services for mothers and ‘their’ children. Now there is nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly fine to be operating as a service for mothers and children (if that’s what you are), but what is not fine is to be kidding yourself and kidding other people, through the widespread use of gender-neutral words like ‘parent’ or ‘family’, that you are doing something different—that what you are offering is a truly inclusive model that embraces both parents as important figures in children’s lives.

My worry is not that operating a shared parenting model is, in itself, wrong. The evidence is clear that it is immensely to the advantage of children whose parents separate (as to those whose parents stay together), to forge and maintain rich, complex and substantial relationships with both of them. And it is clear that in a post-industrial economy, family services must provide support for both parents as carers and providers. No, what worries me is that if the new family law system is to be linking into community programs (which has been mentioned several times), what will be happening is that they will be trying to operate a ‘shared care’ model while linking into programs that really have no idea how to work with men, or with couples; that often feel very hostile to men; or even if they are not hostile, are really sort of embarrassed. They think, ‘Well what will I talk to him about if I have to talk to him? I don’t know about football. What am I going to talk to him about?’ So they grab the child off him at the nursery gate, say, ‘Thanks very much’, and take the child inside, away from him. Whereas when they are confronted with a mother, they look her in the face, smile at her, learn her name, and bring her inside the ‘family’ service alongside ‘her’ child.

The other thing that worried me was what seems to me to be a widespread perception that what’s been brought in with regard to this new family law system has been riding on the back of the fathers’ rights discourse—a discourse that often adopts the language of the ‘gender-war’ and, understandably, frightens and alienates a lot of people. Many people also associate it with conservative family values, and my fear is that anything that is perceived to be forced upon the family law system only or mainly from such a discourse is in for a rough ride. It’s going to be very hard to make it ‘stick’. And we have to be clear that no new family law system is going to work unless it has wide buy-in from a lot of people.

So then I thought, ‘Well, what are the solutions to this?’ Well there are no easy solutions, but I thought I could talk a little bit about the innovative practice that is happening in the UK. You see, I think we all know that policy makers in the UK have historically found it difficult to tackle issues relating to separation and divorce. There has been no real political will in the UK, under either Conservative or Labour governments, to tackle this area. And, even today, there is no substantial and systematic funding coming from government and being directed into this area in the way there is here. The money has been going somewhere else. It has been going into early intervention. It has been going to the hugely well-funded Sure Start program, based on the US Head Start program, which is now evolving into a whole new network of centres across Britain, called Sure Start Children’s Centres, which are drawing together maternity and early years services—health, education, everything—to try to make a difference in families very early on.

Interestingly, it is here that in Britain we have been really innovating around engaging with fathers and developing a much more inclusive model for services to address both parents as both earners and carers, in intact and in separated families.


What we need are services that also, perhaps most importantly, learn to engage with fathers who are not ‘good enough’ parents, and help them to develop their skills; services that don’t just look at fathers as ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ (which is the paradigm that the fathers’ rights discourse carries with it), but which see fathers as human men, who have relationships with women and children that are characterised by strengths and vulnerabilities; services that see fathers as both a risk and a resource (as they do with mothers), and do their very best to sustain relationships between men and their children in as positive a way as possible (as they do with mothers).

What this means is that they, and we, learn to have high expectations of the father role (as we do of the mother role) and that means not giving up on fathers who disengage or behave abusively until we’ve done everything we can to bring about change (as we do with mothers). So whatever kind of service you are, and wherever you engage with families, you learn to look at these men as real people, not as villains or heroes, and you try to build on their strengths and help them with their challenging behaviour.

But what this means is that services need help to change—and this will be the case with the new family law system here in Australia. It is no good just setting out these structures and saying, ‘You will engage with fathers’, because they simply don’t know how. So you have to have a national system that develops standards and targets, and develops techniques, and builds capacity in the field, and helps family service providers learn how to engage effectively with fathers—and also with mothers on the subject of fatherhood, because some of the most important work you will ever do around fatherhood, you do with mothers.

The other thing that I think is really important is that we need to tap into discourses emerging all over the world which have nothing to do with ‘fathers’ rights’, but everything to do with involved fatherhood. So I thought I would mention some international agencies for whom fatherhood is rising up the agenda in a manner that is completely foreign to discussions of fatherhood in Australia. I have been here a lot over the past three years, and I have observed this to be the case.

The first of the international agencies is the Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission meets every couple of years, and it met in New York in 2004. At the end of its deliberations, it urged governments, other organisations, civil society, the UN system—they left nobody out!—to promote, among other things, an understanding of the importance of fathers to the wellbeing of children and to the promotion of gender equity.


In the above address Adrienne Burgess has nothing positive to say and no solutions to offer for separated (excluded) fathers. Any future participation of fathers in society appears to be premised on the permission granted by the “caring professions”. That she is very much aware of the exclusion she practises on separated fathers is shown by her quotes below, where she elaborates on the same feminist-like exclusion sentiments being operational on fathers in general:

“Despite widespread worries about unemployment among young males, it wasn’t possible to find a single school initiative, let alone a local or national policy, directing boys into careers in education or welfare, although girls are still enthusiastically directed towards careers in science and engineering. When the no-go areas for boys include, as is the case today, family services (primary schools, nurseries, social work) this can have a negative impact on ordinary father-child relationships. …. Soon it is thought that only abusers will choose this career and, by extension, it begins to appear as if every man with an interest in children, including fathers in their own homes, is an abuser. …. the more ordinary fathers back away. …. Female professionals usually have little inclination and less understanding of how to engage men….

In autumn 1990, I was walking up the Holloway Road with my mate, and we were both carrying our babies in slings on our chests. This car went past with these young blokes in it, and they slowed right down, rolled down the windows, and yelled “Child-abusers!” Nothing like that happened 16 years ago when I was going round with my first son, doing much the same things. I think attitudes have changed. I think some men are scared to be seen being intimate with their children.’ – Phil, 43, father of two (two families)

Adrienne Burgess, “Fatherhood Reclaimed”, pub. Vermillion 1997, p171.

British men fear to touch children
The Observer, Richard Reeves and Martin Bright, 25july99, p6

“….based on interviews with 1,000 men…. Such is the obsession with, and fear of, paedophilia in the UK that advertisers are being warned off using images of men with children. …. ….

“Adrienne Burgess, …., said the report confirmed the British ‘obsession’ with child abuse. “The impact of some feminist critiques in the early 1960s, which said all men were rapists, was greater here than elsewhere. …. which makes it seem abnormal when a man does touch a child, sometimes even his own. ….'”

Who is Adrienne Burgess from Fathers Direct, United Kingdom?

Adrienne Burgess is the Research and Policy Officer for the United Kingdom’s Fathers Direct: The National Information Centre on Fatherhood, and has written widely on fatherhood and on couple relationships for more than twenty years, in publications as diverse as Cosmopolitan and Child Development. She trains family service providers, including some court personnel, in engaging effectively with fathers, and writes books, practice guides and policy documents. Recent publications include Working with fathers: A guide for everyone working with families (London: Fathers Direct, 2004) and ‘Fathers and public services’ in Daddy dearest? Active fatherhood and public policy (London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2005).


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