by Dr John Barry
One of the iconic images of Christmas is the family sitting around the tree opening presents. Although images of this kind are commonplace at this time of year, for some people it serves as a cruel reminder of what they are missing out on. A large number of such people are fathers who won’t see their children at Christmas due to family separation and child custody issues.
In a survey of over 1,000 divorced parents, fathers went on average over three years without spending Christmas day with their children, and travelled on average 392 miles to see their children at Christmas. Another survey of 402 parents by Families Need Fathers (FNF) found that about half the children of separated families only saw one parent at Christmas. In many cases court orders for contact with the child were ignored. For those who didn’t see their children, around three quarters didn’t get a card, gift or phone call from the child. Many respondents said that parental alienation was an issue.
The mental health impact on fathers who are unable to see their children at Christmas must be enormous, inducing in some a state of grief. Very little research has been done on this topic however, which tells us some important things:
- There is a gender empathy gap. In general, it seems likely that problems facing men aren’t noticed as much as problems facing women
- It is the fashion to view fathers negatively. Fathers may see themselves as important to their children’s wellbeing and development, but are often viewed in a negative light by organisations that deal with issues, such as domestic violence, that can result in family breakdown
- Sympathy for fathers is discouraged. The legal rights of fathers are often minimised or dismissed, and sympathy is sometimes actively discouraged, as shown by this workshop which makes the harmful claims that “Father’s rights groups… are interested only in reducing their financial obligation to their children [and] Are interested only in extending or regaining power and authority over ex-partners and children” (p.47).
These three issues mean that fathers don’t receive the support that they should do, and are left at risk of mental health problems, especially at key family occasions such as Christmas. Moreover, we don’t even know the true scale of the problem, because interest in this topic is discouraged so funding is virtually non-existent.
What can fathers do?
Although Christmas can be a very challenging time to be a father without his children, there are several things you can do, including:
- Don’t give up. The new year is around the corner, and things might change for the better, especially if you set out a few achievable goals for yourself.
- Talk to someone about how you feel and what you want to do about your situation. Families Need Fathers have helplines to offer practical advice and emotional support . Other helpline numbers are listed below.
- Realise that you are not alone. There are many fathers in exactly the same situation as you are, and despite the efforts from some quarters, sympathy for your situation is increasing, even amongst the judiciary. No doubt one day common sense will prevail and fathers in the UK will no longer be treated in a way that causes such deep distress.
For further help over the Christmas period:
Samaritans are one of the few helplines that is open right through the holiday period (open 24/7, 365 days) Tel. 116 123 (UK & Ireland)
About the author
Dr John A. Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, clinical hypnotherapist, and author of over 60 peer-reviewed publications on a variety of topics in psychology and medicine. John is a professional researcher and has taken an interest in improving the teaching of research methods and statistics. He has practiced clinical hypnosis for several years and is a member of the British Association of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis. His Ph.D. was awarded by City University London, on the topic of the Psychological Aspects of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which is also the topic of his new book (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). He is co-founder of both the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS), lead organiser of the Male Psychology Conference, and co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health (London: Palgrave Macmillan IBSN 978-3-030-04384-1 DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1).