Sinead Moriarty: Law must recognise fathers' rights to be in children's lives
Published 05/11/2013 | 02:00
We often hear that marriage is irrelevant these days. We're told that it's a dying practice. Living together is so much simpler, less complicated. If you break up, you just pack up your bags and leave. No messy divorce.
It all sounds so civilised, but what happens when you have a baby? Men be warned, unless you get married, you will have no legal rights to your children. If you want to see them but your ex disagrees, you'll have to go to court.
In accordance with Irish law, unmarried fathers currently have no automatic legal rights to their children. Even if the father's name is on the birth certificate, he has no legal rights. A name on a birth cert does not mean that a father will have guardianship of his child.
Unmarried fathers still have to go to court to apply for guardianship. For fathers who want to be involved it's their only choice. Not having guardianship means that the father is not involved in the decision-making process of his child's life. Without guardianship, the father doesn't have the right to seek medial treatment for his child or query the educational or religious upbringing of his own child.
Nor can he apply for a passport for his child or decide where he will live. Many are the broken-hearted fathers who have had to wave their children off when the mothers decided to move abroad.
So there is no doubt that fathers across the land will be celebrating the news that Justice Minister Alan Shatter is preparing legislation that will give unmarried fathers automatic guardianship of the child if they have lived with the mother for a year before the birth.
This is good news for fathers who want to be involved in their child's life. Until now, the mother has held all the cards in this aspect of the law. She is automatically the parental guardian and therefore the decision maker.
We've seen frustrated fathers going to great lengths to promote their cause. The UK-based group Fathers 4 Justice made headlines around the world when member Jason Hatch scaled the walls of Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman. Fathers are fed up having no rights and are fighting back.
We can understand why unmarried fathers are feeling frustrated. But when we look at the statistics showing that one in four families with children in Ireland is now a one-parent family and only 13.5pc of one-parent families are headed by a father, it's no wonder that mothers are still considered the primary carers.
Many of those 86.5pc of mothers have been left, abandoned and cast aside while the father walks out to pastures new. It's those mothers who are left, literally, holding the baby. It's up to the mothers to raise the children. Being a single parent brings added stress and pressure to the job of parenting. Making all of the decisions for a child on your own is a heavy burden to bear.
But does this mean that mothers should have all the rights? Doesn't equality work both ways? If a father wants to be involved, surely he should be allowed to.
The law needs to protect both sides. Willing fathers should be automatic guardians to their children just as errant fathers who refuse to provide for their children should be held accountable and forced to pay up.
The bottom line should always be the welfare of the child. And as research has shown over and over again, involved fathers bring positive benefits to their children. So perhaps it's time for the law to recognise the fathers who want to be part of their children's lives and allow them to nurture them.
As Sigmund Freud said: "I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection."