"Dear men’s rights activists, stop pretending you care about my pain.”

My story’s sad on the face of it but not that unusual. I’m a middle-aged father of a small child, my marriage ended and because of my daughter’s age, she stayed living with her mother and my access was structured around fortnightly weekend visits. That’s the sort of industry standard outcome for these kinds of situations.  It’s endorsed by child development experts and it’s in line with the flow of rulings from the Family Court.

That’s a fairly cool and rational way of describing what happened to me as a dad. I want to tread carefully, because there are many men who have similar experiences and don’t describe them coolly or rationally. At the one end of that spectrum, you have a basket of Men’s Rights Advocates and domestic violence deniers who see the fraught process of defining parental access for fathers as a sinister feminist conspiracy.

They’re hostile and bitter and because they tend to be aggressively vocal, they dominate the dads’ side of the public conversation. And because their talking points are ideological, unhelpful and often just self-evidently stupid they make the conversation easy to close down.

men's rights activists
"Being apart from my daughter left me with a similar and parallel sense of shattering loss." Image via iStock.

Which is a problem. Because there are still important conversations to be had about dads and the relationships that they have with their kids after divorce, and about the emotional impact of divorce on men.

Before I go broad, let me personalise. When my ex-wife and I separated, I was still in love with her. She’d fallen out of love with me. That happens. My daughter was two and a half, so not old enough for shared care.  I’d been working while my ex-wife looked after our pre-school age little girl. So when we split, that was the status quo for our new family relationship.


Again, all described coolly and rationally. Here’s how I actually experienced it. First, I was overwhelmed with a scale of grief that I’d never encountered before. It was like my ex-wife had died. I missed her and yearned for her in the same way. That state of emotional devastation hasn’t diminished in the three years since we split up. Now it’s just there as a constant way of being.

Second, being apart from my daughter left me with a similar and parallel sense of shattering loss. I went from being an active parent for her every day  --  reading to her, bathing her, putting her to bed, being a part of every development in her life  --  to seeing her for periods of hours every second weekend.

In the wake of all of this, I’ve experienced significant depression and anxiety. I’ve lost three jobs and, finally, my career. I’m broke and I’ve had what the professionals call “suicidal ideation”.

Now, of course, not all relationship breakdowns with kids involved are this emotionally charged and not all men experience them in the same way as me even when they are. But here’s the thing: Many men do. It is evident in increasing incidences of depression, homelessness and suicide.

The MRA’s are fundamentally wrong. This is not women’s fault or feminism’s fault. It’s really important to just get that off the table. If women and men earned equal pay for equal work, if child care was cheap and accessible as a right and if we still weren’t all buying into the patriarchal cultural delusion that women are intuitively better carers than men, most divorced dads would get more time with their kids.

Even so, it’s worth re-shaping one of the main conversations that the MRA’s have poisoned. The pain that men experience from being apart from their kids is real, legitimate and often devastating. It is not whining or weakness. Nor is it some kind of inevitable gateway to violence or abuse that we should be frightened or wary of. It is a reasonable, predictable response to wrenching change and grief.

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We need to be able to talk about in that way. We as individual men need to be able to talk about it as part of our healing and recovery. But culturally and socially we need to talk about it too. Fathers will hurt coming out of divorce. Many of them won’t just “adjust” to a new arrangement that diminishes their time with their children. Many of them will experience real harm because of that.

The way we think about families is changing. We’ll never go back to the old normal and kids can be happy and thrive in new and different kinds of co-parenting structures. Men aren’t the victims of those changes. But they’re not the villains either.

Let’s acknowledge their hurt with compassion.

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