Whose stupid idea was couples therapy anyway?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘So, what brings you both here today?” Dr Rosemary Nutfixer folds her hands into her lap and examines Curly and me in turn over the rims of her glasses. She looks exactly like a therapist – unsurprisingly, perhaps, as she is a therapist.

I know I’m being picky, but I wish she looked a little less like one. She reminds me of my mum, and that’s not surprising, either, because my mum is also a therapist. When I was growing up almost every adult I knew was a therapist. There were so many of them that I couldn’t imagine how there could be enough mad people to go around. That was before I realised that everyone, without exception, is mad.

“We, er, haven’t been getting on.” Dr Nutfixer nods gravely. All of a sudden I can’t remember why we are here, in this sad, grey plywood cubbyhole off Tottenham Court Road. It was my idea, that’s for sure. Curly didn’t want to come, but I cried and threatened to buy Larry, Moe and myself one-way tickets to Rio if he refused.

It’s not that we’ve been arguing. It’s worse than that. Curly and I have always bickered away merrily, secure in the knowledge that we love each other like mad. But recently we’ve stopped talking. Days have passed with nary a civilised conversation in our household. Curly just watches TV and grunts occasionally. I just cry. I’ve been crying almost nonstop for weeks on end.

It could be because in the past two months neither of us has had more than three consecutive hours’ sleep; Baby Moe is proving resistant to even the most fearsome sleep training regime. It could be because our plans to buy a house have fallen through and we will probably be stuck in our slightly-too-small flat for ever more. It could be because we should never have got together, and having kids was a huge mistake. I just don’t know.

Here I go again. I sniff and a tear plops on to my mud-stained Primark padded jacket. I haven’t even taken off my coat and I’m already blubbing.

“First, I have to ask: have you been to see your GP?” says the doctor, handing me a box of Kleenex.

 “My GP? What for?”

“For post-natal depression. There is very effective medication available, you know.”

I am stunned. Is she telling me this is a clinical condition? Surely it’s just, well, life. And I can’t see how medication is going to help. How are pills going to make our flat bigger, or get Curly a lucrative job in banking, or see off the threat of redundancy, or save the environment from certain destruction?

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” I say, pulling myself together sufficiently to nail Dr Nutfixer with a death stare. “Actually we came here to talk about Curly and why he won't retrain as a plumber.”

“I’m sure we will get on to that. But first I really would urge you to see your GP. Postnatal depression is a common condition, and medication really can help.”

I blow my nose ferociously. Whose stupid idea was therapy, anyway?

Alice O'Keeffe's column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.