CHILDREN / When father has to play mother: Organising a child-care network, learning to listen - a single-parent man has different problems from women. But they can be overcome, says Angela Neustatter

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THE weeks after his wife, Janet Key, died last year, Gawn Grainger, an actor and scriptwriter, learnt pretty quickly how to concoct a run of basic suppers, what to buy on the weekly trip to Sainsbury and which settings to use on the washing machine. But what continued to concern him was how he could replace Janet's emotional input, her way of helping the children with sensitive issues - noticing when 17-year-old Charlie was feeling upset about some personal matter, tackling the business of puberty with 12-year-old Eliza.

'They are the things Jan was particularly good at. They were a hallmark of her mothering,' Gawn says. 'I always had a very warm, involved relationship with the kids, but I was suddenly terribly aware of how closely in touch with their feelings Jan was. I didn't have that. I've done a lot of thinking about what it means to be mother and father to the kids.'

Gawn is not alone in his concern. The support group Families Need Fathers points out that although the number of dual-parent fathers is nowhere near that of mothers, more men are being given custody of children in divorce cases where, for example, the father has a less demanding job than the mother. There are those like Gawn whose wives have died; others are left to cope when their partners abandon them and the children.

This happened to Barry Turnbull, a carpenter. His wife, Julie, left him and their four sons aged nine to 17, three months ago, and is now living with another man. The anger and anxiety Barry feels are close to the surface. After 15 years of marriage, Julie left him a note one morning saying she had left and would not be back. So, having worked full time and been a fairly traditional father, he is suddenly trying to work out what it means to be a sole parent. He says: 'My first thought was I must find women to bring into the children's lives because they'll need that influence. But I realise now that what they really need is for me to be available to them more than in the past.'

He gave up his job a few weeks ago and will try to manage on state benefit. The contrast in their standard of living will be great as the family is used to having his and Julie's joint earnings and now she pays nothing towards the children's care. He says: 'I couldn't see another way. I don't want the kids, who are obviously feeling the loss of their mother, to come home to an empty house and a sense that there is nobody there for them. This way, I can have tea ready for them, help with homework and be there to hear how the day has gone. Before, I was working until early evening, rushing home to make food, then start the washing, ironing and cleaning which I never finished before 9.30pm. There was no time for the boys.'

He feels he has mastered the domestic side 'although the house is not as polished as it was', and the older boys help look after the younger ones. 'It's far harder being put into a situation where the kids are suffering and needing a mother, and knowing that however well I run the house I cannot be that mother.'

It is this feeling and a sense of inevitable failure that most upsets many men. It seems that their difficulties in attempting to be two parents rolled into one are different from those of women in the same situation. Most women, even when they work, are closely involved in the mechanics of organising child care, sharing worries and setting up support networks with other mothers; they maintain this system when they become solo parents.

Fathers rarely have this involvement. And, as Arlene Veters, a psychologist specialising in family matters at the University of Reading, says: 'If the couple have separated, the fathers may not find it easy to get in on the network because of loyalty by the others to the mother. But, without that support, fathers can feel very alone and quite desperate when crises and problems occur. So it is vital for a father to start building his own network.'

Men are usually good at networking in the workplace, says Veters, and they must learn to apply those skills in their home environment. They should get involved in organising events at school and attending parents' meetings if they don't already. 'They can start taking children to local activities where parents congregate and, of course, entertaining their children's friends.' She suggests joining Gingerbread, the organisation for one-parent families, which will give advice and information on local events it is organising. But if men genuinely want to be a dutiful parent rather than handing the children over to a nanny full time, it may mean career sacrifices.

Gawn recalls the early weeks with no idea who to call on for help. 'I spent a fortune on minicabs, getting the kids taken to school and collected again. And, on several occasions, Eliza spent the evening at the theatre where I was in No Man's Land because I didn't know who to ask to help out. But I've simply asked all the parents of the kids' friends for advice and my network of help has grown.'

The help must, however, be mutual. Martin Richards, a psychologist, had sole care of his daughter, now 16, for some time when she was young. He points out: 'It is essential men reciprocate and do their share of car runs and so on. People may be happy to help as a favour for a while and lone fathers certainly get more of that than single mothers do, but there's unlikely to be a one-way arrangement for ever.'

Fathers who feel concerned about tackling personal issues with their children can ask for help from a member of the family or friend who is close to them, says Richards. 'I found my sister and other women friends were very willing to talk to my daughter about things they understood better than I could, being a man. And, once I made it plain that I welcomed their involvement, they made a point of seeing her and taking her out more than they would have done when I was in a couple.'

Bringing in a new partner is another matter, he believes. 'People often assume that the best thing a lone father can do is pair up again quickly so that the children have a new mother figure. But, of course, they may be very angry at their mother being replaced, so that the home can be far more fraught than with the father coping alone.'

A father who feels concerned that his children are unhappy in a way he cannot properly deal with, or who wants guidance on how best to fill the gap left by the absent mother, could contact the Child Psychotherapy Trust, the Anna Freud Centre or the nearest child guidance clinic. But, says Richards, it is also important that fathers abandon the idea that there is 'some mystical female quality' without which children will suffer. 'I had to learn that doing things in the way that felt comfortable to me seemed to work for the children. Of course, you aren't filling all the gaps left by the mother, but how can you do that? The important thing is to talk with the children, make it possible for them to say what is worrying or upsetting them. I think it's also important for men in this situation to let themselves be physically warm with the children and to cuddle them if that feels good. It can be an important breakthrough if men have not done this because they felt it was their partner's domain.'

Gawn is surprised at the change in the way he and his children relate. 'We were always close,' he says, 'but I now feel a great deal nearer to knowing what is going on inside my children; I can sense if they are covering up when there has been a bad day. I have cried with the kids, we hug and support each other a lot, and the quality of our relationship is the bonus in a very sad situation.'

Men as dual parents may not have it any harder than single mothers, but they do have particular problems. Bruce Lidington of Families Need Fathers says it has found some men are afraid of becoming ersatz women. 'I tell them it's possible to be nurturing and intimate in a blokesy kind of way.' For Gawn, the best moment was when Eliza and Charlie gave him a card on Mother's Day.

Child Psychotherapy Trust (071-433 3867), Anna Freud Centre (071-794 2313), both at 21 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 5SH. Families Need Fathers, 134 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3AR (071-613 5060 or 081-886 0970). Gingerbread, 35 Wellington Street, London WC2E 7BN (071-240 0953).

(Photographs omitted)