Fathers are doing it for themselves

Fathers are taking a more active role in child care. But why is there still so little support?
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A tattooed 27-year-old talks about his dad. "He was always beating on us and my mum. He was a complete arsehole... He'd use a belt, wood with nails... I've got a stepdad who's been more of a father to me than he ever was. He's taken us on holiday... he makes time to listen, he's caring. I've told him a few times I love him but I've never told him I respect him. I expect one Christmas, it'll pop out."

The speaker, a member of a young fathers' group in Norwich, had been in prison; but since the arrival of his two youngest children he's stayed out of trouble. "My eldest is seven and I haven't seen him since he was six months old due to my own stupidity," he explains. "If I mess up, I let myself down but more importantly I'll let my children down - and I don't want to lose another child." His aim, he adds, is to be a proper dad. But what exactly, in the Nineties, constitutes "a proper dad"?

Working With Men (WWM), an organisation that offers development training and conducts research, interviewed 450 boys aged 12 to 16 in London comprehensives, asking them what makes a good father. Consistently, love and responsibility came top of the list; discipline and breadwinning, bottom. "Many said they wanted to be a better dad than their own father - the key is how to provide the kind of support that helps them to fulfil that aim," argues Trefor Lloyd, of WWM.

So what stands in a young man's way? For a start, the need to solve the Nineties conundrum that time spent on child care is time forfeited from providing. And the expectation remains strong that the man brings home the bacon.

"When people ask me, 'What do you do?' I say I'm a father," explains Rob Dutton, who cares full time for his two daughters. "But what do you really do?" they ask. "I'd see my dad for a couple of hours at Sunday tea once a month. He worked seven days a week down the mines to keep us all, but I hardly knew him. I don't want that for my girls."

Andy Frances, aged 33, is a stonemason, working 55 hours a week. He has two sons, aged two and six, and a partner who also works. Briefly, he became a househusband, but since his partner earned much less, he went back to boost the family income. Then he worked nights as a minicab driver, but this meant that his relationship suffered.

"I enjoy my job but I enjoy my children more," Frances explains. "I took a day off recently because both the boys were ill. I was almost threatened with the sack. People see me as a working person, not as a working parent. I resent that, because my father left when I was five so I know what it is to miss a dad."

Charlie Lewis, professor of psychology at the University of Lancaster, has been doing research on fathers for more than 20 years. He says that fatherhood has always had a neglected landscape, occupied by men such as Andy Frances and Robert Jones. They have been hidden from view, Professor Lewis says, because "assumptions about the primacy of mothers" were, and still are, strong, while the portrait of the "average" father, failing in some of his duties, tends to feed the media's appetite more readily.

According to one study, babies see their father on average for 30 seconds a day in the first year of their lives.

"What amazes me," Lewis says, "is how fathers are fathering despite the pressures not to." Long before the Sixties, the most constant image of Dad was, at best, selfish and distant; at worst, deadly and dangerous. Thirty years on, newspaper headlines such as "Men Give Fifteen Minutes a Day to Children" and "Feckless Fathers May Go to Prison", continue to be common. Recently, however, politicians, policy-makers, feminists and some fathers have been showing interest in the more positive aspects of fathering.

In June, the Government announced modest funding for a range of fatherhood projects, including work with fathers when their partners are pregnant. But why action at this particular time? Charlie Lewis suggests that the EU has been influential via the Social Chapter and family-friendly legislation such as (unpaid) paternity leave - coming into force on 15 December. The Government is also aware that fatherhood can be both motivational (for instance, as an incentive to young offenders to go straight) and money-saving. Research affirms what common sense already tells us: that positive fathering gives boys, in particular, a much steadier start in life. Employed, law-abiding lads cost the taxpayers less.

Adrienne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed and founder of a new information network for fathers, Fathers Direct, says other pressures are at play, too.

"We have more family breakdown, more women in paid work, more male unemployment. The issue of child maintenance has also acted as a lever. It's initially focused on what a man ought to provide financially, but now that's widened out. What's also making a difference is a desire for more democratisation in our relationships. We're looking for new ways to relate to each other and to our children."

Nevertheless, at a recent conference in London, organised to consider ways of involving more men in child care, what soon became apparent was the extent to which professionals working in family- support agencies are "father-blind", or actively suspicious of his motivation for being involved. Michael Taylor, aged 39, a full-time parent of two boys aged 10 and nine, belongs to a Nottingham fathers' group called Men United. During its six-year lifespan, it has offered support to more than 80 fathers.

According to Taylor, many have complained that school and welfare services exclude the father. "If a man has daughters, he is treated particularly cautiously. It's as if abuse is considered the only reason why he'd want to care for them."

An Australian survey, revealed that 25 per cent of professionals believed that one in four fathers was guilty of violence or sexual abuse. Adrienne Burgess says that a similar prejudice probably exists here. She quotes a community-based survey in the United States, which indicated that 2 per cent of biological fathers are guilty of abuse, and as many as one in seven stepfathers.

"What we lack in Britain is research. Instead, we deal in generalities and myths," she argues. "Fathers are as diverse as mothers. And what we often forget is that more mothers physically abuse their kids than dads do, partly because they spend more time with them. "

What would help to accelerate change, Burgess says, is more imaginative government policies - and greater resources (parental leave that is paid, for instance). In the US, child support agencies also fund schemes that provide education and employment to separated fathers. Deals are then brokered to reduce maintenance debts, to avoid a man disappearing from his child's life altogether. "We treat fathers as not dead beat, but dead broke," said Nigel Vann, in Maryland.

It might also help if government policy were overhauled to ensure that it conveys the expectation that fathers will want to participate in their child's welfare. One other impediment remains to Papa acquiring a brand- new bag - namely, the ambivalence of Mamma.

Studies tell us that, left alone, a father can "mother" just as well as the next female. Still, some wives and partners are reluctant to forfeit parental power (and pleasure) for a variety of reasons, including a sometimes uncertain return. "My partner can take the lion's share of the kids," one woman said at the conference, "so long as he accepts that that means week in, week out."

A positive incentive to women to let Daddy rock the cradle (and take responsibility for everything else as well) is that as more fathers become hands-on parents, so the value and status of caring will undoubtedly begin to soar. And hopefully, some sanity will be injected into the struggle to balance work and home.

For now, the newly emerging landscape of fatherhood has some parallels with the early days of the women's movement in the Sixties - for instance, the sexism and derogatory images. To paraphrase one ad, aimed at women, "Fed, dressed and out of the house. Then you have to deal with the children..." Infantilising father - but where are the male voices of protest?

Burgess acknowledges that the men now fighting for more involvement in their children are in a minority - again, just like those early feminists, of whom she was one. "What we want is always constrained by what we believe is possible," she argues. "As feminists, we were considered not like normal women; but all the aspirations that we struggled for then are now part of the mainstream. They are what every young girl regards as her due. The same process could happen to fathers - given some help.

"If we want the best for our children," she adds, "I don't think there's another choice."