In the name of the father

Today sees the launch of Fathers Direct, a support organisation for all dads - even teenage ones.
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IT HAS been another bad week for fathers. Tony Blair has teenage dads in his sights. They "will be vigorously pursued" by the Child Support Agency as soon as they are earning, Downing Street declared in the wake of the Prime Minister's stand on morality.

Of course, Mr Blair is right. All fathers should contribute to the upkeep of their children. But the statement was nonetheless depressing in reinforcing contemporary prejudices of fathers, particularly younger ones, as irresponsible sperm-chuckers. Additionally, the punitive language made responsible fatherhood sound miserable, like a prison sentence. Where, I always wonder, when listening to the Prime Minister on this subject, is the aspirational tone that so characterises his attitudes in other areas?

Anyone who is a father knows that you need a dream to get you through the hard times, a belief in a long-term goal. Just like mothers, you need people to herald your achievements. There are not usually many people around to do that. Fathers are typically in full-time work, so they usually do the caring side of their parenting in private, early in the morning, after work, in the middle of the night, at weekends. Often isolated from other men in this task, they usually rely on the women in their lives - and their children - to endorse their efforts.

However, there is not much additional public acknowledgement or support for those wanting to be more than walking chequebooks. That is why a new, independent organisation, Fathers Direct, founded by a group of enthusiastic fathers (and mothers), is launched today. The organisation will challenge those barriers, be they long working hours or health services that marginalise fathers, which prevent men playing a full part in raising their children.

Fathers Direct begins at the beginning, with today's publication of a guide for new fathers, published by Bounty, who will place one in each of their mother-to-be packs. And the upbeat booklet, filled with practical advice, opens with a simple statement to each of the 600,000 new dads who will receive a copy each year. "You are a hero," it says.

To women who are angered by estranged fathers, this may seem an outrageous statement. But it demonstrates what a great opportunity it is to be a father, because this is how young children think of their dads.

The statement also aims to strike the fresh tone that public figures need to adopt if they are to harness rather than alienate the desire that many men do feel to be good fathers. This does not just apply to thirtysomething tree-huggers. It is the same for the demons of the late Nineties - teenage dads. They are hard to find because, actually, there are not that many of them. Only one in three of the fathers of teenage mothers' babies are themselves under 20.

Despite all the rhetoric about them, little is known about young fathers statistically. But the research that has been done, notably by Dr Suzanne Speak at Newcastle University, has found that the majority are "committed to being there" for their children. Meanwhile, recent research among 300 teenage boys in London comprehensives, indicates a belief in caring fatherhood which is equally at odds with public imagery. Next month, a study will also be published by the government-funded consultancy "Working With Men" which promises to explode the myth that young fathers are feckless and irresponsible.

Fathers Direct and the Bounty guide are also endorsed by the Government, a move which, it is hoped, will mark a new beginning in the public presentation of fathers and a realisation that fatherhood is actually a huge resource, not merely a problem.

This is difficult ground for ministers to tread. There is so much understandable anger among many women at being left to raise their children alone that the message is easily misinterpreted. Additionally, a government as committed as this one to getting the country out to work has a difficulty with the caring side of fatherhood. More fathering usually means less working. Far easier to focus on finding jobs for lone mothers.

But it will be exciting if this small, first step towards acknowledging and informing good father-hood is welcomed by politicians. Dads - like all parents - need leadership which offers less moralising and more in the way of encouragement.

Jack O'Sullivan is a co-founder of Fathers Direct. To obtain a copy of the guide, send a SAE to Bounty Services Ltd, Bounty Guide to Fatherhood, Vinces Road, Diss, Norfolk, IP22 3GH