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Time for mums to welcome dads to the family

Fathers are neglecting their children, according to a new report. But are mothers making it too easy for them to do so?
SO, FORGET the New Man, the Hornbyesque hero wrapped into his son's life, who does battle with his wife to change nappies, get up in the night, and take junior to the park. The real picture is that men are failing their children, spending in some cases no more than 15 minutes a day with them. That was the statistic picked up and focused upon at the Barnardos Parenting Matters conference last week .

It was "demonise dad" time again, the inference being that mothers are stressed-out, exhausted stoics who pay a high price for bearing the children of men - men who want fun in the sack, and offspring to prove their manhood, but no part in the day-to-day slog of bringing them up.

Now, I'm not in a position to argue with the statistics. Indeed, they echo a conversation I had with child psychologist Peter Gilchrist recently, when he described a father with a high-powered career and all sorts of other "important" activities in his life, who was worried that he didn't have much of a bond with his 10-year-old son. Gilchrist suggested that the man put aside every Saturday afternoon to go out together with his son. At this, the man turned pale. "Oh, I don't think I can find that kind of time," he said.

What I do argue with is the knee-jerk response that almost always follows the "proof" of paternal negligence. That is, the hand-wringing on behalf of mothers who are left holding the baby, taming the toddler, organising junior's social life, sorting out school crises, dishing out discipline, taking on adolescent arguments and dealing with all the other physically exhausting, emotionally flattening aspects of child-rearing.

All of this is, certainly, a part of the parenting picture, and there's no doubt that doing it in partnership with the father usually makes it easier. But the point is, it's not the only picture. Ask almost any parent - and that includes lone parents who must do everything - and yes, you will hear the downside, the tough bits, but you will also hear about the huge pleasure, the satisfaction, the joyous love like no other that comes from being close to your child. It is a bond that comes at a price, but, unless they have the kinds of problems with their children that mitigate against any kind of good feeling, mothers that I've met from all social classes and all parts of the economic slippery pole have been united in sharing the feeling of having being blessed by having their children.

So why, if children are sufficiently rewarding for women that they will often make considerable sacrifices for them, is it so different for men? OK, I know the arguments about cultural patterns and patriarchal structures that pre-programme men to distance themselves from children. And, of course, the fact that women actually bear children, developing a relationship with them from the moment of conception, must make a difference. Many men I have spoken to talk of how excluded they feel during pregnancy, which makes it all the more important that we welcome them into the labour room - there is evidence that men who connect with their children from that moment are likely to be more closely bonded to them than those who do not.

Yet I know that, much as I welcomed the child-rearing effort put in by my son's father, I always saw it as him doing his share - and quite right, too. But if I'm honest - and I think feminists have to be honest on these matters - I never felt we were quite equal. I, as the mother, the one with the biological bond, had primacy. And I have met many mothers whose behaviour, if not their words, indicates the same.

It is something writer Ros Coward takes on in her new book Sacred Cows - Is Feminism Relevant to the New Millennium?, which will be published by HarperCollins in July. She says: "I have noticed that women are really quite reluctant to give up the central role of mothering. They have wanted to work, to have external activities, so they need men to do their share of the work and to be involved with their children, but they haven't wanted to give up their central emotional place. If we are honest, the only role assigned to men is the supporting role."

And Coward poses the question that I have also found myself addressing with regard to men's "leaving" children while still living with them in the family. Coward says: "Perhaps women should ask themselves not why men bunk off, but why have they found it so easy to go?"

It's not fashionable for feminists to turn the spotlight on what may be their own collusion in the troubled business of dads and kids, but it seems to me vital that we do this. Because as long as we are hanging on to the need for supremacy in our children's lives, we are keeping men out at a psychic level, and thus paying the price.

But that is not all. I believe that a bit of public relations is in order. Instead of telling men that they are bad boys for not doing their share of the work, we should invite them to consider the other truth: that they are missing out big time; that changing a nappy is also an opportunity for a gorgeous tickle-and-giggle session; that playing peek-a-boo in the park, picking a kid up from school and hearing their confidences, that grappling with a sulky adolescent and finding the way through, can also be far more enjoyable than climbing one more rung up the success ladder.

What we need to show is that we have something they haven't, but that they are very welcome to come and join us if they'll make the necessary adjustments, as plenty of younger dads demonstrably are. Perhaps then we'll hear at the next conference that men are shoving their partners out of the way to get at junior.