Why bad lads can make good dads

Inside most young men who leave their partners and children there's a Mrs Doubtfire struggling to get out. By Dave Hill
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The Independent Culture
Hear the beginning of Chris's story and it seems easy to predict how it will end. He was just 19 when he moved to Norwich from his home in Hampshire - 19 and strung out on speed. He went there to join a drug rehabilitation programme and, as he embarked on his re-entry into mainstream life, he got involved with a young woman. They moved in together and had two children, Matthew, now two, and Emily, one.

It was not, though, a partnership that prospered. Late last year, just after his partner became pregnant again, Chris moved out, leaving her alone with two children and the burden of carrying a third.

So far, so stereotypical: young lad with bad habits leaves young mum in the lurch. But at this point the script departs from cliche, and in so doing invites us to resist rushing to damning judgements about fathers who leave their children. Of course, we have every reason to find such judgements tempting. In recent years the disappearing father has displaced the irresponsible young mother as the focal social culprit for the modern family's ills. Tory myths about young women getting pregnant to jump the housing queue have been exploded and replaced in family demonology by bad dads who amuse themselves by lobbing spanners in the works of the Child Support Agency.

There is no doubt that too many such men exist. But this grim picture of modern fatherhood tells a lot of different stories, including some which show how many apparently bad dads might be rather better.

Chris makes a good case study, not least because, being a lad with a wayward history, he comes from the section of male society which causes greatest concern. Yet, as the second half of his story proves, he is far from indifferent to his parental role. "I love my children to bits," he says. "I couldn't stand to lose them." Though he moved out of the home where those children lived, he did not lose touch. Though he fell out with those children's mother, he has maintained cordial contact. And though he volunteers the view that making his exit after his third child was conceived was "not very nice", Chris has not the slightest intention of depriving that child or the other two of the things he believes he, as their father, can supply.

What is more, Chris is presently providing more - far more - than is traditionally demanded of dads. He's too discreet to go into details, but says "there was no way the mother could cope with being pregnant on her own and looking after those two kids". Which is why, since the spring, Matthew and Emily have been living principally with Chris - though seeing their mother frequently - and why the child benefit books are currently being transferred to Chris's name. Because of his parental duties, he cannot work at the moment, but says he will try to put that right if and when he can make childcare arrangements. In the meantime, he enjoys the support of the excellent Norfolk Young Fathers Group, and he's also hoping the council will move the three of them to a more suitable home. Meanwhile, Chris's third child has been born. Little Euan entered the world 10 days ago under the doting gaze of his father who was in the delivery suite with his ex-partner's blessing. "Euan will live with his mother," says Chris, "but I'm going to see lots of him. After all, when she comes to see Matt and Emily, she'll have to bring him along, won't she?"

Chris does not pretend he hasn't used "a bit of psychology" to ensure that his links with his children remained close, even straight after the split. "You could say I was a bit devious," he remarks. "She wouldn't have got a settee and a few other things if it wasn't for me." But just as jaw jaw is better than war war, canny negotiations are always better than cruel recriminations, and the way Chris and his ex have shared out the burdens and the pleasure of parenting seems sane. And their solution highlights important questions. Why aren't more fragmented families reconstituted so co-operatively? Why aren't there more fathers like Chris?

Looking for answers means wading into the deepest waters of the family and gender debates and fishing for the whole truth about fathers following separation or divorce. It is not easy, in the present climate, to make a sympathetic case. Attitudes to such fathers provide an interesting example of how radicals and conservatives end up sharing common ground. In the first case, some (not all) strands of feminism contend that men simply can't or won't share the labour of parenthood. In the second, the prevailing view is that, when it comes to parenting, mother always knows best. This unlikely confluence of opinion has influenced both the framing of family policy and the culture of the family courts and certainly underpins much of the anxiety about errant fathers.

Furthermore, it has been bolstered by some frightening statistics. The one most often quoted stems from a government study of lone-mother families conducted in 1991 that found that 43 per cent of children living apart from their biological fathers had lost all contact with them after five years. This has virtually entered folklore as the "40 per cent rule", yet other investigations suggest that the situation is both more complex and less depressing. For example, in 1995 a study of non-residential fathers by the Relate Centre for Family Studies found that a substantially lower proportion - 23 per cent - had lost all contact after five years, while nearly 40 per cent saw their children at least once a week. Another piece of research, conducted in Oxford, found still higher incidences of contact between children and fathers after the same period.

But even if we accept that only a minority of non-resident fathers are congenital bolters, there remains the matter of why fathers lose contact in the first place. Is it because they are bastards? Or is it because their circumstances have made closer involvement undesirable or plain impossible? That some non-resident fathers are worthless pigs is not in doubt, and it should never be forgotten that some fathers use their entitlement to contact with their children to threaten their former partners. Yet other, far more deserving non-resident fathers have no such ulterior motives and are trapped in predicaments which are not necessarily of their own making.

One good example of how separated fathers can lose contact with their children despite the noblest of intentions was dramatised in the film Mrs Doubtfire. In this Robin Williams divorces the mother of his three children and is reduced to being a classic "weekend dad". Although he loves his children passionately, he begins to find their times together awkward. Deprived of their day-to-day company, he feels himself knowing them less well and that the feeling is mutual. Only by donning drag and securing a job as his ex-wife's nanny - the Mrs Doubtfire of the title - is he able to restore the closeness. Film fantasy is one thing, real life another, yet many non-resident fathers will recognise the predicament depicted. Some simply give up.

The lesson of Mrs Doubtfire is also valid because it illustrates that the damage done to children when their parents split can be reduced or repaired if they maintain close and substantial relationships with both parents rather than just one.

Usually it is the father who moves out, not only of the family home, but also to the margins of his children's lives. Some argue that this is inevitable in a culture that is fearful of active and emotionally bonded fatherhood and presumes that the interests of mothers and those of children are the same. There can be hard practical and material factors, too. For example, a non-resident father - or mother, for that matter - living in a small dwelling may not have the space or facilities to make an alternative home in which his children can relax, have fun and stay comfortably overnight.

At whichever mid-point the truth about non-residential parents lies, there seems much to be said for encouraging non-residential fathers to become the good and caring fathers many of them and many of their children want them to be. That way, fathers who fall out of love with the mothers of their children may end up a bit like the beleaguered dad in Mrs Doubtfire and a bit more like Chris.