Why fathers should have their day

The Government's attempt to improve parenting ignores the key role that men play in family life.
Click to follow
It sounds like a joke: fathers are important for breast feeding. Whatever next: New Man gives birth? But it is, in fact, a serious observation. Research shows that when a father understands the importance of breast feeding, he encourages his partner to persevere and she is more likely to overcome initial difficulties. Whereas when a father is ignorant, he tends, out of sympathy with the struggling woman, to advise her to give up and opt for the bottle instead. So, these days, smart health promoters make sure that dads, and not just mothers, understand that breast is best.

However, there is a wider moral to this story. It is increasingly accepted that family policy fails if it ignores men. Thus, Relate wants to recruit more male counsellors to make their marriage guidance service accessible to men (women staff outnumber them by six to one). Meanwhile, the National Childbirth Trust, which until lately mailed only mothers, has recently sent a questionnaire seeking views of the 5,000 fathers who are also NCT members.

How, then, does Jack Straw's new Green Paper, "Supporting Families", measure up? It looks like a missed opportunity. The will to back fatherhood is clearly there. But the architects of the document have little idea what to do. Consider plans to turn health visitors into "secular vicars". Their job will expand to advising families on parenting right up to school age. It sounds like a bright idea. Health visitors, because they are part of the NHS and serve the middle classes, are less stigmatising than social workers. But fathers learn little from them.

"They work during the day when men are usually out, they visit people at home and typically see only mothers. And, of course, they are almost all women," says Kevin Chandler, who trains male counsellors for Relate. "The idea that they will be providing parental support is very odd from the fathers' point of view."

The problem is surmountable. Health visitors could be retrained to understand fathers' needs. Hundreds of male health visitors could be recruited. But the Green Paper doesn't even spot the difficulty.

Consider another proposal. The Government wants to pump pounds 1m into Parentline - a helpline which will become like an adult version of Childline. The Green Paper refers to the helpline's "broad customer base". Yet it isn't broad as far as fathers are concerned. The vast majority of calls are from women. Most people assume that anything with "parent" in the title is for mothers. So, if the Government wants men to ring up, Parentline needs big changes. "Father" will have to be included in the helpline title. Men must be employed to answer calls and all staff will need to be trained to understand dads' issues. Again, this problem is overlooked.

The consultation document praises the "Bounty" pack, a gift bag of nappies, creams and other baby ware, provided free in maternity wards. Take-up is very high, providing excellent access to parents, says the document. Wrong again. The pack does not address fathers in any way. But it could be used to contact every dad. "The message would immediately get through to them and the majority of mothers," says Duncan Fisher, fatherhood spokesman of the National Childbirth Trust, "that fathers have a distinct and recognised role to play role to play."

These examples highlight a key flaw in the Green Paper. It assumes you can plan for this all-encompassing group called "parents" without thinking about gender. "The Green Paper should be saying clearly that there is a general cultural problem, which is reflected in family services," continues Duncan Fisher. "The culture assumes that fathers are not interested or that they can look after themselves. You can see it in the behaviour of health visitors, in post-natal care, in the maternity wards of hospitals, right through family services."

Adrienne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed and the leading British researcher into fatherhood, talks about "father blindness" in help for families. "I recently came across a lone mother being counselled by a social worker, who was trying to help her deal with her son's learning difficulties. The father was better educated than the mother and was very committed to keeping up contact.

"He took his son out three times a week. Yet the social worker did not consider including him in the parenting counselling." "Father blindness" is also reflected in the Green Paper's discussion of family-friendly work. It talks about it affecting parents in general. But it is much more an issue for fathers. The vast majority of women work in jobs offering flexible practices, whereas most men do not, according to "Social Focus on Women and Men", published last week by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Once ministers start thinking imaginatively about fathers, they could come up with lots of ideas for strengthening the family. So, instead of dispatching health visitors to toddler groups (which fathers rarely attend because they are working) you could send parenting advisors to homework centres. "They are ideal for fathers, particularly those not living with their child." says Adrienne Burgess. "They take place later in the day when men aren't working and aren't embarrassed to be seen out with their children."

Meanwhile, the New Deal offers great opportunities to retrain thousands of unemployed men in child care services and so make them father friendly. The document speaks only of using it to get lone parents ( i.e. mothers) into work.

The authors of the Green Paper are vaguely aware of shortfalls in their thinking. The Ministerial Group on the Family, headed by Jack Straw, plans to focus next on "the needs of young men and the support available to fathers".

This is a step forward. The document is also an advance on the Green Paper on Child care earlier this year. Harriet Harman's initiative was supposed to be about children, but in fact was largely about getting mothers into work. So fathers' interests were ignored. This latest Green Paper genuinely seeks to encourage adults to create a stable environment for children. Once policy-makers focus their thinking properly on children, they will inevitably recognise how much can be achieved by supporting fathers. The new National Family and Parenting Institute's first task - mapping what services currently exist - should identify the deficit in help for fathers. If the institute does its job properly, it will show that we know virtually nothing about dads. We don't know how many there are, what they do, what they would like to do, what potential they have.

An important reason for this ignorance is that fatherhood is, unlike motherhood, largely conducted in private, undertaken before and after work at home and at the weekends when families often retreat into themselves. Because there is so little knowledge of what we do, many fathers work quietly away in their domestic roles under the shadow of outdated and negative media stereotypes which belie their lives.

But fathers have important allies whose public power is growing - children. "From a child's point of view," says Adrienne Burgess, "there is no such thing as a one parent family. In a child's mental landscape there are always two parents, for good or for ill." The Government's initiative on the family is only a stumbling first step towards seeing the world from a child's eye.