A father's place is with his kids

Bob Geldof isn't the only man trying to win custody of his children. Although the law and attitudes to fathers may have changed for the better, many men still face an uphill battle. Andrew G Marshall examines a growing trend
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"We are the dads" - you can almost hear the charity record now. First Band Aid, now Dad Aid. Following a drugs raid at the home of Paula Yates and suggestions that she is planning to move permanently to Australia with their three daughters, Bob Geldof has pledged to campaign not just for custody of Fifi Trixibell, 13, Peaches, 6, and Pixie, 4, but for all divorced fathers separated from their children.

Geldof, as always, makes an eloquent case: "It hurts. Every day I have to get on with things, but I can feel my insides being turned inside out. Without my children I'm nothing," he said.

Although not a typical case - rightly or wrongly, few fathers have as saintly a public image as Sir Bob and few mothers are as controversial as Paula Yates - everyone will identify with his words. Many of today's fathers are far more involved in bringing up their children than their own fathers ever were, and although this makes the bond with their sons and daughters stronger, it means a tougher decision if their marriage breaks down.

In the past it was assumed that mothers would always have custody, but Bob Geldof is not alone.Government statistics show that record numbers are fighting for their children.

Private cases for "residence and contact" have jumped by 25 per cent since 1992, the first full year since the Children Act came into force. Solicitors put much of the increase down to fathers' changing attitudes towards their children. "There is growing realisation among men that they have an equally important role in bringing up children, even if they don't spend as much time with the child as it's mother," explains Trevor Dore, a solicitor and legal adviser for Relate. "I've seen an increase of cases particularly over the past 14 months. Movies like Mrs Doubtfire have an impact, too. It makes a strong moral point and many men ask themselves whether they are doing enough to see their children."

The Children Act has given children a voice and many are using it to stay with their dads. Social changes have also made men feel more confident of winning. "In the past, fewer wives were working full time, dictating that the mother could automatically give her children better full-time care," says Peter Jones, a senior partner of a solicitor's office specialising in family law in Leeds. "With more women returning to work after pregnancy the scales are no longer tipped so much; there is greater parity."

But would-be caring dads still face an uphill battle. Mark, a white-collar worker in his late thirties, is overjoyed that his 13-year-old son has finally come to live with him. However, everybody else's reactions have been less positive: "My male friends have been surprised that I would want to give up my carefree lifestyle - going out when I wanted - and there's been horror from every woman. Even my mother and sister were appalled, despite knowing what a good father I am." He has been very involved since his son's birth, with night feeds, washing nappies and coping with strange looks when wheeling the pram. A bond was created between father and son that made divorce and separation extremely difficult for both of them. "Paul was about five, he was very clinging and used to grab me round the neck and cry for two hours non-stop every time I had to leave him; I felt completely desolate. I was broke and for many weeks had to choose between food and the petrol to go and visit him."

The first time his son asked to move in, Mark was told he could only gain residence by proving that his former wife was an unfit mother. "She was somebody who I had loved - I couldn't do it to her. There was nothing wrong with her, I just thought I could do better." Now Paul is older, his mother has agreed to let him live with his father.

Some men have no choice but to care for the children after their wife walks out. "Originally I would never have thought of having them with me," confesses Rod, a senior manager at a large multinational company, who has a daughter of 13 and a son of 11. "When their mother left me for another man, it destroyed me. However, I had to keep going for their sake and I've been amazed at what we've achieved together. The kids have saved me; they still see their mother, of course, but it's she that only has them for a while and the heartache of saying goodbye." Rod wants the children with him permanently: "My wife thinks that when she's settled they'll live with her. I know the kids are better off with me, and when we divorce I'll fight with every ounce of energy I have."

The desire to tuck their children into bed every night is so strong that some men are even prepared to give up the pillars of masculine identity: stiff upper-lip and job. When Steve Swain, 34, separated from his partner four years ago, his older son, Graham (now 10), came to live with him, but Gary (now 5) stayed with his mother. He was unable to see Gary and became so low that he agreed to counselling. Finally, the battle for his younger son forced him to take three years' unpaid leave from his job as a train driver. Now Steve has residence for both his sons and Gary has just started at his brother's school.

"Some men are not man enough to admit their depression or that their children need them. They treat them like trinkets. My mates thought I was a fool to give up work but they admire me for sticking it out." Steve has settled down to life as a house-parent and is using his spare time to study for his City and Guilds as an electrician. "Small victories like a distinction in part one keep my head above water. I'm a lot better mentally at home than at work. I'm no longer worrying about the CSA. I'm even pounds 7 a week better off on benefits and I qualified for legal aid to fight for Gary. I miss the camaraderie of the other drivers and get nostalgic looking at old photos but this means that my two sons can be together. They weren't seeing each other and they're now both getting on like a house on fire."

But do children really need their fathers so badly? Judith Wallerstein, founder of the Centre for the Family in Transition in California, thinks so. She trackedformer husbands and wives and their children over 15 years. "Children's need for their father rises with new intensity at adolescence, especially when it is time to leave home. Younger men are often adrift. Divorce blocks them from expanding their adult roles as husband and father," she says

Mark also feels that his son needs him now more than ever before. "It's not just being a role model for Paul. Teenage boys are very primitive - when their hormones hit they are all the things you don't want males to be. If his mother told him to do something he wouldn't, but he will listen to me. There are fewer rules at my home but they are enforced more toughly."

Teenage girls learn a lot about men from their dads. Girls often cope better when their parents first divorce but may suffer as young adults by choosing father figures or men who cannot commit. Wallerstein calls this the "sleeper effect, which leads to maladaptive pathways including multiple relationships and impulsive marriages that end in early divorce".

Although more men are fighting for their children, they are still pioneers. Studies show that almost one in four fathers have no contact whatsoever with their children after divorce. Bob Geldof tried to make a fundamental difference in Africa but once the media spotlight was switched off we became immune to the plight of starving children. Will he be able to permanently prick men's consciences about suffering closer to home?

Families Need Fathers Information Line: 0181 886 0970

Most of the names in this article have been changed.