Does Daddy know best? And is father like son? Six tales of fatherhood, by David Cohen. Photographs by Zed Nelson
Saturday 07 December 1996
Or is violently hyperactive? Or suffers because of your brilliant career?
The following pages contain stories of fathers grappling with such problems. They pose other, bigger questions: What are fathers for? How responsible are they for their children's behaviour? And - nothwithstanding my daughter's absolute faith - how much can they really fix?
David Warren, 39, is the father of Natasha, who is coming to sexual awareness, aged five. He is an auctioneer at Christie's and lives in Highgate, north London with his wife, Adriana, 36, with whom he also has a two-year-old son, Oliver. He talks here about the tenderness and taboo of fathering daughters.
"My daughter Natasha is totally gorgeous. She has nutty brown skin and dark eyes and I just want to kiss and hug her all the time. She is very tender and loves to kiss me on the cheek, run her hands through my hair and massage me. She says she wants to marry me and flaunts herself in front of me, which is both natural and taboo, because she is - there is no other way of putting this - at age five-and-a-half, very sexual.
Fathers do not talk about their daughter's sexuality because of the incest taboo, but as far as I can see, it's totally normal for girls of her age to be overtly, innocently exploring their bodies. At bath time, for example, she removes all her clothes and often opens her legs in front of me. She touches herself a lot. I ignore it. When I dry her off after a bath, once or twice she's said: `Oh Daddy, touch me down there.' I say: `No Natasha, Daddy doesn't touch you there.' And I move the conversation on without making an issue out of it.
Sometimes it's hard to know where to draw the line though, because recently she shocked my wife when she said that she'd touched a boy's willy at school and that he'd touched her pipi. She added: `Don't worry mummy, he was gentle.' Adriana asked: "Did he touch you inside or outside your dress?
`That's your private area.'
`If my friends want to touch me there, I let them,' she said.
Neither of us was sure how to react. I felt instinctively, once again, that it was innocent. But I raised the matter with my group at Parent- Link, where I was doing a 13-week parenting course, and they thought that it wasn't a serious issue, but that we should keep an eye on things.
I'd started the course because, in many respects, I'd felt totally at sea in fathering my daughter. She had started answering back, procrastinating and refusing to co-operate. Then Adriana heard about Parent-Link and enlisted and soon she was putting her new parenting skills into practice and passing them on to me. The problem was that I couldn't quite get the hang of them and we started to row. For example, if Natasha threw her cereal, I'd automatically say: `Silly girl!' And Adriana would say: `Please don't label her negatively'. And when I tried to say positive things, like `wow, you're a fantastic painter', she said it `put pressure on her to produce brilliant drawings'.
This new stuff seemed very tricky and made me anxious and I started to doubt my ability as a father. Natasha, meanwhile, was more difficult and unhappy than ever. I realised that in order for Adriana and I to become a team again, I had to do the course, too. It turned out that Natasha's main problem was that her teacher was shouting at her in school. The way she would express her anxiety about this at home was to throw her food on the floor and create a scene. Previously, I'd send her to her room and say: `Come down when you're ready to be a nice girl.' That's what my parents did to me and I didn't know what else to do.
Now I've learned to say: `Natasha, you seem upset. If you want to tell daddy about it. I'm here for you.' It's called reflective listening - you just reflect what the child is saying and it allows you the space to step back and be supportive. Natasha really responds to it - she'll sob for a while, I'll hold her and then she'll tell me what's troubling her.
It's easy to mock this parenting stuff, but it's easier still, without ever meaning to, to crush your child's self-esteem. Anyone can be a parent but being a good parent is a highly skilled art. For the first time I'm beginning to feel vaguely qualified."
In between starring as lead guitarist and vocalist for Status Quo, Francis Rossi, 47, has had eight children - three with his first wife, Jean, one with a mistress, Liz Gurnon, and four with his current wife, Eileen. All except one live with him at his mansion in Surrey. Here, he talks about riotous family assemblies and the pitfalls to being a celebrity dad.
"Sometimes, when I'm needing some peace at dinner and the kids are running riot. I'll yell: `Patrick! Stop that!' And he'll go: `I'm not Patrick!'
I look at him sheepishly but I can't for the life of me remember his name. I start mentally eliminating who it can't be (because they're 10 years older or a different sex).
Then I'll mumble: `You're Finn, right? Oh someone, for chrissakes, what's his bloody name?'
Eventually, I just give up and shout: `Littl'un, that's enough!'
And he'll go: `I'm not the littl'un anymore, am I?'
And of course he'll be right. We'll have had another one the week before.
For the record, I have eight children (thought there may be a ninth on the way because, like, we did it again and every time we do it, my wife is so fertile she tends to fall pregnant). Simon is 29 or 30, Nicholas is 24 or 25, Kieran is 17 or 18, Bernadette who lives in Canada with her mother is 12 or 13, and then there's... this is the tricky part... Patrick, eight... Finn, six... Kyra three and Fursey who's eight weeks. I don't see myself as a particularly good father, my only qualification being that I love children.
Like yesterday Fursey was crying and I picked him up. For some reason, I'm the only one who can calm him down and... man... my chest expands... and all the money, top-hits and fame in the world is nothing compared to the feeling that I can sort him.
I used to think that people in my career shouldn't have children because it's too `me, me, me'-oriented and kids can have the problem forging their own identity. I'd worry about the stuff they had to deal with at school because of me being in the public eye. You know, `your dad's a dickhead' kind of thing. I told them, `don't defend me', but Nicholas - my second - would do anything to defend his dad, even get his head punched in. When he was 16, Nicholas started developing a `Jack-the-lad-don't-mess-with- me' attitude, just like me. I had to take him aside and tell him not to be a jerk and that I had only tried on the macho bit to be accepted. He dropped it and changed completely.
My worst moment as a father was when my first wife took the children and left. I watched them walk down the drive and I thought, I've lost my children. But before I knew it, she sent them back. My mother moved in to help look after them, but there was a period after that - most of the Eighties, actually - where I was so busy snorting cocaine, getting pissed and looking at the world through the eyes in my trousers, that I wasn't much of a father.
My schedule means that I am away for large chunks of the year, but when I come home after being on tour, I don't leave the family home for three months. I just camp by the indoor pool with the kids: unlike conventional dads, I'm there in the morning when they wake up and I'm there in the afternoon when they come home from school. I used to mock the term but there is such a thing as `quality time'. There are two rules of the house: no boozing until you're 16; no drugs until you're 18. Otherwise, I'm quite relaxed. I must be an all-right dad, otherwise they wouldn't all come back and live with me, now would they?"
My son Marilyn
Jonathan, 58, is the father of Martin, 30, who since his sex change, five years ago, now goes by the name of Marilyn. Jonathan is a retired company manager and a part-time poet and lives in Leeds with his wife Laura, 50, with whom he has another son, Duncan, and a daughter, Helen. He talks here about the trauma of fathering a transsexual.
"It was all very sudden. Late one evening, my son Martin - having informed us six months earlier that he was homosexual, a situation which we accepted more or less with liberal good grace - popped his head round our bedroom door, waved a paperback autobiography of a glamorous transsexual in the air and said absolutely agog: `Hey dad! I didn't know a man could be turned into a woman!' Just 19, my son decided he was not your common-garden homosexual, but a heterosexual woman trapped in a man's body and that he, too, wanted a sex change.
I would have dismissed it as a teenage fad were it not for a macabre, obsessive streak in Martin. In his early teens, he had set his mind on becoming an undertaker, after watching a comedy about a funeral director on the telly, and he wrote off to every undertaker in the telephone book enquiring how he should go about it. When neighbours began receiving unsolicited visits from undertakers in sealed vans to collect dead bodies, it became clear that he had a darker side which he seemed unable to control.
After Martin decided he was transsexual, he began to frequent weird clubs and started itching to leave home. At first we resisted, but he was adamant, so when he found a room in a home run by a homosexual, we helped him pack and I drove him over. I felt we had to embrace his gayness. Within a week, he wrote to us to say that he had left his job and was now living as a woman and thanks for 18 years of life but he didn't want to see us again. The implication was that he'd met a transsexual who'd had the operation and he was going to go all the way.
Laura called a homosexual helpline and they suggested a therapist and pointed us in the direction of a gender-identity clinic. I rang Martin and persuaded him to see this therapist. Every week I'd drive him over and wait in the local McDonald's until the session was over and then try and reason with him on the way home. We also contacted the hospital where Martin was hoping to have his operation, but the specialist told us that once Martin had made up his mind, there was nothing we could do to stop him.
The specialist did give us some hope: he said it was early days and they wouldn't operate for two years. In that time, Martin had to prove that he could live as a woman. My feeling about Martin's sexuality was that he was asexual with homosexual tendencies, but because of his obsessive black-and-white attitude to life, he couldn't handle the ambiguity.
I asked the specialist: `What should our attitude be?' He said: `Oppose it all the way - it will be a test of his resolve.'
Martin then moved away and wrote to say that he had changed his name to Marilyn. He came home a couple of times dressed as a woman. He would swan in like a glamour-puss - high heels, short skirt, blonde hair, chiffon scarf, big earrings - and empty his handbag full of lipstick onto the settee. He looked like a poor man's Marilyn Monroe. Pathetic. To me he was Martin in drag, but to him he was Marilyn. Those visits were pretty fraught. After a while, we managed the odd joke. He would ask me about such and such neighbour, and I would say: `Poor old Fred, he's so confused, he still thinks he's a man!'
Then one day, out of the blue, Martin called and said: `Dad, I've reverted. I'm a man again.' We tried to play it cool but Laura and I were secretly overjoyed. He came home to visit us and invited us down to meet his gay friends and he seemed back to the old, sensible Martin we knew - we were only too thrilled he was just gay!
But nine months later, in 1991, we received a call to say that he'd had the operation. At first we hoped he was bluffing, but his therapist told us that he'd pulled down his pants and proved it to her. I felt sick. Any man would feel horror, but when it's your son who's had his genitals mutilated... My main anguish was the irreversibility of it. I'd been assured that they don't operate if someone has reverted. What if he wanted to revert again? He was only 25 and terribly confused. I feel huge anger against the medical profession for what seems to be suspect procedures.
I have not seen Martin since. Occasionally he phones, and, in a feminine voice, asks to speak to his sister. He says: `It's Marilyn.' I say: `I don't know a Marilyn.' I make him admit he's Martin before I call his sister. He won't give us his address or phone number and he sent back all his family photographs. I understand, through his therapist, that he tried to commit suicide at the turn of the year and that he now dresses as an Arab woman, all in black with a veil to his feet, and that he's taken on a Muslim name. What's ultimately so tragic is that he seems no happier and even more confused having had the operation.
I find myself crying in the street, on trains, in supermarkets. I feel overwhelmed by a feeling of failure, that despite doing our best to help him, we failed. To what extent was this in his genes, to what extent could we have intervened? As a father, you don't think these things will happen to you, and when they do, you find that no one can help. He has rejected us, but I am haunted by the thought that I have rejected him, too: if he offered to come home as Marilyn, I don't think I could accept it. It's like suffering a bereavement but having no body to grieve over.
Laura's health has deteriorated due to the stress and I have developed a chronic neurological disorder. I'm plagued by the thought that on my death bed, I'll call for Martin and he'll come, dressed as a woman, and I'll die with that vision of my son in my eyes."
Karl Eaton, 32, is the father of Andrew, seven, who is hyperactive. He lives in Manchester with his wife, Helen where he works as an ice-cream vendor in the summer, driving a "Mr Softee" van, and is unemployed in the winter. He talks here about fathering a son who has encountered problems at school.
"Andrew was unlike other babies. For the first three years of his life, he slept no more than 14 full nights. We would put him to bed and 20 minutes later he'd be up and rearing to go. Heather and I were equal carers from the start and we would take shifts. We tried everything - cuddling, soft music, reading, even leaving him to scream - but nothing worked. The doctor gave him knock-out drops to sedate him, but that didn't work either. Night after night, we'd be up with him.
It wasn't Andrew's fault that he was hyperactive. He was otherwise a completely adorable and well behaved boy. So it was quite a shock when he went to nursery as a three-year-old and took a bite out of his teacher and then kicked her. At first I wondered what they'd done to provoke him. You know how you automatically think: My son? Never! But when he went to infant school a year later, his teacher would take me aside almost every other day to talk about Andrew's misdemeanours: pushing in the playground, answering back. He was also constantly wriggling, fidgeting, cheeking teachers and shouting out.
We had told the school that Andrew suffered from ADHD - attention deficit by hyperactivity disorder - but English educationalists, unlike the Americans, do not recognise ADHD. Instead, they simply tagged him as a `problem pupil'.I resented that, particularly as class sizes were so big, there seemed no accommodation of children like Andrew. Helen and I nevertheless tried to support the school. Helen tends to be slightly stricter than me, but one of us would sit Andrew down, talk to him and when that didn't work, resort to all the normal things, like take away his computer, deny him sweets. We even smacked him on occasion, and twice we washed out his mouth with washing-up liquid. Nothing worked.
Then last year, he pushed a child in the playground and the child was concussed. Andrew was chucked out of school, permanently. We challenged the expulsion in court, but we lost and Andrew has spent the last 10 months languishing at home while the council tried to find him another school. He starts at a new school this week, and we have got him on Ritalin now which calms him a lot, so hopefully things will work out.
I feel let down by the education system, but I also have to admit that I don't know the answer to fathering a hyperactive child. You make it up as you go along, you do your best. And then one day you find that the one page in the parenting manual that's missing is the one that you need, and that your best isn't good enough."
Robert Lefever, 59, is a doctor in general practice in London and, since 1986, an expert on recovery from addiction. He is married to Margaret, with whom he has three children, Nicola, 34, Robin, 30 and Henry, 28. Here he talks about his belief in "tough love" as the way to father two sons who became addicted to alcohol and drugs.
"The first time I had any inkling of the problem was when Henry was standing in my surgery at the age of 15, and laughing maniacally and claiming that beetles were crawling out of the carpet. My colleague said: `I think Henry's somewhere round the other side of Mars.' And he was. On LSD. It turned out that Henry had been into drugs and alcohol since the age of 12 and that I had missed all the signs: money going missing from the house, bottles of whiskey mysteriously disappearing and the television and video stolen three times with no sign of forced entry. It never occurred to me that someone in my own family could be doing it.
I sought help from my colleagues in the medical profession but the general attitude back then was that children become addicted as a result of emotional turmoil at home, and that if you treat the cause, the addiction will go away. My wife and I agonised for months, but it didn't make sense. Our children had a thoroughly stable, loving background: we'd lived in the same home, stayed married, never been unemployed. I'd been at their births, I'd never beaten them and I was bursting with pride and love for all of them. Sure, I worked long hours as a doctor, but I'd see the kids on weekends and I was as involved in their upbringing as any working dad.
All the doctors could offer was methadone, but I wasn't having my children made into zombies. I scoured the US and booked Henry into a private treatment centre for addicts, but he refused to go. So when next I caught him stealing money from my drawer, I had him arrested and gave evidence against him in court. The judge thought this was most unusual, but in the recess I said to Henry: `You're either going for treatment or I proceed with the charges.'
The treatment seemed to help Henry a lot. I was happy. Then he returned from America and said: `Dad, I think it's time you had a look at Robin.' I was aghast. He said: `What do you think those plants are in the attic? Tomatoes?' Robin had a job as a commodity broker in the City and was going through pounds 30,000-worth of cocaine and marijuana in a year. Henry then turned to me and said: `Why don't you look at yourself, Dad?' At that time, I was not only the senior partner in a large NHS medical practice, I was also the Liberal candidate for Kensington, a professional understudy at Glyndbourne and I ran a 180-acres farm. My weight would fluctuate 50lb within a year. It became clear to me that I, too, was an addict - a work addict with an eating disorder - and I joined Addictions Anonymous, where I've been a member ever since.
Henry, meanwhile, was back to his old tricks. I'm a believer in tough love - giving children the freedom to make mistakes but making them take responsibility for their actions. I told Henry that he had to make a choice between his family and his drugs. I said that ours was a drug-free home, and that if he refused to give up his drugs or seek treatment, he would have to leave. He said he was `orphaned' and he went and lived rough in Shepherd's Bush. I cried my eyes out, but he had made his choice and there was nothing I could do. It was a very frightening time, but the ultimatum worked, because six months later he came crawling back asking for help.
By then my wife and I had built our own dedicated treatment centre for recovering addicts, called PROMIS Recovery Centre, which is modelled on the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous programme and specialist units I'd visited in the States. In building it, I was motivated by anger at the incompetence of the medical profession as well as a sense of helplessness that no one really understood the problem of addiction in the UK, and quite apart from that, we felt we needed a whole centre to treat our own family. Henry came for extensive treatment seven years ago and he's been clean ever since. He's now married, with children, and a manager in the Murdoch empire. Robin, too, came for treatment, and is now a director of our centre, where he uses his experience to help other addicts.
I used to feel desperate about myself as a father, thinking: where did I go wrong? I've since come to the conclusion that a predisposition to addiction is in the genes and that nothing a father does will necessarily prevent it. What we fathers can do, and it is a hell of a lot, is insist on our children seeking help and being there to help them."
The lost boy
Paul Edwards, 60, is chief executive of a housing association in Essex. He is married to Audrey, 58, with whom he's had two children; Christopher, who suffered mental illness and who was murdered three years ago, aged 30, and a daughter Clare, who is now 29. He talks here about his relationship with his deceased son.
"Christopher showed signs of being very bright. By the age of three, he was adding large sums in his head and had devised a sophisticated game based on the ages in the family, like, how old would he be when I was 56? He seemed well-adjusted and happy throughout his schooling though he was prone to sudden attacks of low self-esteem.
It was just after Christopher started university that we had the first real glitch in his development. He got caught up in a Christian fundamentalist sect called `The Navigators' and one day he came home and pronounced: `I am an evil person'. We reassured him that he wasn't evil and he did appear to get over it, but one night we received a call from his local Anglican vicar to say that our son seemed very disturbed - he would pitch up at the vicarage several times a day, often in the middle of the night, insisting frantically on being confirmed there and then, because otherwise he'd be `damned'. We were very worried so we took him to a psychiatrist who felt that he was `on the verge of a severe mental illness'. She wanted him to stay in hospital for a full diagnosis, but he wouldn't accept there was anything wrong with him. And, as he was an adult of 24, we couldn't force him to stay.
He moved back home but after that he was a tortured soul. He would pace up and down and hit a tennis ball incessantly against the wall. It was heartbreaking. I was subject to the hunter-provider theory of fatherhood, so I wasn't as close to Christopher as Audrey was, but I would spend nights playing cards and Scrabble with him to try and get him to relax. After four years of intense love and care from us (especially Audrey, who was always home with him), he started to improve, and in early 1994, at the age of 27, he decided to move back out on his own.
That weekend, we had a phone call from the police to say that Christopher had been charged with disturbing the peace. He had approached a young woman with a baby outside a pub and said: `That's a lovely baby. Can I come home with you?' She wasn't to know that he didn't have criminal intent, that he was just completely clueless when it came to approaching women.
The next day in court, Christopher was brought to the witness box in handcuffs. His mental state had deteriorated alarmingly and he seemed hardly conscious of his environment. Audrey couldn't watch and I got the impression that he didn't even see me standing there. After the hearing, he was returned to his cell and we rang the probation officer who said it was clear he had mental problems rather than criminal intent. I saw it as an opportunity to get Christopher the help he needed. I went to bed feeling that we'd reached the bottom of the pit and that things could only get better.
At 5am, there was a knock at the door and a policeman was standing there. He said: `There's no easy way to tell you this, but your son's been found dead in his cell.' My initial thought was, my God, he's taken his own life, but then we phoned the police and they told us that he had been murdered by his cell mate. Audrey got out the vacuum and hoovered the entire house. We never spoke, never cried. It was only when the shock wore off that the tears and the pain began. And then it never stopped.
At the trial it emerged that this man had kicked, stamped and cannibalised our son to death. Christopher's ear was never found and the mouth of his murderer was covered in blood, so the assumption must be that he ate my son's ear. We have fought and fought for an inquiry into his death, because his murderer turned out to be a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with a history of violence and he was put in a cell with our son.
I walk round with a huge black weight hanging over me. How do you come to terms with something as awful as this? I feel intense anguish not just for how he died, but how he lived. My regret is that I never even had him properly assessed. Perhaps if I'd known him better, perhaps if I'd been less of a career man, I might have recognised the warning signs earlier and had the courage to be more assertive about it. I never once sat him down and said: `Look Christopher, you're seriously ill, possibly even schizophrenic - I insist you see a psychiatrist"
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