FOCUS: PARENTS UNDER PRESSURE: Fathers must bear the load

Men will have to pay the price for stable families - but so will the Government

If the last three decades were defined by women's entry into the workforce, the next three look set to be dominated by ways of encouraging men to be more responsible at home.

Fathers are under pressure from women - and from government, which is well aware of the costs of absent fathers and the benefits of their involvement. In America, responsible fatherhood has risen right to the top of the domestic policy agenda and pioneering states like Colorado and Massachusetts have established fatherhood commissions and campaigns featuring famous baseball players with headlines such as "Fatherhood is a contact sport" and "Be a hero to your child, pay child support".

Here in Britain, New Labour is turning its attention to the "new fatherhood", and making dads more responsible. Last week the Government launched its proposals for family friendliness, including its commitment to three months' unpaid parental leave.

On the surface this is all good news. But there are real dangers that in a culture where it is assumed that the mother is the primary parent, fathers may not feel comfortable about taking up family-friendly initiatives. And in an unequal world, the danger is that these initiatives will heighten gender inequalities rather than minimise them.

If these initiatives are to be father-friendly, they need to be designed and promoted with fathers in mind and targeted at them. The Government implicitly recognises this with the establishment of Fathers Direct, a Home Office unit dedicated exclusively to catering to the needs of fathers.

But there are limits to how far one can spin the "new fatherhood" into existence. Economic pressures reinforcing tradition are very powerful - even if the culture is pushing in the other direction. While women still earn less than men, economic reality dictates that in general mothers will take leave and men will stay at work.

And while we have a scheme of paid maternity leave and unpaid parental leave, the odds are stacked against male involvement. The ideal of shared parenting and joint responsibility remains an elusive, unattainable goal.

This is what Peter Moss, co-director of the Work-Life Research Centre calls the Catch 22 facing the Government. How does it promote family friendliness, while at the same time tackling gender inequalities? How can it act in the best interests of children if it cannot bring fathers into the home?

Paid parental leave is clearly part of the answer. Experience in Europe suggests that unless you design parental leave with an awareness of these economic factors, men will not take it. Culture too is critical. In Sweden and Norway, paid parental leave was promoted for the sharing of parenthood, gender equality and family stability.

This is why paid parental leave is the litmus test of modern-day family values in the UK. It is the symbolic gesture which addresses all key elements of the Government's modernising agenda. It shows its commitment to promoting women's economic equality. It facilitates and encourages male responsibility in the home. It puts children first by allowing both parents to spend time with them. And, most important, it strengthens and stabilises family life.

But paid parental leave could also be a way of encouraging non-resident fathers to spend valuable time with their children. By sharing parental responsibility, they could help to alleviate some of the pressures of lone parenthood.

The lessons for New Labour are clear. If they want to promote "new fatherhood", they need to knit policies together. They also need to keep in mind three principles: children first, shared parenthood and strong and stable families. If they don't, the "new fatherhood" will remain nothing but a media buzzword, and will die a death as surely as the "new man".

The writer is an associate of the think-tank Demos, a member of the parental-leave campaign and is guest-presenting `Family and Friends' tonight for BBC 2's Big Ideas series at 7.30pm.

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