In search of a different kind of male bonding: They may not be New Men, but unemployed fathers are happily learning how to care for their children. Barbara Rowlands reports

IT IS 11am on a Friday and the small room is thick with smoke. John, 40, his arms and chest covered with tattoos, is chatting to Paul, a muscled 24- year-old with one earring fashioned out of two sleepers and a cross. An older man, Mike, nurses a mug of coffee and stares out the window at the passing traffic. Dave, 31, with a grin as big as a Cheshire cat, is the joker.

This isn't some wayside truckers' caff or works canteen, but a fathering group at the Lawrence Weston Family Centre in an old stone farmhouse on the outskirts of Bristol. The men are unemployed and their children - all under five - are downstairs in the creche. Having played with their children for half an hour, the men are taking a break and having a smoke.

The centre is run by Barnardo's and partly funded by Avon Social Services. There are seven full-time staff and three part-timers who cater for families living on the nearby estates. Unemployment is high and around 80 per cent of the families attending the centre have social workers helping with their children. The centre runs groups for women, parents and children - and, unusually, men. Only a handful of family centres in Britain offer men such services, though more men are now at home while their partners are in full- or part-time work.

Figures published recently by Incomes Data Services show that the old roles of man as breadwinner and woman as wife and mother are being altered by a market that finds part-time female labour particularly attractive. While all the men here are kicking their heels, some of their partners are working.

There are nine men in the group - only four have come today - all of whom are receiving individual counselling from either Colin Holt, 41, who has 12 years experience of working with men, or another social worker.

'We get quite a few referrals from social services; they will work with the family and I will work with the man - usually around violence and feelings of anger,' Colin says.

'We give them one session a week for at least three months. Men rarely have the opportunity to sit down with one other person and talk and for that person not to criticise. They are quite amazed that they can do this.'

All the men who come to the Friday fathering group are hulking men's men - men you wouldn't want to mess with - but with their offspring they are tender. Even the creche workers emphasise their masculinity with Levi's and T-shirts - there is not a pair of corduroys in sight. This is no New Man workshop, Colin says: middle-class men would write a book about it; working-class men get on with it quietly.

Time together in play is a time to exchange tips. Today, 50-year-old Mike Powell is worried about his daughter, eight-month-old Josephine. She's got a bug but her symptoms are the same ones exhibited a few weeks ago by Dave Frampton's 14-month- old son, Jonathan. 'I was worried about Josie, but Dave's boy's had the same bug and after talking to him, well, it's a weight off your mind,' Mike says.

Later they go upstairs for a chat aboutbringing up children, led and directed by Colin. 'At the moment, I decide what we are going to talk about, but as the men get to know each other they will start bringing their own difficulties to the group and share them,' he says.

Both Mike and Paul tried taking their children to a local social services nursery, but felt embarassed at being in what is still female territory. 'You feel awkward when you're one man among all women,' Mike says. 'You can't say the same thing to a woman as you can to a man. Here, it's an easy atmosphere, you can say anything.'

All were apprehensive of the first meeting, fearful they would meet old enemies or do something wrong. Joshing around masks a fear of opening out. Most men, Colin says, are terrified of one another.

Mike, who already has two grown-up daughters from a previous relationship, is here because his girlfriend has schizophrenia. Last Christmas he was faced with the stark choice of either putting Josephine up for adoption or giving up his job. He chose the latter and now looks after his daughter 24 hours a day.

'I know a guy who had his two kids taken away from him and put up for adoption, but there was no way that baby was going to be taken from me,' he says. 'The feeling I get from other men is that it's not quite masculine to be looking after a kid. But it don't bother me. I'm proud of my daughter, the same as the rest of the blokes here are proud of their children.'

Dave lost his job as a security guard, and although he wants to work, appreciates the time unemployment gives him to be with his son. His wife, Dawn, works in a pub five mornings a week.

'At the moment we're struggling,' Dave says. 'Being out of work is very frustrating and I get angry at myself for not getting work. I take out my anger on Dawn. I nearly walked out on her the other week and if it hadn't been for chatting to Colin on the Friday morning I would have left. The only thing that kept me there was talking to him.'

Paul Hitchings, a labourer who has been out of work for 18 months, is here to bond with his two-year-old stepson, Owen. Most of the rows between Paul and his girlfriend are about Owen. 'Coming here has made things a lot better,' he says. 'Before, the girlfriend wasn't sure of me at all, the way I held him. I could've dropped him at any time.'

All the men had either absent or abusive fathers, which has affected the way they treat their children as well as their general attitude towards other men. One lesson Paul learnt was that fatherhood equalled discipline.

'My mum used to say, 'wait till your father gets home' and he would come home and get out the leather belt. When I became a father I thought my job was to punish Owen.'

John Edgar's father left a legacy of abuse. He is here with his youngest children, 17-month-old Kelly-Anne and Donna, four, with whom he has forged a close relationship. 'My dad was strict and I am strict. I don't get the belt out but now and then I would give them a slap. That worried me - my anger - and I've still got to learn how to deal with it.'

Colin holds the group together and all the men have affection and respect for him. Colin, whose own father was overbearingly macho, also has young children, and brings his own experiences as well as his professional expertise to the sessions.

'One of my roles is that of a mentor, and men very rarely have mentors. I'm not saying I'm some kind of New Man or I've got it sussed, because I haven't. But I'm somebody who's given a lot of thought to the subject of fatherhood'.

Their fathers and grandfathers would have blanched at the idea of wheeling a pram down the high street but, Colin says, there's less of a stigma now. 'You walk down the streets where they live and half of the men are in the same boat.'

But only slowly are men like Paul coming to terms with being a primary carer. Paul will cuddle Owen at home, but not in the park. 'I'd feel such a prat,' he says. Deep down he feels it's not his job. 'In some ways I feel I'm less of a man. I much prefer to be out earning a wage.'

Colin rails against the tendency to dismiss working-class men who fall short as fathers. Any father, he says, is better than none. Even if the father is abusive, contact, strictly supervised, should be maintained.

'I think it's imperative for children to have fathers, but both social workers and society would disagree,' he says. 'Society thinks that if you remove the man, you remove the problem, but neither man nor problem disappears. If children are brought up with both their parents they feel more confident in their own identity and they feel easier with men and women. A lot of men here are very suspicious, particularly of other men.

'If my mother saw this lot, she'd say,E 'Where are the women? What are they up to?' A lot of men have wTHER write erroranted to become more involved with their children and have been pushed away - by their wives or by society. When it comes to childcare, there's a tacit assumption that men, particularly working-class men, are incompetent.'

Colin says he has an 85 per cent success rate, whether dealing with violence or building a stronger relationship with a child. Social workers, trained to focus on the woman, should spend more time on men and their needs, he says.

'I could tell you straight off the general issues and problems facing a woman with a child under five, but we don't know what they are for men.'

(Photographs omitted)

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