TWO YOUNG women talking in a park. Their lament takes up a theme of love betrayed which has echoed down the years.

First girl: 'So what happened?

I thought you two were getting married.'

Second girl: 'He said he would change but then I heard he had been sleeping with his best friend's girlfriend and then he got into a fight at work and when they sacked him he came back and tried to get his wages out of the till - now everyone's angry with him.'

These young women, no more than 19 years old, have no faith in fairy-tale endings.

Second girl: 'I'm not having him back this time. He's just so selfish.'

First girl: 'So what's new? All men are like that. I wouldn't trust any of them.'

Over the past 20 years, a profound change has taken place in those relationships between men and women that used to form the linchpin of family life. A young woman may start a relationship with high hopes of everlasting love but that often conceals a profound lack of faith in marriage and partnership. Young women are growing up with a new message: don't put your faith in Prince Charming. Learn to drive your own carriage.

Along with distrust goes a certain impatience. After all, what is the point of waiting for Mr Right if you have no reason to suppose that life will wash up anything better and no way of telling whether your man will stay or leave?

But while women may be losing their faith in fairy-tales they have not yet lost their faith in motherhood. (Something for which we should not condemn them, but be profoundly grateful). John Redwood may believe that women want housing from their babies. I suspect that what they want is emotional fulfilment.

Having a baby, if it is a decision at all, is a leap of faith. A belief in something that will attach them at a deeper level to the world. Yesterday I watched an 18-year-old mother with her five-month-old baby. She didn't know that I was peeping during a moment of private communion with her child. She held her baby supported on her lap, face to face, suspended in a bubble of intense and passionate communication. The baby babbled and smiled and her mother smiled and babbled back. It is in this sort of exchange where Mr Redwood will find the secret of the ever-growing numbers of lone mothers. If love fails with Prince Charming, at least they will have the baby, and a baby, inspirer of exhaustion, irritation and even depression, is love incarnate.

For a mother, parenthood is a transforming experience. She is bound not only by her own feelings but by law and social expectation. She cannot abandon her baby without going through a legal process. A father, on the other hand, may never know that his baby has been born. His link is tenuous and breakable and it is in this difference that the problems lie.

In the past, a father was bound into a relationship with his children by the bonds of social pressure and money. If he walked away be would be driven back, with a shotgun if necessary. Now, if he wants them, he has to build those bonds from the inside, for himself, and often against his own better judgement - which may tell him to run away.

One charming, devoted, middle-aged father described the birth of his first child, 11 years ago, as 'a door closing behind me'. He fought his fear and would never consider abandoning his children. For many men, the sound of the door closing invokes claustrophobia, panic and flight. In the old days they could take refuge in a role that was clearly defined, providing the means by which their wives could do the caring. Love could be left until later, when the child was old enough to play cricket. Today there is no clearly defined role to hide behind and men are confronted with their fear of entrapment.

Sometimes they stay and confront their panic, learning that this smelly, squalling creature can weave spells and bonds of its own. Sometimes they run away to someone else who will give them uncomplicated affection and not expect them to do anything much in return. All too often they run away emotionally, hiding behind work, drink, drugs or their mates, leaving women in pregnancy or in the first weeks of parenthood feeling unsupported and angry, and laying down the foundations of trouble to come. It is in this period, when men and women who suspended judgement through love, find that far from coming closer together, they seem to be on separate rafts, drifting further apart, and unable to find a way of navigating back into calmer waters.

Debbie is 27 and pregnant. Her lover wanted to have a child and was delighted with the news of her pregnancy but now he has become distant; he goes out at night and won't tell her where he has been. She is in touch with the council to try to find a place for herself and the baby. She says: 'Isn't it reasonable to ask someone to tell you where they are going? I feel that he is just trying to make me leave, but if I go he will say that I am stealing his child from him.

'I don't know what to do, but I don't see any point in a relationship in which I just pick his clothes up off the floor. Am I asking too much? Isn't it reasonable to want more than this?'

I don't think it is unreasonable that Debbie should want more. She will probably leave and become yet another housing statistic. She would rather work but will be unable to get the childcare that would make her desire for independence a reality. Her partner will be able to blame her for leaving, without ever confronting the reason why she left.

It is not the Debbies who are at fault. It is the men who are out of step in a world in which women, for the first time, are able to make choices without them.

Underlying the moral panic of government ministers lies something far deeper than concern for public expenditure. Mother love has come loose from the knot of marriage and no amount of fiddling by angry ministers withholding benefits will force it back. What they are worried about is the increasingly tenuous position of fathers in family life. Historically, men have held power in the family through economic control so it is not surprising that Redwood, Gummer, Lilley and even David Blunkett see the solution to the collapse of the family in reasserting that financial power.

But if politicians are becoming alarmed at the exclusion of fathers from family life, they need to look at themselves and other men and not at lone mothers for the answers. What signals does the Government give to men about the importance of fatherhood when it refuses to give them paternity leave? What information do men get about the value of caring for their children when the Government refuses to be a party to European Community law that would limit overtime? How do government ministers pass on to their own sons the value of the paternal role when they work every evening and practically never see them?

Men matter to their children not because of the genetic information they impart or the money in the bank - they matter because of their contribution to their children's emotional growth. A father who is present in body but emotionally distant, violent, or abusive to the mother, provides a contribution far more negative than a father who is absent.

Mothers want more from men, not only for themselves but for their children, too. If there is a malaise at the heart of society it lies in the fact that too many men are taking too long to learn that the world has changed.