Fathers' lack of rights is causing 'role strain'

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The rights and roles of modern fathers need to be radically updated, according to research which shows society's attitude to them is resulting in widespread "role strain".

Changes in employment patterns, a legal system weighted in favour of mothers and stereotypical views of men as "deadbeat dads" are undermining men's desire to get closer to their children.

The studies, conducted by the left-of-centre Institute for Public Policy Research, are published today in a report entitled Men and Their Children, to coincide with a conference of the same name starting in London tomorrow.

"I emerged from our research with a great degree of sympathy for fathers," said Adrienne Burgess, one of the authors. "Everyone always thinks of mothers and children. No-one ever seems to realise that most men want to play just as big a parental role as women but the odds are stacked against them."

Ms Burgess, author of the forthcoming book Fatherhood Reclaimed, and Sandy Ruxton, a social policy analyst, found that more than eight out of 10 fathers now work an average 47-hour week, and more than a third work more than 50 hours. While many would like to spend more time with their children, employers often deny them the flexibility and the parental leave that normally would be granted to women.

Their report highlights the fact that one in three children is born to unmarried parents, three out of four of whom are living together. Yet, unmarried fathers have no automatic rights over their children.

"For years men have been thought of in a stereotypical way of not wanting to care for the children, not wanting to be around or not wanting to share the same responsibilities as mothers," Ms Burgess said. "But in our interviews and in the wide body of academic research available, the contrary is clearly the case. It has always been taboo for men to talk about their inner feelings and their relationships with their children. But now those barriers are breaking down and we are finding out for the first time how they really feel.

"The Relate Centre for Family Studies recently published a report entitled Being There in which the conclusion expressed amazement, not that so many separated men lost touch with their children, but that so many managed to stay in touch with them in spite of the difficulties.

"Many of the people who work with fathers have come to acknowledge the difficulties they face. The sights at some access centres, where men who may not cross their former partners' threshold can take their children in safety, are very moving. I was told of one man who had been travelling 50 miles each way by bus every Saturday for two years just to see his child for three hours at a time."

The IPPR report recommends ways of involving men more in the upbringing of their children. They include more paternity leave and the establishment of a national Fathers' Resource Centre to promote the needs of fathers' groups, collate research and conduct the promotion of a better image in the media for fathers.

These are backed by calls for more recognition of fathers' legal rights over their children and improved access.

"We are asking the courts to take more seriously the importance of the relationship between the father and child," said Ms Burgess. "The interests of the mother and the child are not always the same. That is a fundamental attitude in the courts that needs to change."