Fatherhood - the love that dare not speak its name

Forget feminist criticism, men may make better parents today than ever, reports Andy Beckett
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ON weekdays Pete Barron never puts his children to bed. By the time he gets home from work, between nine and ten at night, all three of them - aged two, three and five - have been tucked in by his wife. If they go to sleep, he can rest until breakfast, when, for a few snatched minutes, he can play with them before locking himself in the car to read his papers for the day ahead. Then he drives off towards another 12- hour day, as deputy editor of the Northern Echo in Darlington.

This is the stuff of anxiety about fatherhood. Last week, as in many recent weeks, the "certain sense of guilt" that Mr Barron feels about his children was more widely echoed. The Institute of Public Policy Research announced the first ever conference on fatherhood to be held in Britain, to take place in Westminster on April 30. A book-length report on the problems of modern fathers is planned to accompany it.

Newspapers were quick to reprise a favourite theme. The London Evening Standard identified "role strain" as the male parent's current state of being; "Fathers Feel The Strain" declared the Daily Mail, also citing a report from the Institute of Managers, which found two-thirds of managers dissatisfied with the amount of time they spent with their children.

Fathers do seem to be having a tough time. Nearly one husband in every two ends up being divorced by his wife; she will win custody of the children nine times out of ten. In consequence, only 2 per cent of all families are run solely by men. Then there is the Child Support Agency extracting cheques from those men who fail to keep up payments for offspring they may not see.

And what exactly are dads for? Feminists like Beatrix Campbell and Suzanne Moore question the necessity of even the minimal financial involvement pursued by the CSA. Charlie Lewis, a child psychologist who has studied fatherhood at Lancaster University for 20 years, says: "I haven't found anything specific the father inculcates in his children."

Trevor Berry, president of the pressure group Families Need Fathers, can only cautiously suggest the function of "role model" and "guide". "I don't like to use the word discipline nowadays," he says.

All this uncertainty is amplified by other worries about the role of men, about the collapse of traditional male employment, fertility and achievement at school. A whole literature with book titles like Men Are Not Cost Effective and Fatherless America flows steadily across the Atlantic. As Adrienne Burgess, who is writing the IPPR report, puts it, "The absent father is seen as a sign of moral degeneracy."

This is not a new fear. In 1828 William Cobbett wrote an essay called Advice To Father in a popular journal, challenging a reluctance he saw in his fellow Englishmen to show their caring sides to their offspring. A hundred years later, K M Walker's book On Being A Father complained that "fathers have been reduced to waiting outside" during the main events of family life.

The enforced mass absence of fathers during the Second World War heightened such anxieties. In 1948 the American sociologist Geoffrey Gorer coined the phrase "vestigial father" to encapsulate the returning serviceman's reduced role.

The postwar decades, commonly depicted as a golden age by critics of modern fatherhood, are no longer seen as such by historians of the family. "We have a tradition of fatherhood that is very limited," says Ms Burgess. "Father went out to work and brought back the money." Charlie Lewis, who is scheduled to speak at the IPPR conference, agrees: "In most families I've studied the father is a distant figure, whose relationship with his children is mediated through the mother."

Recent anecdotal memoirs seem to support this view of flawed postwar fatherhood. Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father? remembered his Fifties dad of "minor duplicities. Little fiddles. Money-saving, time- saving, privilege-attaining". Last week, the BBC radio journalist Feargal Keane broadcast the story of how, in the early hours of New Year's Day 1972, he and the rest of his family walked out on his father for good, leaving him drunk and snoring at home.

Given this kind of evidence, Ms Burgess disagrees with the advance billing given by newspapers to the IPPR conference and report: "I don't think fatherhood is in crisis. The problems have been going on for most of this century." Those who suddenly see sloppy fathering on every street, like the right-wing American sociologist Charles Murray, are, she says, "anti-feminists" seeking to push women back into the home.

Ms Burgess may be right. Research into family behaviour since the Sixties, carried out by Jonathan Gershuny at Essex University's ESRC Research Centre On Microsocial Change, indicates that modern fathers spend considerably more time interacting with their children than previous generations did. This improvement, moreover, has been most marked among the working class and unemployed - groups most frequently condemned by (usually middle- class) commentators for their supposedly feckless fathering.

In 1991 a study of long-term unemployed fathers in the northeast of England found that, instead of watching television all day according to stereotype, they completely took over the child-caring chores usually done by their wives. They just wouldn't admit it to their peers - men do not change nappies.

Far from disappearing, fatherhood may simply be a love that dare not speak its name. "Toddler groups are called mother and baby groups," says Trevor Berry of Families Need Fathers. "If a father goes along he's regarded with some suspicion." The Government has refused to recognise the right to paternity leave operating in the rest of the European Union; the actual purpose of the IPPR conference is to challenge just such a lack of recognition.

Pete Barron challenges it too, in a small way. Every fortnight he finds the time between editorial meetings to write a column for the Echo about his children, called "Dad At Large". Without blushing, he describes infant haircuts, crazes and crushes in every doting detail. Aged 34, he describes playing the camel in his local park for a cargo of screeching tots.

"The North East is quite a macho region and some men might not want to go public with the sentimentality of being a dad," says Barron. His own father was a Teesside steelworker who believed in going to the working men's club and not kissing his son. "I believe you should be demonstrative with your kids. I get ribbed about it in the office." But he gets approving letters from readers.

What about his own kids, though? "We have a ritual. They ring me at the office to say goodnight. You have a strange conversation with your son about how he's learned to use his potty, right in the middle of the newsroom." On Saturdays he gives his wife a day off and leads a children's expedition. On Sunday morning he locks his study door and writes his leading article for the next day, then comes out to play camels again. Soon it's another working day - a secret relief: "To stay at home and look after the kids would drive me mad."