Focus: Who's the Daddy?

He's the one rolling about on the floor with the kids. The great British father has changed, says Cole Moreton, and he is now being pulled in all directions at once
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Every time a man tries to talk about what it means to be a modern father, a woman will say, "Here we go again. You've got it so hard, haven't you?" So if we're going to discuss the massive social change that is happening, the reinvention of fatherhood in this country, we've got to get that baggage out of the way first (no offence, ma'am).

Every time a man tries to talk about what it means to be a modern father, a woman will say, "Here we go again. You've got it so hard, haven't you?" So if we're going to discuss the massive social change that is happening, the reinvention of fatherhood in this country, we've got to get that baggage out of the way first (no offence, ma'am).

I'm not angry. I'm not about to climb the palace walls in a mask (but then again I'm not being denied access to my children or frustrated by the courts). I don't feel hard done by, I know women work bloody hard - hell, there's a magnet on our fridge at home that says "There Is No Such Thing as a Non-working Mother". I bought it. Admittedly, I wanted to win brownie points, but I believe it. And the other thing I believe, with a passion and in common with the majority of fathers of my generation, it seems, is that a dad's place is in the home.

The new British dad is radically different from his own father, the research shows. For a start, he does eight times more childcare. The father of the mid-1970s spent an average of 15 minutes a day with his under-fives. The father of today is with them for an average of two hours. If his partner is also out at work, that goes up to an average of three-and-a-half hours - and we know there are far more households in which both parents are out at work than there were 30 years ago.

Even when families do break up (the percentage of children living in lone-mother households has almost doubled to 21 per cent in the past 30 years), there is strong evidence that the amount of contact between children and the fathers who no longer live with them is actually increasing.

"The idea of the 'in-volved, caring father' is now culturally em-bedded into British life," says Margaret O'Brien of the University of East Anglia, author of a recent report into fatherhood published by the Equal Opportunities Commission. "British fathers are now expected to be accessible and nurturing to their children, as well as economically supportive. They are increasingly self-conscious about juggling conflicts between looking after children and having a job."

My grandfather was one of 13 children and hardly ever saw his dad. When he became a father he stayed out of the house all day, working or swimming. My own dad was far more hands on, although he never changed a nappy. I'm one of those new British dads who want it all, in the words of Superwoman. We want to have interesting, stimulating careers but we also want to change nappies, go to the park, deal with tantrums and tears, get down on our knees and play silly games, tell stories, get climbed all over, run a bath, tell another story and sing them to sleep. "Course you do," say mothers I know. "For a day or two. After that you'd go mad. And what about shopping, cleaning and all the other less touchy-feely jobs that make being at home full time so exhausting?"

All of which is true. It's back-breaking stuff that would drive me nuts if I did it full time. Work at least gets you thinking about a world beyond the Fimbles. I long for more time on my own and with my partner, and I know how desperately she needs a break. I also know I don't do nearly as much childcare ("it's not babysitting - these are your kids") as I like to think. But at least we both think of it as an equal effort to make this hectic, stressful, entertaining family life of ours work.

Of course, many of the 20 million fathers in Britain are crap at it. My old schoolfriend Dave became a youth worker. I went to see him once and he was on the sofa with his feet up and a beer in his hand, watching football. Great, except his wife was standing up, doing the ironing. She had a full-time job in a merchant bank and had not got home until 6pm. She had already cooked him dinner, and washed up. And she was six months pregnant.

"It's how I was brought up. It's the old East End way," said Dave. They are not together any more. She wouldn't stand for it - and the research shows that most new British fathers would share her sense of outrage. "There has been a dramatic shift in how fathers and mothers share childcare and earn family income," says Julie Mellor, who chairs the Equal Opportunities Commission.

David Beckham was the first icon of his generation to demonstrate public, unabashed affection for his children. Now images of caring fathers are everywhere. So what's the problem? "Family policy hasn't caught up," says Ms Mellor, who is moving from the EOC to run Fathers Direct, a campaign group that on Tuesday hosts the largest conference on fatherhood ever seen in this country. Activists, experts and policy makers will join the minister for children, Margaret Hodge, to discuss how society should respond to the new British dad.

They should rename mother and toddler groups for a start, then teach social workers and health professionals not to treat Dad like an alien. A health visitor sat for hours in our front room, but did not speak to me once.

Then there is paternity leave. We were given the legal right to it in 2003 - but in the first year only 19 per cent of those eligible took it up. This is partly because the level of pay is low, and partly because it is seen as career death - as Steve, 25, from Nottingham found out. "My manager didn't get it. He told all my colleagues I was not committed. I'm not going to get any further at this company now, but I can't challenge him without making it worse."

Without the support provided by paternity leave, women often cannot go back to their old jobs. So Dad has to work longer hours, to make up the money. So the kids see less of him. Why does that matter? Because research suggests that boys and girls whose dad is around and "emotionally available" - whether he's still living in the house or just sees them a lot - grow up happier and less likely to get into trouble.

James, 49, believes that strongly, which keeps him very busy. He lives with his partner, their six-month-old baby and her two children from a previous relationship. Across Birmingham, his ex-wife lives with their son and daughter, who are teenagers now. "I don't see enough of them. I don't see enough of the baby. My partner says I don't see enough of her. My boss says I don't see enough of him. I don't know who or where I am sometimes."

James is a very modern British dad - committed, caring, loving, involved, supportive, and improvising like fury to meet everyone's needs in a social situation unlike anything his father faced. He's not complaining, and he's not about to walk away from it all, but he could do with a bit of sympathy and some help from the law. So who's the daddy? Knackered, that's who.

'My Father Was a Hero' by Cole Moreton will be published in paperback by Penguin next month