I became a father in 1984, a time when New Man, let alone New Dad, had yet to be born. Both were gestating, though, as were their relatives in the troubled family of millennial preoccupations such as the "crisis of masculinity", the "breakdown of the traditional family" and the implications of women "having it all". In the ensuing years, during which I would become dad to a further five children, this treacherous cultural landscape has been the setting for much of my family life. Now, at the age of 48, I ought to know my way around it. Well, let me hold my head and see...
What are fathers for? This remains the question at the heart of all the fretting, quarrelling and raging about parenting, children and society over the past quarter century and more. For some, the answer has remained one of simple common sense, a matter of the natural order being restored. Through this window on the world a father is seen primarily as a breadwinner and, in being so, the guarantor of family stability and a role model for boys in particular. As a parent he is hands-on only for boisterous play and when authoritarian discipline seems required. If only he could be restored to his rightful position, his champions cry, many of our gravest social ailments would be cured.
Opposite stands a blurrier paternal vision, the dad whose presence at the birth is but the start of an involvement in school runs and story-reading, nurturing and Being There. To his supporters he is the future, an emblem of equality and reformed maleness. To his critics he is, variously an aberration, a wimp and a myth.
I'd guess that like most fathers these days, I've floated somewhere between these poles. At first I was fairly Old Dad in being the chief earner and secondary carer for my first three, but became New in a hurry after their mother left me and for a two-year period I learned to look after them alone for half the week.
Now, gratefully re-partnered, and with a six-strong brood ranging in age from 21 years to four, collecting the little ones from school, cooking big dinners and holding friends' birthday details in my head is as much part of life's routine as playing football with them. I also have my fair share of regrets: not listening enough, not being thoughtful enough, losing my temper in times of stress. But maybe the fact that I beat myself up for this also does me a little credit. Mothers, after all, have always known that family life is tough as well as tender, as much about negotiation as harmony. Discovering these things, not fleeing from them, knowing and loving our children, warts and all: maybe that is what fathers are for.
THE TEENAGE DAD
Aaron Nixon, 16, from east London, was 15 when his son Bobbey was born
I met Sarah when I was 13 and she was 16. She lived in the next road and she was a pretty good laugh. We'd been together nearly two years when she got pregnant. We'd been sleeping together since I was 13, but as Sarah was on the Pill, we thought we were safe. I was shocked but Sarah was happy, so I said she could tell my mum. I thought she'd go mad. At first she had a go, but after a while she was really good about it. I was determined that Sarah and the baby would live with me, and mum said Sarah could move in.
While Sarah was pregnant, I was scared, but I never thought that it would ruin my life. I just knew I was going to stay to be with the baby. My dad left when I was nine, and I'm not going to do that to my child.
Sarah had Bobbey in Newham General Hospital on July 16 last year. I was at the birth - it was disgusting! When he was born I felt shocked, it didn't seem real that I could be his dad. But he was beautiful. We named him Bobbey, after Bobby Zamora, the West Ham player.
From the beginning, I got up to Bobbey in the night and helped to look after him. It was strange at first, he was so little and delicate, it felt like I would break him. It was very tiring and we got no sleep. I still thought Bobbey was fantastic, the best thing in my life.
I'm at college, learning dry lining so I can go into the building trade. Newham Council's teenage pregnancy worker helped me get the place. Sarah is training part time as a hairdresser's apprentice. There isn't a strict age to be a dad. If I was old enough to get Sarah pregnant, then I was old enough to be his dad. All the time I'm home I spend with Bobbey. I don't go out much but I don't miss it - my mates come round here. I'm really looking forward to teaching Bobbey to ride motorbikes, play football and that. I want him to do well at school, better than I did. But I don't want another baby until I've made a lot of money - I want my kids to have everything.
Me, Sarah and Bobbey went out to Colchester Zoo the other day, and it was one of the best days ever. He was pointing at all the animals, and smiling. I know people were probably thinking I was his big brother, not his dad, but I don't care. What's the best thing about Bobbey? Everything.
THE STAY-AT-HOME DAD
Matt Mullender, 24, from Sutton, Surrey, is a stay-at-home dad to Mitch, 15 weeks old
Fatherhood is fascinating and I feel privileged to be a home dad. Every day Mitch makes a new noise, a new face, or starts to recognise different things and I feel so lucky to be able to witness it all first-hand.
Before Mitch was born I was doing odd jobs like landscaping, which gave me enough time to do my music, whereas Zoe's work as a photographer was a lot more routine and better paid. When we found out she was pregnant we agreed it would be a good idea for her to go back to work and for me to stay at home.
Zoe went back to work after a month, so changing from breast to bottle was the main difference, but now we're settled into a good routine. Zoe leaves the house by about half-eight in the morning and I give Mitch his first bottle when he wakes up. Then he has a snooze around mid morning, which gives me a chance to do the housework.
Initially it was quite difficult not having somebody to lean on during the day, because when they're that young you tend to rely on someone just to give you a hand with the little things. It can also get pretty lonely. We've been to a few post-natal classes and there are hardly any dads. It can be a bit intimidating hanging about with a load of women talking and laughing about their husbands - I know more about women now! It would be nice to see a few more men and to see signs for "parent and baby" groups as opposed to "mother and baby" groups. The worm is turning, but it's a very slow.
I've learned to be very organised - when to do nappy changes, make bottles up, washing, housework. It can be scary, but panicking about these little things is part of learning to be a parent. You've got to focus on the baby and everything else falls into place.
The greatest thing is showing him off; going out shopping with a real sense of pride. He's a good boy. I try to sit with my guitar as he's having a snooze and play quietly but it's sometimes quite difficult to concentrate because I can't take my eyes off him.
I may not be earning the crust, but I am doing something equally as important to me. Some blokes may think I'm under the thumb, but that's not the case. If anything looking after the baby makes me feel even more of a man.
Neal Bridson, 31 from Bow, east London, is step-dad to Mia, six. He and Mia's mother, Sarah, are getting married this week
I met Sarah two years ago. She worked just around the corner. I knew she had a daughter - she would sometimes bring Mia into Duffer, the store I manage, and say hello and I thought she was cute. But when we started seeing each other it was something I had to spend time thinking about. Sarah was very cautious, she would make a point of not inviting boyfriends back to the house until she felt sure where the relationship was going.
We didn't start living together for a while, as I wanted to get to know Mia first, and for her to get to know me. When we got engaged I did freak out a bit. Was I up to raising a child? But all I had to do was to imagine losing both of them - that was enough to concrete the situation.
Mia sees her natural father twice a year - on her birthday and at Christmas. They get along fine. He has a relationship that I will never be intruding upon. His parents spend time with Mia also. Mia has never had that permanent father figure around, and there have been behavioural repercussions. When I moved in Mia started to become very clingy - she was searching for this father figure - but now she knows that I am doing the job of a father, but I am not her father.
I am happy being her step-dad - we live together as a family and I tell her off and I treat her. She does call me daddy sometimes and it makes me go all gooey-eyed. But she does sometimes call me Neal, and more often than I'd like, "Poo Face". She is an amazing kid. She tells me her secrets - who she's tripped up in the playground, that kind of thing. I would be devastated if I lost her.
When you walk into a kid's life it is all about compromise and swallowing one's pride. You need to expect a few kicks in the guts. When you are not actually the father, it takes a while to know how to deal with stuff, but when you become that family unit, you have to treat her as you would your daughter. And that takes time. You need to learn when to give her a telling off, and when to give her a cuddle.
There are times when you don't want to be there, when all your mates are going out partying and you have to stay home. But the bottom line is that I would rather be at home with my girls.
THE SECOND-TIME ROUNDER
Jim Parton, 46, a writer from London, is dad to Gen, 19, from his first marriage and Jozefina, 14 months, from his second marriage. His wife, Anna, 32, is pregnant
I hesitate to say that when you have a second family that you "know it all" but, to a certain extent, I think it's true. Bringing up your first child is a very intense experience because it's the most exciting thing that's ever happened to you and you pay attention to every detail, whereas the second time round it's a lot more instinctive. All my friend's children are leaving university, and they're buying second homes and doing whatever people do when they've got the kids off their hands, with that extra time and money. Starting a new family at my age, I'll have young people around me until I'm well into my sixties.
When Anna discovered she was pregnant with Jozefina she was thrilled, whereas I took it more in my stride. As a father I know instinctively what to do - when they're tired, when they're about to start bawling, and I've done my bit with nappy changing. But I've always thought that my role kicks in when they get to about nine months. I've always been that bloke at a party with children hanging off him; they climb all over me, I turn them upside down, organise a game of football on the lawn. That's the kind of father I am.
Jozefina is just glorious; she's sweet with this big smile. Girls are so different - it's amazing to see the way she flirts with her dad.
I was very close to Gen, who was four, when my first marriage split up. There was an acrimonious custody battle, which I lost, and when he was 10 his mother took him back to Japan. We managed to make things work for a good while with regular visits, but I haven't seen Gen for two years. I send him emails and he replies occasionally. I think it's a question of the conflict between his parents and he's decided to keep his head above it. It's gutting, eviscerating, to have no control or day-to-day knowledge over your child's life; but you have to learn to live with it. Mostly I file those feelings away somewhere, but every so often something happens that catches you off balance and you remember how much you miss your son. As an absent father, the most important thing to do is demonstrate your commitment at every opportunity.
THE SINGLE DAD
Ian Mucklejohn, 59, from Newbury, Berkshire, is a single dad to triplets Piers Thomas, Ian Aidan and Laars Conrad, aged five, who he had with a surrogate mother
Being a single parent means I have to work doubly hard. The other day, one of them asked, "Where's my mummy?" and when I explained about the seed and the egg, he asked, "Where's my toothbrush?" As yet there is no conception of what it means to have been born through surrogacy, half their friends are from single-parent families so they don't see any real difference. I've given them life; I want them to be rich and fulfilled and, when I see my boys laughing and enjoying themselves and loving being alive, I'm glad I did what I did.
I was my father's long-term carer and cultivating a long-term relationship with a partner was extremely difficult. I've always thought of myself as being a family person and had things been different I would have followed the normal route, but meeting somebody was not possible so I decided I would have the children first then perhaps meet somebody later. I found an agency in California and was put in touch with a surrogate called Tina, with whom I struck up a super relationship. The egg donor also looked great - just the sort of woman who I would have noticed across a crowded room. I was thrilled when we discovered Tina was pregnant with triplets.
I wasn't there for the birth, but seeing the boys for the first time was incredible. I was amazed by their tiny little hands, their tiny little faces, little bits of me. It's been a lot of work, a lot of compromise and a lot of sharing. As they've got different interests I frequently find myself playing football, bat and ball and basketball simultaneously - which is hugely amusing for them. It keeps me very fit.
I don't do chaos; I learnt from nannies that discipline, order and routine are terribly important. Children thrive on it. We always have our meals together at the same time and have lots of chat. Really I have my own little playgroup; they stimulate each other, they entertain each other, they annoy each other. I think having triplets is a huge advantage.
"And Then There Were Three" by Ian Mucklejohn is published by Gibson Square at £6.99 (tel: 01903 828503). Part of the proceeds are donated to ChildLine
THE FOSTER DAD
Errol Persad, 62, from London, has been fostering with his wife since 1989
My son was five and a friend said she thought our house was too large for just the three of us and that there were many children out there who needed a home. I thought a foster child would be a great companion for my son, and I wanted to make a better life for these kids, who often come from deprived backgrounds. I normally foster teenagers, but they can be anywhere from eight to 18. Sometimes they are with us for years, or sometimes they just spend a week, or a night, so over the years I must have must have seen 50 or 60 kids come and go.
As a father I try to be supportive, to listen to them and make them feel comfortable and welcome. But it's very difficult to tell a teenager the right way to do something, because they are thinking people and they've got their own ways of rationalising things. You've got to strike the right balance between showing them what their options are and helping them to choose the right path for themselves. Sometimes you have to step in because it's your job to keep these kids on the straight and narrow, but I employ the talking method - I can talk them to death.
Getting them out of bed is a big challenge. Usually teenagers are of the opinion that daytime is for sleeping and night-time is for staying up. Education is the be all and end all in our house, so we always try to make sure they get to school on time.
Of course your relationship with the foster children is very different to the relationship I have with my own flesh and blood, but you've got to try and treat them equally.
When the kids are in their teens they don't want to walk the street with you too often - they want to be with their peers and speak their own language; their use, or misuse of the English language fascinates me. You can learn so much from them, listening to their ideas. It stuns me to see what they come up with. Having young people in my life helps keep me young.
At 18 they go on to independence or semi-independence and when they return most of them are in their flash cars, which makes me feel very proud that I've contributed a little bit to something. The biggest reward is to see that they've stayed out of trouble, are free of problems, studying and making something of their lives. I am so proud of them all.
THE REDISCOVERED DAD
Vivian Charles Lewis, 75, of Gilfach-Goch, Wales, was traced by his son Richard, 46
Becoming a dad in my seventies has knocked 30 years off my life. I've got a whole new outlook - I've got something new to live for. My son has found me after all these years and if I could give him the world I would.
Richard was born at the start of the 1960s and my marriage to his mother, Diana, broke down three years later. While we were married she didn't like me to do much with the baby. I wanted to be like any other father, to be able to take him out to wherever he wanted to go, to a football match or to town, and we lost all those early experiences together. When we divorced, they moved to London and I assumed that she'd remarried and settled down with someone else.
When I received the letter from the Salvation Army in 2004, I'd had no contact with Richard for more than 40 years. I thought about him all the time - what he was doing, how he was growing up, was he a good boy, a bad boy - but I never thought about getting in contact. The envelope contained a beautiful letter from my son asking whether I was his father. I rang him, and he was round here within the week.
He told me that he was sitting outside in the car for about 20 minutes before he knocked. He said, "I'm your son", but it was like meeting him for the first time. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to put my arms around him. He said, "I'm not concerned with what happened in the past. Let's go forward to the future."
It's hard to explain to people that after all these years we've become so close. A lot of people would have said, don't bother, leave it alone, but I'm not like that. I want to make up for lost time. I phone him most days and we have a good chat about what we've done that day. When he comes to stay he brings his girlfriend Susie, and we go up to the social club. We're very similar people - I like a pint, he likes a pint; he likes to go on holidays, I do, too.
As soon as my passport comes back, Richard and I will go off to France to visit relations he's never met before. Richard is my legacy and I'm more than proud of him. I can be at peace now, knowing that I've got my son back.
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