David Lammy: Mothers need the support of a loving partner. Just ask mine

The Equality Commission has called for paid paternity to match maternity leave, to help fathers build close relationships earlier on in their children's lives

Share
Related Topics

Yesterday, women all over the country received cards, gifts and thanks from grateful children. But what many mothers really want cannot be given by their sons and daughters: more engaged fathers. In Britain, too many women find themselves sacrificing their careers to do the "double shift" of working and parenting, while men's lifestyles carry on unchanged. And too many mothers are watching their children suffer from absent or uninvolved fathers.

The issue of fatherhood has been on my mind for a long time – since about 1984, in fact. Aged 11, I watched my father walk out on my mother and away from his responsibilities. He had always been someone I looked up to when he was around; he became unimaginably important the day he left.

My mother was left with the enormous, lonely, frightening responsibility of looking after four children on her own. She had to carry the financial burden for the whole family, doing two, sometimes three, jobs at a time. At the end of the working day, this tireless woman came home to her children to do the job of two parents – reading to us, listening to us, helping with homework and getting ready to do it all again the next day.

While she toiled, I struggled to cope with what felt like a personal betrayal. Like many others in my situation I had to find other sources of advice about how to negotiate life as a teenage boy, from learning how to shave to how best to deal with peer pressure at school.

Today I see children doing the same. For nine months I have been video documenting discussions with black fathers supported by the Runnymede Trust. Their view is clear :too many young men drift into gang culture, mimicking the behaviour of celebrities and footballers rather than learning from the men in their own lives. And too many girls grow up without ever receiving affirmation from a man without the implication of sex.

This conversation cannot drift into the familiar barracking of single mothers. Instead, the rise of "baby fathers" – parenthood through casual sex – must be constantly challenged among both young men and women. Children from fatherless homes are disproportionately likely to grow up in poverty. Single parenthood halves the earning power in the family and doubles the caring burden, with obvious effects. In particular, I worry at figures showing 59 per cent of Black Caribbean and 44 per cent of Black African children grow up in single parent households.

However, I learnt the hard way that this is not just a question of family structure. The issue is the quality of the relationships that fathers have with their children, not just whether parents are sleeping under the same roof. My father didn't just leave the family home, he left the country. Whether or not relationships between adults last the distance, relationships between fathers and their children need to be strong. The "broken Britain" debate engages with this only on a shallow level with its narrow focus on facile marriage incentives.

The evidence shows children without strong relationships with their fathers suffer from lower self-esteem and diminished life chances. Yet surveys show between a quarter and a third of children with separated parents have little or no contact with their fathers. Where parents are together, a culture of long working hours can do damage: more than four in 10 men say they don't spend enough time with their children. This applies as much to the stressed executive as the overworked plumber.

And where fathers are present they are not always engaged. Only one in 10 children would go to their father first if they had a problem; more than three quarters would go to their mother.

The charity Relate argues couples need more help when children are born and better support when relationships break down to sustain civility between parents. This, they believe, is vital to keeping children in touch with their fathers. The Equality Commission has called for paid paternity to match maternity leave, to help fathers build close relationships earlier on in their children's lives. Trade unions point out that Britain has the longest working hours in Europe – and those who work the longest are fathers aged 30 and upwards. Others think that services like Surestart need to be more father-friendly.

This cannot all be down to government. Fatherhood needs updating from the traditional model. The "provider-protector" model is largely in our comfort zone, not least in the black community where there is a strong tradition of the disciplinarian father. When images of men in popular culture so often involve hubris and violence, we must confound those ideas by building loving, lasting relationships with our children. Providing structure and discipline matters as much as ever, but what children also need is an emotional bond with their father. That, in the end, must be up to all of us.



David Lammy is Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property. This is an edited version of a speech to the Runnymede Trust today

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'