A wonderful challenge for fathers

Men and women dread taking parental leave because the economic culture punishes them for doing so
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The pressure group Fathers 4 Justice is certainly garnering colourful headlines. Its attention-grabbing protests - ideally situated in the cradle of establishment power - have made the media sit up and take notice. But "Orgy, porn and cruelty shame of Palace Batman" is not going to win too many hearts and minds.

The pressure group Fathers 4 Justice is certainly garnering colourful headlines. Its attention-grabbing protests - ideally situated in the cradle of establishment power - have made the media sit up and take notice. But "Orgy, porn and cruelty shame of Palace Batman" is not going to win too many hearts and minds.

Jason Hatch, the latest fathers' rights campaigner to step into the spotlight, had, according to the News Of The World this weekend, among other things, missed an access visit to his seven-month-old daughter because he was too busy bigging himself up on the Buckingham Palace balcony.

The reason why the relationship faltered, his former partner Gemma Polson claims, was because of Mr Hatch's complete lack of interest in the pregnancy of Ms Polson, or the daughter it resulted in. Ms Polson's mother says she was "taken aback" by Hatch's comment on the birth of the baby, which apparently was: "That is two whingeing bitches I will have to listen to now."

If that seems a little insensitive, then here's what Ms Polson says was Mr Hatch's reaction to her post-natal depression. "He rang my parents and said 'You need to get her now. She is going off her trolley'."

Thus it appears, Mr Hatch extricated himself from full, 24-hour a day access to his child, although even now Ms Polson is doing her best to fulfil his erratic demands for contact. He is fighting a court battle for access to two other children, and also has another teenager he does not see. Mr Hatch appears to be a man who wants his rights, but does not want his responsibilities.

I cannot recall any campaigning group which has ever been so right in its principles, and so wrong in its interpretation of them. The organisation is correct to suggest that the law does not protect absent fathers from malicious mothers. But its techniques appear to be a gift to malicious fathers wishing to take the tormenting of their families into the public arena.

Instead of concentrating on getting maximum publicity, whether it is positive or negative, those who pledge themselves to Fathers 4 Justice, should be considering two things. First, without resorting to the simplistic mantra "feminism!" , they must ask why it is that the law has developed in such a skewed fashion. Second, they must ask how the situation from which the anomalies arise can be rectified.

In their search for enlightenment, estranged fathers will not have to look too far. Actually, they need look no further than the political mainstream where they will find Patricia Hewitt floating her latest ideas for Labour's development of family-friendly policies.

The Trade Secretary's plans are being outlined in a 12-page document published by the Public Policy Unit. Offering direct help to fathers, she suggests that the two weeks of paternity leave that men are now entitled to - but which is taken up by only one fifth of them - should be paid at 90 per cent of salary instead of the current £102 a week.

Far more radically though, Ms Hewitt would like not only to extend maternity pay from six months to 12 months, but also to give mothers the right to transfer some of their paid leave to their partners. Clumsy as this mechanism may appear, it is actually the first step towards offering equality for men and women, either of whom may wish to take time off to care for their newborn.

Many couples will like the idea of one of them taking the first six months away, then the other taking over for another six months. For women concerned about leaving their jobs for an entire year, it is an ideal solution, because they can get back to work and leave their baby with the other person in the world who is closest to her.

But for men who are concerned that they get to spend too little time with their small children, it is a wonderful challenge as well. Studies are increasingly showing that in the first year, group care is not ideal. This way, mother and father can share their responsibilities equally, as well as strengthening a bond of incalculable value.

As for the bond between the two adults, I think it is true to say that in the months and early years after a child is born, female resentment at the lack of real support from their partners causes problems in the strongest relationships. Women have come a long way since the strident days of 1970s feminism, when the solution to their difficulties with work and parenting was considered to be 24-hour nurseries. But men too have to start grasping that the world is not a 24-hour nursery, and that being a good father requires a commitment to partner and child that cannot be fulfilled at weekends alone.

It would be wrong to suggest that no father who does make these sorts of sacrifices ever ends up in court. Wronged fathers are not all Jason Hatches, matching their cruelty only with their sentimentality.

But the fact remains that the reason why frustrated dads discover that the law discriminates effectively against them is that in the vast majority of cases, whether couples remain together or part, it is the mother who recasts her life in order to care for the small children.

Yes, this is reflected in family law which champions mothers to the exclusion of fathers. But the reorganisation or abandonment of work that women undertake in order to care for their children is reflected in the pay-gap, in the legions of women working part-time, and in the the glass ceiling. Women are penalised because they no longer acquiesce to giving up their financial independence for life because a child has limited independence in its early years. The minority of men who find that the law will not protect their relationships with their children, blame the law, feminism and their former partners for their plight.

Instead, they might want to consider forming a critical view of a culture which doggedly sticks to the old call for 24-hour nurseries, placing the value of work and the marketplace at a much higher level than the value of care and the emotional well-being of our citizens. It did not take long, for example, for the Financial Times to react to Ms Hewitt's thoughts, which she suggests may find their way into the next election manifesto. "Industry warns of 'crippling effect' " the paper's front page declared, in its report of Hewitt's plans. What are they going on about? Is the newspaper suggesting that in a working life spanning 40 to 50 years, a person should not be allowed to take a couple of years out looking after their babies? Is it suggesting that an unbroken adult lifetime in employment is of more crucial benefit to humanity than the nurturing of securely attached and well-adjusted babies?

No. The economists who shake their heads over the idea of accommodating parenthood in their schedules don't think about the real choices that human beings make at all. Instead, each little hard-won right, each softening of opinion against the "career woman", is used to nurture instead a climate of fear. Men and women dread taking parental leave because the economic culture punishes them for doing so. If men and women united in telling their bosses that their babies came first, and that they needed time to care for them, then a tool that powerfully divides them from each other and from their children, would be massively weakened.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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