Deborah Orr: Heaven forbid that men should be expected to look after their children

God knows the timid suggestions made by the Government last week for six months' paternity leave were not such a remarkable step in the direction of choice and flexibility for parents and children. But Mr Johnson, writing in The Daily Telegraph, reacted as if a mass castration programme had just been announced as compulsory.

"How can it possibly be good for very young children to be closeted with their fathers, for six months," he asks, "when those men by the end are likely to be suffering from such acute cabin fever that they go half-mad in an intensifying hell of spilt Milupa and perfumed nappy sacks?"

No more insightful was Brian Reade of the Daily Mirror. "Six months' paternity leave would wreck relationships, " he opines. "Imagine women coming home to hear their old man banging on about the price of nappy sacks. Or men having to take pocket money off their missus.

"How would that work? I'll tell you, there would be a procession of prams parked outside Paddy Power shops as men try to turn that pocket money into enough to get smashed out of their skulls on a weekend bender to numb them from the pain of their miserable existence."

First, no wonder women are not valued as mothers, when men belittle their efforts so roundly. No wonder it has become the norm for women to sound embarrassed when they "admit" to being full-time parents. No wonder the old prejudices about men and babies remain in place.

Second, men are fond of declaring that women are "programmed" to care for children while they themselves are not. They suggest that men are susceptible to breakdown when exposed to childcare, while women are not. Yet, for women, being driven "half-mad" while caring for an infant is actually a commonplace reality, and not something to be joked about. Sometimes women are driven fully mad. Witness Angela Harrison, the poor new mother who threw herself off a cliff while in the grip of post-natal depression.

Babies and the mental illness of their mothers are closely connected, which is one reason why men should be taking their turn.

Mr Johnson edits a magazine full of men and women who think nothing of trampling over ideas of family. He should know better than anyone that in these matters there is not so much difference between men and women.

* Meanwhile, when it all goes wrong, and men end up estranged from their children, women are blamed. Fathers4Justice and their ilk would do better targeting the likes of Boris Johnson - and Brian Reade of the Mirror - than forever blaming women, whose usual crime is simply to accept men at their own assessment or at the assessment at least of the ones they have been happy to let speak for them for centuries in public life.

A man of few, foul words

There is a definite ring of truth in Harold Pinter's expression of surprise at winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The great man of letters was caught so much on the hop by the news that he forgot to tell the chairman of the Nobel committee to "fuck off".

Pinter, of course, is one of those working-class boys made good who fondly imagines it is earthy and real to swear, somehow failing during his 50-year dalliance with the British aristocracy to notice what viewers of Four Weddings and a Funeral grasped fairly quickly - that the poshies routinely leave the most horny handed of troopers with nowhere else to look but their shiny boots.

Not that this colossus likes a taste of his own medicine much anyway.

When one eminent publisher met Pinter on a train some years ago, the laureate greeted him with a witty "fuck you!". The publisher responded in kind, with a merry "fuck you, too!".

Pinter then ignored his disrespectful interlocuter for six years. Introduced at some high-toned event, they had no alternative but to acknowledge each other. "Not again!" said our hero, thereby breaking his Pinteresque silence.

Tiny but big victory

Those following the sad sorry of baby Charlotte Wyatt may feel that the views of the parents finally have been vindicated. Debbie and Darren Wyatt hit the headlines some months ago when they opposed Portsmouth Hospital NHS Trust's application for a "non-ventilation" declaration.

The judge found in favour of the trust, hearing evidence from doctors who agreed the child was in constant pain and had no "quality of life", even though the Wyatts insisted that she had bonded with them. Now the experts agree that Charlotte has made great progress, can smile, and has made "social attachments".

Yet this is not evidence that the doctors were wrong and the parents right. Instead it is evidence that even when they believed her case to be hopeless, medical staff lavished attention on Charlotte, valuing her life as much as any other patient's.

Buy our stuff, but we won't watch yours

I am intrigued by Madonna's parenting style. It seems that the pop star's children are not allowed to watch any television. There are such machines in the house. But they are hooked up only for films. It's an odd creature who believes that Animal Planet is a corrupting influence, while Snatch is wholesome viewing. (Although it perhaps explains why Swept Away went straight to video.) My own technique for dealing with the same problem is to put the telly in a cupboard. It doesn't stop the children from remembering it exists. But it was exciting for me, because I momentarily imagined I'd invented radio.

It's slightly more galling that the Ritchies are such mind-boggling, self-absorbed, 24-carat hypocrites. Television might not be suitable for their own children. But when it comes to flogging their products, neither partner appears to have any qualms about making promotional videos, giving interviews and generally employing whatever means necessary to get the kids to buy their stuff.

I don't know if the great lady has thought about this at all. But for parents struggling to bring their children up safely and decently in a areas riven by gun crime, it's probably not that helpful to have enormous billboards plugging films calledLock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Revolver. Which is probably why parents did in fact complain about that very matter. Their complaint was not upheld.

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