What a lot of treats Britain's fathers have received this week, in the run-up to Father's Day on Sunday. Their primary treats have not come in the form of cards or socks or aftershave. Instead they have been in the form of affirmative findings in a significant survey, telling them that they are needed, that they are important and that they make a difference in the lives of their children. Which has to be encouraging, surely?
What Good are Dads? is a study produced for four charities, two of them with government backing, that seeks to give positive answers to the question it poses. The survey has found that dads are good for quite a number of reasons. First, dads are good because a young child raised by more than one carer is "more likely to develop a varied range of interactive skills and the ability to adapt to others". It is not gender, though, but "broader qualities such as warmth and kindness" that make a good parent.
In one in 10 families divided by divorce, the father is the parent with whom the children live most or all of the time. This figure is perhaps surprisingly high, given how much emphasis continues to be placed on the importance of the mother as the primary carer. Such is the power of this emphasis that many of our laws discriminate against fathers to a truly unacceptable degree. More good news for fathers is that one of the most iniquitous of these laws is set to be changed under the Adoption and Children's Bill.
The change is in the status afforded to fathers by the placing of their names on the birth certificates of their children. Until now, legally, this has meant nothing at all. Only marriage confers on men automatic legal parental responsibility for their children. Even though more than 40 per cent of births take place outside marriage, men whose names appear on the birth certificates of their children still have to get the mother of their child to sign a written agreement awarding them with parental responsibility, or in the absence of maternal co-operation, a court order.
In an acrimonious break-up, up till now, the mother has held all the legal cards. And of course, while the father has had no automatic responsibility to interact with and parent his children, he has been considered responsible for providing financial support to the extent that an entire government agency has been set up in pursuance of maintenance. It is a most welcome Father's Day gift that this draconian rule should finally be on the way out.
Other paternal progress can be celebrated now, but not enjoyed for a couple of years. In April 2003, new fathers will become eligible for two weeks of paid paternity leave, at £100 a week. Again, the expectation that men should experience a life-changing event as powerful as a new baby with no acknowledged break in their working routine is draconian and sad.
Saddest of all, though, is the fact that both the existence of this survey and these changes in the law serve to underline what a terrible failure we have made in our approach to fatherhood. Why do we need surveys to tell us that fathering is good? Isn't it self-evidently desirable to children?
In the latter half of the 20th century the role of fathers expanded hugely. In the Fifties a man wishing to be present at the birth of his child was more or less considered to be a pervert. In the Sixties a man pushing a pram would have been assumed to be a rag and bone dealer. In the Seventies a man taking his child to school would have been a curiosity. Now it is the man unprepared to undertake such essential tasks who is out of step.
How damaging it is that the more militant of wronged men now see feminism as contributing not to an expanded role but to a diminished one. Many men, unsupported in the outside world by their partner's raised expectations of shared parenting and therefore unprepared for what this might mean, have damaged the relationships they had with the mothers of their children irrevocably. Not until they have access to their children alone do they realise what a commitment parenting is. Feminists have largely supported the idea that men should be more, not less, involved with their children, and still do. Those feminists radical enough to prefer to bring up a child without "interference" from a father are, and always have been, few and far between.
It is reactionary views that have held society back from reflecting this expanded involvement. Reactionaries do not laud fathers unless they conform to the old, distant stereotype of breadwinner-cum-household-god, married to the mom and there in the home but detached from it. All of the rules outside the home always in the workplace, often in the legal system conspire to perpetuate this miserably barren view of fatherhood. Since this is in contrast to the kind of paternal involvement women are looking for, the gulf of understanding of what it is to share parenting has grown and grown between men and women.
Some of the consequences of these contradictions and outright fissures have been terrible indeed. While the majority of fathers have understood and enjoyed their increased status as parents, some have discovered that the greatest bar to their full involvement has been the people who should be encouraging it the most mothers.
In a frightening letter from an Independent reader, one young father told me how hard his ex-partner had fought to deny him access to his three-year-old son. He had gone through the rigmarole demanded by the failure of the birth certificate to confer responsibility and had spent £2,000 gaining a court order awarding him access.
His access continued for a few months, until a social worker told him that his ex-partner had alleged that he had been sexually abusing his son. Her evidence was in the form of a videotape she had made of herself questioning her son about abuse from his father. The questioning goes on for about 25 minutes, all of it leading, and all of it leading nowhere.
The conversation ends with the mother asking: "Is there anything else you want to tell me about daddy and his willy?"
"Where did he touch your willy?"
"I don't know."
"Did he do it in the bath, in the bedroom or in the kitchen or the living room or in the car or in a field... where did he touch your willy?"
"I don't know."
The man's access was stopped while these accusations were pursued through the courts, except for brief visits to a contact centre. Even though the courts have found no basis for the accusations, the father has not spent a weekend with his son since. His ex-partner is simply not co-operating with the renewed access arrangements.
It's hard to understand how she believes herself to be acting in the best interests of her son. Maybe because she gave birth to a child who by law she alone had "parental responsibility for". After that was challenged and defeated, she may have decided to stop at nothing to regain that status, encouraged to believe the rightness of her course by the ludicrous law as it stands. What a terrible law that starts such a slippery slope. The day the Adoption and Children's Bill comes in, will be the first real Father's Day we've celebrated in this country for a long time.