Jack O'Sullivan: We should be promoting the good in fatherhood

Taken from a lecture delivered by the founder of Fathers Direct to an NSPCC conference entitled My Dad, My Protector?
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The Independent Online

The NSPCC has a press-cuttings files devoted to child killings. It is horrifying to read headlines such as "Brute dad shook his baby girl to death" and "Policeman hangs himself after murdering wife and two children". As a father I find it deeply depressing. It is particularly shocking to see the occasions when dads are the perpetrators of that violence.

It is so hard to square these images with the realities of my own life as a father. And indeed the reality of so many dads today who are competent, able, loving fathers to their children.

How do we make sense of images that portray fathers as both heroes and demons? The answer must be in acknowledging diversity, so that men, women and children can all see the options out there, the good, the bad and the ugly. For fathers, the great enemy historically has been the narrowness of public imagery, be it the Victorian patriarch/disciplinarian or the 20th century's "great provider" figure.

We also must realise the enormous influence that public imagery of fatherhood has on men.Just one in 14 men seeks his father's advice on pregnancy, birth and parenting; whereas in Sweden 70 per cent of dads report their own father's experience as offering positive guidance on how to do the job, the figure stands at just 20 per cent for British dads.

Fathers often gain little support from their immediate environment. Take the example of a father from Merthyr Tydfil. He is, like many men, unemployed because of the collapse of the mining industry. His wife goes out to work. He stays at home and looks after the children. But he feels a failure. He feels a great stigma. So much so that he feels terrible if he takes the children out in the buggy during the day. He feels that everyone is looking at him, thinking what a failure, why is he not out working. The only time he feels relaxed, he says, is in the middle of the night, when his child wakes up. He can hold the child in his arms and care for him in the pitch darkness with no one judging him.

Stories like this make it so important for today's modern male icons – men like David Beckham – to be seen to give status to child care. They help to form a cultural narrative that today's fathers can use to create their own fatherhood.

But even this is not enough. It's all very well for a prime minister and David Beckham to celebrate their role as fathers– they have achieved in their careers, proved their masculinity according to its traditional "breadwinner" definition. But we also need to see the heralding of fathers without successful careers who are active fathers. We need, perhaps, to rediscover old icons such as St Joseph, who spoke to the notion that a poor man can be a great father, something we find hard to believe today.

You may say to me that the world has changed hugely and that images of fatherhood are now much more positive. Yet we have a long way to go even to catch up with the 15th century. Look at images from that time of St Joseph and observe his gentle domesticity, the father drying the baby Jesus' nappies, feeding him from a bowl of milk.

We have also had centuries of imagery advocating the use of domestic paternal violence to control children. John Calvin recommended that the best and most loving father concealed his tender feelings "behind a stern exterior"; "spare the rod and spoil the child" became an article of faith. We are left today with vestiges of all this imagery, plus a representation of fatherhood in soap operas, for example, where characters such as Phil and Grant Mitchell from EastEnders inevitably turn into monstrous, oppressive, absent fathers.

So what can be done? We should not be searching for a new political correctness applied to fatherhood. But we must show real-life images of what is possible. We could start in ante-natal clinics, GP surgeries, schools and nurseries where images of fathers are often completely absent.

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