Terence Blacker: The next greetings card challenge

Fathers' Day is more of a big deal than when it was a poor, jokey sideshow to the main event
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The Independent Online

They will be hard at work today, the little ones. Smudgy crayons will be creating sweet and lovely versions of family life: smiley figures holding hands under a smiley orange sun, or daddy with a football, or with a briefcase or watching Sky Sports. Now and then mummies might be helping out with a poem and those tricky dad-related rhyme structures - "'Sad' would be good, darling. Or how about 'mad'?" Fathers' Day: what a civilised moment in the family calendar it is.

Curmudgeons may see the grasping hand of the greetings card industry behind the boom in Fathers' Day celebrations. Some might argue that the new sentimentalists, who want us all to feel more and think less, have been at work. Whatever the reason, Fathers' Day is more of a big deal than it was in the days when it was a poor, jokey sideshow to the main event, Mothering Sunday.

But then, apparently, dads are more deserving of praise these days. In today's paper, I read that a couple of decades ago, fathers would spend an average of 15 minutes a day on child-related activities (I could have sworn it was more, but never mind). Society takes fatherhood more seriously, too - when I was engaged in union negotiations during the mid-1970s, our suggestion that a paternity leave clause should be introduced into contracts was regarded as a hilarious try-on.

Now, according to yet another new survey, this one published by the Equal Opportunities Commission, 94 per cent of fathers take time off after their baby is born. Eight out of 10 would stay at home and bring up baby, given the choice.

A dad-to-be interviewed by the lobby group Fathers First put the argument succinctly. He was fed up with being treated like a necessary inconvenience. "It is about time that the father was included in all aspects of pregnancy."

Statistics, surveys, lobbyists: fatherhood never used to be like this. Not so long ago, we knew our duty. Surrounded by the big bangs and shooting stars of maternal and childhood freak-outs, we were a black hole of calm, negative energy. Of course, repressing everything was not terribly good for us personally, but it was what we did best and seemed a small sacrifice for the family.

Now that it has been discovered, and not before time, that dads have feelings too, that they want to be involved in all aspects of pregnancy and then stay at home as much as possible, being a father has become normalised. Until recently, motherhood and childhood were reported in all the serious Sundays to be in crisis; now fatherhood has joined the club.

But, behind this great contemporary obsession with the family and with domestic life, there may just possibly be lurking a new danger for new dads.

Another report: one of the very few to be published this week which does not directly concern mummies and daddies. A research team from the University of Flinders in Adelaide has been shadowing a group of pensioners, aged 70 and more, over the past 10 years. They have discovered that all this investment in family and children does not pay off in terms of longevity. In fact, it is not having lots of wonderfully supportive relatives that keeps you healthy and alive longer than others. It is friends.

The study of Adelaide oldsters, some 1,477 of them (at least when the survey started), revealed that those with a family and children had no particular advantage over those who were alone. A wide circle of friends, on the other hand, improved the old folks' survival statistics by an impressive 20 per cent.

Now it is surely beyond contention that the gender who has talent for friendship and for building up a network of support is female. From the age of five and into adulthood, girls and women are more sociable and communicative with one another than are men. To continue the sweeping, but true, generalisation, they find at work or in motherhood new scope for extending that network of support and common experience.

Is it not at least possible that men are heading in the opposite direction? Opportunities for male friendship are diminishing. Gatherings of blokes are now regarded as old-fashioned; there is a vague sense that they are moronic, perhaps even socially harmful. All-male clubs are in retreat and under pressure. After a certain age, men have learnt to be embarrassed about the idea of having a drink with the lads. It is more acceptable and evolved to hurry home at the end of the day in order to take part in all aspects of pregnancy and its aftermath.

Family life can be a lovely thing but, as one sees men becoming absorbed, stunned but happy, into domestic life, there is a faint niggling sense that some of them may be walking into an emotional cul de sac. Once the family goes its way, women have their talent for friendship, an inbuilt social dynamism, to fall back on. In contrast, some of the daddies are likely to discover that, once their daddiness fades, there is not much to take its place.

So here is the greetings card industry's next challenge. What we need is Friendship Day - or, even better, Male Friendship Day. When that arrives and can be openly celebrated, men will truly have grown up.