Feminists must back fathers

Anna Coote argues for an alliance to promote men's involvement with their children
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The Independent Online
Every day I used to watch the sweat break out on the brow of one of my colleagues, regularly as clockwork in the late afternoons. We'd be half way through a meeting. Most of us felt we had barely reached the middle of our working day. But he'd be eyeing the clock, checking his watch, fidgeting about, trying to push us to a conclusion.

Embarrassment and fear stressed him out daily. He had to get home to his kids. He knew that, even in our liberally minded workplace, he was a bit of a freak. Other men had children too, but it didn't seem to affect them. Had he been a lone father he might have been loaded down with sympathy and special treatment. But no, he was just a man with a commitment to share the parenting of his children on equal terms with their mother.

Now that I'm a parent myself, I can feel my own stress levels rising in the late afternoons. Can I get home in time? Anything after 5.30 pm intrudes into inviolable family space. But I don't break out in a sweat about it. For a mother it's commonplace, even acceptable, to leave promptly at a given hour, whatever the business in hand. We women have been raising hell about the difficulties of combining paid work and parenting for decades now. We have rallied for better child care, more parental leave, shorter working hours.

To a large extent, fathers are to blame for the problems of squaring work with looking after children. As employers they have set standards at work that no parent can meet without neglecting their children. As legislators, they have failed to enact decent parental leave. The result is gridlock: men are not available to share responsibilities at home with women and, consequently, women are not available to share opportunities at work with men.

The only hope we have is that men will recognise what they are missing, and what their children are missing too. Instead of suffering in sweaty isolation, men should be hopping mad that they and their kids are being robbed of so much - of precious time, of the chance to know each other, enjoy and learn from each other on an intimate daily basis. Will they ever get together, get angry and start demanding changes for themselves?

Promisingly, there are signs of an alliance being built between feminists and liberals, and pro-feminist elements of an emerging men's movement, who are calling for a re-evaluation of fatherhood. They argue that many men are both able and willing to be far more than just breadwinners for their children. That men are not genetically predisposed to leave home at day-break and return at dusk, any more than women are born to change nappies and fry fish fingers. Mothering and fathering are negotiable, flexible and interchangeable, according to opportunity and choice. Fathers, no less than mothers, need flexible hours, access to child care and humane leave arrangements.

Abundant evidence, summarised in a new report* from the Institute for Public Policy Research, backs these claims. Long hours of overtime have been found to be unproductive and bad for families. Research in Sweden, where employment practices are more enlightened, shows that men who take time off to be with their children make better, not worse, employees.

It is a well-documented fact that children, women and men all benefit when men are closer and more actively involved with the day-to-day lives of their children. A longitudinal study in the US has shown that fathers who are helped to prepare themselves for parenthood from the ante-natal stage are less likely to get divorced later on. Shared parenting appears to encourage stable family life.

It is not just employers and government who keep fathers from their children. Many women, however hard-pressed they may be, resist sharing their domestic space on equal terms with men. The small but noisy brigade of moral authoritarians are an additional obstacle preventing men from playing new roles that many of them crave. They would have us cling to the breadwinning patriarch as a hedge against social disorder.

If men are going to get closer to their children, women will have to move over. They will have to give up their exclusive claims to intimacy and expertise. They will have to let men take responsibility, just as women do, for their own babies, right from the start. And they will have to forbear to let the men do it their own way.

If we accept that the child's interests are paramount, then there can be no discrimination against fathers who are single, separated or divorced. Men should be encouraged to maintain close relationships with their children if they leave the family home. They need more generous access arrangements and maintenance orders that take account of the costs of keeping in touch.

Unmarried fathers should have the same rights and responsibilities as married fathers. At present, unmarried fathers are expected to pay maintenance, but they have no right to be consulted about key decisions in the child's life, or even to have their paternity recognised, unless the mother consents. Public policy tells these men that they are good for nothing but money - and many of them respond by severing all contact with their children. Instead, they should be allowed to apply to court for a simple declaration of parentage, conferring full parental rights - to be withheld only from men who are demonstrably unsuitable.

For the moral authoritarians, this is just greasing the slippery slope. They believe that social order depends on orderly families and that families are best kept in order by marriage. The advocates of this point of view (among the more strident is the Observer's Melanie Phillips) argue that public policies should send out strong pro-marriage signals, as a matter of priority. Any pro-parenting signals (such as creating rights for unmarried fathers) which interfere with the main message should be eliminated.

Getting a fair deal for fathers is going to be an uphill struggle. It threatens deep emotions and entrenched interests. But the case is overwhelming. Every child has a right to a close, loving and stable relationship with both its parents, whatever their marital status. No child's rights should be sacrificed on the altar of holy matrimony or misplaced feminine pride.

* 'Men and their Children' by Adrienne Burgess and Sandy Ruxton, pounds 7.50 from IPPR, 30-32 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7RA.

The writer is deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.