Feminists must back fathers

Anna Coote argues for an alliance to promote men's involvement with their children

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home