In search of the modern father: As the woman's role changes, the man needs to find himself in the family, says Patricia Hewitt

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The Independent Online
THE debate about the changing nature of families has focused almost entirely on mothers, never on fathers. Travelling around the country, however, I have been struck by two things: the extraordinary achievements of women in some of the most deprived parts of Britain; and the extraordinary absence of men.

In Handsworth in Birmingham, for instance, lone mothers - often with three children by the age of 25 - are transforming their expectations through training. In Easterhouse, near Glasgow, we saw women organising food co-operatives to undercut the food vans, and credit unions to bypass the loan sharks. But where are the men? At the Birmingham Settlement, which has been organising successful training courses for lone mothers, I was told that most of the men who had fathered these women's children had relationships with several women; that the men moved from flat to flat, not always demanding much - and not generally giving very much either.

The absence of fathers is not an invention of feminism or the late 20th century, nor a creation of women who choose to have children on their own. It is essentially a phenomenon of patriarchy, one side of the division of labour in the nuclear family between breadwinner husband and nurturing wife. Now, though, changes in the role of women are forcing new thinking about the role of men.

The biggest recent change in the lives of women - and in the shape of their partnerships - is their dramatically increased ability to get an education and earn a living. There is a clear link in industrialised societies between women's economic independence and the rise in separation, divorce and women not marrying. At the same time, there is no reduction in the desire of most women to earn their own living and no wish to return to the assumption that a woman will be financially dependent on a man, even though divorce usually means financial loss for the woman.

As we look at these changes and contemplate the problems caused by the absence of fathers, we are forced to start defining what we mean by 'fatherhood'. Central to the nuclear family definition of fatherhood is breadwinning. Practically, a father is the family's financial support; psychologically, he is his children's link with the outside world. But we cannot any longer confine fatherhood to finance. Male unemployment and, above all, female employment, mean that most families now have two breadwinners. What children need most from their fathers now is emotional engagement.

The extent of unemployment among young men is particularly relevant, of course, to the question of young single mothers. Some of those who insist that marriage should be the alternative to welfare motherhood seem not to have understood what is happening to young men. In the United States, the sociologist, William Julius Wilson, has argued that unemployment levels among young black men - particularly when coupled with the levels of imprisonment and death in the same group - is a major factor in the rise of black single mothers and female-headed households. Wilson found that the marriageable young black man is a threatened species. For young white women, there are as many employed young white men today as there were in the Fifties. Among non-whites, however, the ratio has dropped dramatically: for every 100 16- and 17-year-old women, where there used to be 40 marriageable young men of the same age and race, there are now 12. For young American black women, there are precious few men who are, economically at least, worth marrying.

Something similar is happening to the young British men who leave school with few or no qualifications. One in five young men between 16 and 19 is unemployed. Young men who leave school with few or no qualifications are most likely to be unemployed or on temporary training schemes - particularly, of course, if they are black.

But it is these young men who are most likely to be the fathers of teenage mothers' children. Teenage girls in deprived areas are six times more likely to have an unwanted pregnancy. Their boyfriends are often not attractive candidates as husbands or fathers. They are not simply the casualties of recession, for whom new opportunities may arise as the economy picks up. They are the victims of a fundamental process of economic restructuring in industrial countries, where all the evidence suggests that there will be fewer and fewer jobs around for men whose only real labour power is just that, physical labour power.

The problem of the young man for whom no economic opportunity exists is profound. Charles Murray wrote of the 'young male barbarians for whom marriage . . . is an indispensable civilising force'. Murray raises the important issue of how young men achieve emotional growth. Pregnancy, birth and mothering are turning points in women's lives: for many young women with little education and few opportunities, they are the only path to adulthood. Lone mothers have to grow up fast, and women after a divorce often discover in themselves unexpected strengths. But where are the points of growth for the equivalent young men? If they have no real, continuing connection with the babies they have fathered, if they cannot make the transition from teenager to worker, let alone to provider, where is the growth into adulthood and maturity to come from? Over and over again, you hear mothers talking about the unreliable fathers of their children, inadequate men - or worse - who are simply not worth the trouble; men who seem stuck in emotional and economic infantilism.

Youth unemployment is only part of the story. The young man who has little chance of becoming a 'good provider', and whose fatherhood is confined to the act of impregnation, is only the most obvious victim of economic change.

Another major change is that even in families where the father is present, he is often no longer the sole breadwinner. Seventy per cent of married women between the ages of 16 and 59 are in the workforce. Most earn less than their husband, but even the woman in a part-time job is contributing to the family's economic wellbeing. If it were not for women's earnings, the number of families in poverty would treble.

But women are not in employment just because they cannot find a man to earn a 'family wage'. They work because they want to; because they want to earn a living for themselves; because they want to use their abilities and their education; because they want adult company. And because they know they cannot rely on marriage for lifetime financial security.

If modern fatherhood cannot be confined to financial support, maybe greater attention should be paid to the emotional and psychological importance of fathering. In the traditional psychoanalytic view, the father is the child's connection with the outside world. But the mother who has her own connection is now fulfilling part of that function. In return, many men are asking not only that the father should support the child's growing autonomy, but that there should be a closer emotional and nurturing connection between children and fathers.

Many men speak of the need they felt as boys for a male role model. But what today is a good male role model and what is meant by 'masculinity'? The new men's movement in the US speaks of a healthy father's 'loving strength', the 'tender authority' of the father who is 'emotionally and intellectually open', 'able to accept his sensuality and sexuality', to 'introduce his son to the outside world' to help him develop a 'respect for natural social and moral boundaries'. The identification between a woman and the baby she has carried may be different from that felt by even the most committed father. But the qualities attributed to the good father look remarkably similar to those needed from the good mother.

There seems to be here a sharing of mothering and fathering, a blurring of the boundaries. Mothers increasingly provide some, or even all, the financial support and a role model of effective action in the public world, while fatherhood seems to be becoming feminised as fathers increasingly provide some, or even all, the emotional nurturing and practical physical care in the child's life.

These shifting roles provide enormous challenges to both men and women. Men will require a new sense of responsibility, financially and emotionally, for their children, while women will have to let a partner into the emotional bonds of motherhood.

These new roles need to be respected by employers. A growing number of companies in Britain have found that if they want to recruit and retain good women employees they have to offer family-friendly workplaces, and that includes shorter and more flexible working hours. So far, though, family-friendly has really meant mother-friendly. Few fathers are encouraged or feel able to contemplate shorter hours. Public policy cannot force flexibility on companies or on fathers, but it can ensure that all employees, whatever their hours or pattern of work, receive the same legal entitlements, the same hourly pay for the same job, and the same access to pension schemes and training.

Employment patterns will also have to change. Two decades ago we were campaigning to pull down barriers to women entering men's jobs. But most of the jobs that have disappeared in the past decade were men's jobs and most of the newly created ones go to women. The men could not imagine themselves doing the new jobs and, very often, nor could the employers. Breaking down the barriers that keep men out of women's jobs may turn out to be even more difficult than breaking down the barriers to women.

The author is deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. This is an abridged extract from the Mishcon lecture, to be delivered at University College, London, tonight.

(Photograph omitted)