Life without father: it's easy

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The Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times promoted almost identical icons of family life last weekend. At the periphery of the pictures they published were women gazing into their families from the fastnesses of armchairs. They were knitting. Thus they were there and yet not there, present yet preoccupied.

The active, attentive focus of these families were the fathers, both wearing suits, one thrusting even while he watched television, the other playing - in an improving pedagogical sort of way - with a toddler.

'The way we were: at home with the typical British nuclear family in the 1950s' proclaimed the Sunday Times caption. Actually, it was the way we weren't. In those days fathers spent an average 11 minutes a day 'quality time' with their children, according to the best available research, the studies of time by Jonathan Gershuny, director of the Essex University centre on micro-social change.

Those 11 minutes ought to be the end of the argument about fatherless families. And those pictures were propaganda so primal you'd think they were spoofs. 'I thought I was looking at a Rupert book,' said one woman, a child of a Fifties family and an aficionado of the bear whose Daily Express aura was excited by the deliciously dangerous independence of the Chinese princess. Nowadays even royal families have princesses who are single parents.

The truths these pictures told us, however, are to be found in their marginalisation of the mother. And their potency lies in a collective wish that our fathers would co-operate in the creation of happy families. We are disappointed communities who have survived the sins of the fathers, their temper, and their flight.

When the views of the American sociologist Charles Murray and his followers were first promoted in Britain in 1989, they were a continuation of an already active debate about fathers. In response to mothers' increasingly confident complaints, Murray resurrected the ethos of respectability.

The relationship between men, women and children is regulated by respectability - this sanctions the flight of the father from the domestic sphere by securing his privileged place within the private and the public economy. The regime is one of domestic manners which casts fathers as providers, not parents; it enforces the father's economic discipline and the mother's dependence.

But the image offered by Murray denies the turbulence of the relationship between men and women and effaces economic conditions as a cause of crime.

And Murray's campaign against fatherless families, now endorsed by the British political right, promotes the 're-engineering' of the family with fathers as both providers and policemen. It does not advocate fatherhood as caring for children and co-operation with mothers, but only as authority - it is the duty of the disappeared fathers to discipline

not only their sons but the mothers.

This visceral wish is discernible in the discourse of Murray and two British scholars who have emerged with an eccentric endorsement, apparently mobilised by cabinet ministers in the formulation of their threats to starve single mothers out of society.

Norman Dennis and George Erdos wrote Families Without Fatherhood for the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs. Their tract has the imprimatur of Professor A H Halsey, a doyen of English Fabian sociology. It claims its credentials from a long tradition in British scholarship which tried, and failed, to find evidence for Keith Joseph's myth of the cycle of deprivation.

Trawling Israel Kolvin's longitudinal study of 1,000 Tyneside children born in 1947, which was already outdated when it was published in 1990, the book focuses on the link drawn by Kolvin between deprivation, fatherless families and crime.

Like Charles Murray, Kolvin focuses on 'illegitimacy'. However, Kolvin's study also discovers that almost 20 per cent of the sons of fathers with families that were not deprived also acquired a criminal record. This figure confirms Home Office research on boys born in 1953 - a third had a criminal record by the time they were 30. It is clear from this that crime is one of the things boys do that their sisters don't do - whatever their class and whether or not they have fathers.

Kolvin's study predates contemporary consciousness of family life. There is no critique of the contract between capital and organised labour, enshrined in the family wage, that produced the poverty of women - and economic catastrophe in families deserted by fathers. No question is asked about the violence we now know to be endured in millions of families, whatever their class, nor about sexual abuse endured by so many children, inflicted typically by fathers.

Kolvin's study offers no sympathy for the psychic crisis induced in boys forced to witness brutality by the most powerful person in their lives, their fathers, towards the most useful person in their lives, their mother. Compelled to quarry for role models only in men, boys saturated by The Terminator template make their masculinity in an image that has alienated and exhausted everyone. Kolvin's values are magnified into misogyny in the study by Dennis, Erdos and Halsey.

Men were not only evading their parental responsibilities, they were being evicted, say the scholars, rendered merely visitors, 'men temporarily attached to households' by the 'Marxist-feminist attack on the family'. Clearly, the challenge of feminism has driven sexist socialists to a conservative discourse that goes where Thatcherism feared to tread.

These men, and their patrons, offer no alliance with the women who ask only one thing of men, that they co-operate, and no alliance with the men whose efforts to be decent dads have been supported neither by their peers nor by this debate. Not surprisingly, the Murrayites are mystified by, indeed fearful of the strength of the mothers whose solitary survival strategies expose what they most fear - the redundancy of the vanishing fathers.

That is the dread that supports the cruelty of Charles Murray's prospectus: cut off all support, make the unmarried mothers marry the fathers or send their children to adopters or orphanages. 'End all support.' That way, he says, 'the old reality will resurface and with it the traditional family.'

For 11 minutes a day.

(Photograph omitted)