Profile: The Father - It's hard to be a dad

It's no longer enough just to provide - and many men want to do more. Cole Moreton on a modern struggle
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Some dads are bastards. Sorry to be so direct, and on Father's Day, but a female colleague who heard about this piece warned me not to go all slushy. She was very fierce about it, so here is a disclaimer: some fathers are never home, some keep their love locked away, and some are abusive. Some are even monsters and murderers, like Fred West. He was married to Rose, of course, but we must not allow her to impede the breast-beating that appears compulsory whenever men discuss fatherhood.

Men have it easy, it is (loudly and often) said. All we have to do is find a female to impregnate, sit in the hospital smoking while she labours, pop in to say "well done, dear", then go down the pub to wet the baby's head. After the birth it gets even simpler: 15 minutes' quality time with Daddy at the end of the day should be enough for any child. If that gets boring, but you can't afford a nanny and divorce is not an option, then plead pressure of work and stay in the office. Someone has to put food on the table, even if he's not there to eat it. Even teenage dads will have to pay for the fruits of brief passion now that the Government has announced its intention to demand maintenance once they start earning.

The Father has never been so ill regarded. Once he was so powerful that God was made in his image, but now patriarchy is a dirty word. Fathers are lazy, evasive and ignorant, or so we're told. Only last week Mothercare, whose name lets every man know whose side it is on, joined the large band of daddy-bashers when it declared that "Millennium man is still in the dark ages when it comes to knowing how to care for his newly born offspring and partner".

Researchers asked men four questions about parenthood, and only 3 per cent got them all right. (Could all mothers guess how many nappies a child gets through in its first month of life?) The 6 per cent of men who dared to admit they would like to be in the bar when their next baby was born were condemned as "shameful" - although one suspects a lot more than that were covering their shame with a lie.

Casual attacks such as this are commonplace, but what those who make them fail to realise is that the modern father knows his failings. He's not deaf or blind to the relentless criticism, no matter how dumb some women think he is. He desperately wants to be a better father - usually a better one than his own - but feels confused and beleaguered. Wild horses are pulling him apart, the old instinct to be a breadwinner straining hard against the real desire to spend time with his children.

How do we know? Because every year the increasing commercial frenzy of Father's Day is accompanied by surveys and reports on the state of modern fatherhood. The latest was released on Wednesday by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and, read in conjunction with its predecessors, it reveals a set of anxieties that cut across boundaries of class, culture and ethnicity.

Whether he's rich or poor, black or white, the Father - the typical father anyway - wants to provide for his offspring. Even when he rejects traditional Western ideas of marriage and the nuclear family in favour of an alternative from another culture or a carefully negotiated contract with his partner, he feels the same obligation to keep his children safe, warm and fed. Research reveals that most women and children still believe that the Father's primary role is to be a provider - and they experience how much it hurts when he can't do that. Many would echo the words of a man in Rochdale who told a survey that bringing home a wage justified his existence.

The attraction of behaving like an old-fashioned breadwinner is that a man can be sure he commands respect within the family, even if it's only by keeping everyone from starvation. It enables him to remain aloof from domestic mayhem, because a working man needs his rest, and if things get too frantic there is always a hiding-place at the office (a scam that every nappy-weary man has pulled at some time or other, because at work you know your parameters, and even dealing with the most Machiavellian boss is less complicated than family life). Sometimes the Father has no choice, of course: one in four works more than 50 hours a week.

Others are left feeling useless when unemployment, sickness or enforced retirement make it impossible to satisfy the instinct to provide. They would agree with the unemployed man who says he has been deprived of a way of demonstrating affection and feels he is letting the whole family down. "I just love my kids. I don't always show it, but I do. Now I can't say, `Look at this, I've been out to work and earned a nice wage this week - here you are son, here you are love, here's a fiver, go and get yourself some clothes or some make-up or whatever.' And I feel sad that I can't show them that."

No pocket money from dad means his children can't participate fully in consumer culture, which hurts his pride. For similar reasons, other families deliberately obscure the fact that the woman is the main earner.

If the workplace has changed, so has the wife. She is still seen as the main carer, and is happy with that, but she also expects to work now, either as a means of achieving a little precious independence or because the family can't get by without the extra wage. Someone has to wash, clean, look after the kids and walk the dog, and the only solution is to split those duties between the two working partners. As a result the Father has far more interaction with his family than his own dad ever did - and just being the breadwinner really won't do any more.

"Difficulties balancing home and work responsibilities are placing families under considerable pressure," says Charlie Lewis, a co-author of the Rowntree report, who believes men should get more recognition and support for the creative ways they find to spend time with their children. These include acting as an informal taxi service, and playing sports or computer games together.

Asked what was expected of them these days, many of the men surveyed gave answers like "too bloody much" or "all singing, all dancing". They agreed they should be more "involved" with the family - although none could really define what that meant. For some it meant being more like the wife, who was seen as a better and more natural parent because she could communicate well with teenagers, for example. One woman said men were being asked to behave like "superdads" - male equivalents of Nicola Horlick and other women who appeared to juggle home and work with ease.

"Superdad has the same problems as supermum," warns Jack O'Sullivan, co-founder of the new group Fathers Direct. He is convinced that flexible hours and tele-working are enabling some men to fulfil a deep-rooted desire to spend more time with their children, which broadens their masculinity and identity. But there are risks. "For women the issue is, does work mean they are neglecting their child? For men who want to be there for their families, it's are they neglecting their job?"

Fathers Direct, whose trustees include the feminist author Susie Orbach and the London mayoral candidate Trevor Phillips, is about to set up a telephone helpline and website. Next month it will publish 600,000 copies of a guide for fathers, to be included in an advice pack given to new parents. "Typically the father does not have a lot of support. He is relying on his own instincts, and on his partner."

Mr O'Sullivan believes fatherhood is in transition. "In their confusion people will take refuge in stereotypes, in tradition and nostalgia. That's a passing phase. We don't really have a new template for fatherhood yet, but one will emerge."

In the meantime there are very few plausible role models. Fathers worried about the matches their offspring have made might feel for Prince Philip this weekend; sons who have had to live and raise a family in the shadow of a famous dad will identify with Damon Hill; and those who fancy dressing their infant in a sarong can take inspiration from David Beckham. What all three men have in common, however, is the economic freedom to spend as much or as little time with their boys and girls as they like. That's not available to the average father, who tears from home to work and back again with the guilty feeling that he's not doing terribly well at either. If he needs reassurance, perhaps the citizens of Spokane, Washington, were on to something when they first decided to honour fatherhood with a special day in 1910. They were imitating Mothering Sunday, which had itself emerged from the tradition of allowing young servants and apprentices time off in Lent to go home to Mom. Given the Father's present insecurity, perhaps the greetings card industry has done him a social service by promoting this celebration so heavily over the past five to 10 years. After all, what could be more comforting in these uncertain times than a mug that says you're The World's Greatest Dad, or a pair of socks with golfers on the sides?