Where do all the New Men go?

Polly Toynbee replies to Jack O'Sullivan's claims that his generation are gentle, thoughtful, considerate, in touch with their emotions, determined to be good fathers, and even taking therapy so that they become less hopelessly dependent on women
Click to follow
Dear Jack,

Your article on Friday was touchingly optimistic. You stake a fine claim to being a New Man, a man behaving well. But if you claim to speak for most of the men of your 35-year-old generation - I cast a wearily jaundiced old eye. I deeply doubt it.

There are lot of New Men, and indeed New Women, at your stage of life. I have seen them come - and go. Well, let's see what happens 10 years from now when you have two or three children. It's easy being New without kids.

Yes, the old gender stereotypes are fading fast. Mercifully, we are less constricted by antiquated ideas of what it is to be male or female. Boys do cry. Girls sometimes hit them. You claim emotionally autistic men are awaking from their long sensory deprivation. They no longer need women as their emotional crutches or their voices, though they may still like them very much. New Men have real bonding friendships. Very nice.

You stand on the brink of fatherhood and I understand why you rebel at the traditional role. It lacks glamour. Most of literature and autobiography casts the father as a distant figure, aloof, remote, disapproving and incapable of reaching out to his family. Traditional images of fatherhood are exceedingly unpleasant - from God the Father downwards. They imply authority, discipline and self-importance. The new climate of moral panic tells us that the modern world is falling apart without fathers in the home to keep everyone in line: "Wait till your father gets home!"

Motherhood, on the other hand, has everything good, including apple pie. Warmth, generosity, care, loving, cooking, kindness, sticking plasters, emollience - it's got it all. What is there left over for fathers, except the bits no one wants? Now women may complain about nappies, vomit and lavatory-cleaning - but few women would swap roles.

Most mothers say they want equality. They want careers, they want to use their intelligence in the wider world. But then, most will admit that the thought of their children turning first to fathers for comfort frightens them. They want men to do their share, but deep down they do not want to lose their Queen Bee role. They want it all (but rarely get it). So it is hardly surprising that young men like you, surveying the future of your new family, should want a slice of mother's apple pie.

However, at present, the idea of men usurping women's domestic hegemony is comic. Let's get real. Take the Henley Centre's "Time Use Survey". They took full-time working men and full-time working women and compared the way they spent their time. (I would imagine that where both partners work, men are far more likely to try to do their share in the home.) These men do 12.69 hours a week of household work, compared with women's 25.33 hours, plus another seven hours extra of other essential duties. Social Trends tells the same story. The pace of change is slow. A survey of all families by City University shows that only 1 per cent of men undertake household chores on a permanent basis. Women still do most of the child care. Maybe those New Men whose fathers were out on the golf-course are instead in therapy or out bonding in the woods with Iron John?

So, domestically, what are men for? As you rightly point out, women are increasingly wondering about this themselves, answering "Nothing" and ejecting the drones from their homes. Does she need a man around unless he contributes significantly to the easy running of the household, the upbringing of children or to her own happiness? Men have to earn their role as fathers these days. They have to prove their worth in families and where they fail to do so, things may fall apart.

The growing academic literature on fatherhood increasingly questions whether fatherhood exists as a real role at all. Children need good parents - but not specifically men. Charlie Lewis, of Lancaster University, has been reviewing over a hundred of the latest fatherhood studies on both sides of the Atlantic. He says: "The overwhelming evidence now is that fathers have very little measurable effect on families. US families without fathers, once poverty is taken into account, show no developmental differences. There is no magical effect on children's cognitive development nor on their identification with sex roles." There is, he says, evidence that children need more than one stable loving adult figure in their lives, but who that is, or of what sex, makes no difference. (So, farewell, Freud.)

What women with children do need is a meal-ticket. In the old days that's what fathers were for - and it still is. For all the male angst about the growth of jobs for women, the overwhelming majority of mothers still cannot support themselves and their families. They may add to family income with part-time jobs, but men are still the breadwinners. (Only some 13 per cent of households have women earning more than their husbands). Despite the Having-It-All triumphalism of upmarket women's magazines, surprisingly few women manage well-paid, full-time work and children. One study of middle managers found that most of the men had children, but only 16 per cent of the women. Women still have to choose.

Now, young and newly married, maybe you, Jack, and your partner think you will both advance equally in your careers - but the odds are strongly stacked against. Fast-track jobs are almost impossible to combine with caring for families, for men or women.

You are quite right to point out how attitudes in your generation are changing. But an attitude washes few dishes. Gender chic does change with the times - but the old, hard economic facts remain.

I shall believe in New Men come the gender revolution when men are out on the streets turning all this into a genuine political issue. When men demand to work sensible hours so they can care for their children, when interesting, high-flying jobs can be done within hours that mothers and fathers can both manage, then mothers will finally give up their domestic crown and men will indeed be born again. But will I live to see the day?

Polly

Comments