Across the land, the bosses of small businesses and heads of major corporations may well be wincing this week – but many families should be very happy indeed. It's the Government that has caused such mixed emotions. Its latest vision for the modern family aims to put fathers back in the picture. When their babies are born, so the idea goes, fathers should be able to share parental leave with their partners, and demand flexible working conditions for years to come.
In fact, fathers have been at the centre of the political agenda lately in several ways – and, for once, we're not talking about Fathers 4 Justice. There has been hand-wringing about how the male children of single-parent black families suffer when there isn't a father around. In schools, head teachers are desperate for more male teachers as role models for fatherless children. And when partners break up, we're told, only 50 per cent of fathers keep in touch with their children, causing untold misery.
But by 2010, the length of paid parental leave could rise by 13 weeks (from the current level of 39 weeks, to a full year). And though the first 26 weeks would have to be taken by the mother, fathers would be able to take over after that, caring for their children full-time.
Inevitably, they will become closer to their children. And even if parents do break up, it will be far less easy for fathers to be completely cut off from their families because they will be far more emotionally attached to them.
But will it ever happen? Will City traders soon stride into their macho offices and boldly announce that, during the coming months, they will be donning a pinny and taking over nappy duty? It may sound implausible, but for the lucky few, flexible working exists – and some of them share their experiences on these pages. There are already hundreds of fathers who, because they earn rather less than their partners, have become house-husbands. Thousands more work part-time, along with their partners, so that they can share the parenting. The pathetic wail of, "I want my mummy!", is already turning, quite often, into "I want my daddy!".
And that's a good thing. Dads are important, and not just to boys but to girls, too. They're often the first men girls fall in love with, after all.
When mothers give birth, their first words to the baby are, usually, "Hello". On meeting their newborn baby for the first time, fathers usually say, "Hello, I'm your dad". Babies take their mums for granted, as their mums take them – they have spent nine months in pretty close proximity, after all. Dads, from the word go, are something "other", and remain an essential contact with the outside world right up until the children fly the nest.
It's dads who tend to let their children take more risks, dads who take them on outings. And although, currently, fathers of children up to the age of six already have the right to request flexi-time, Labour's new idea is to extend this right up to the age of 16, meaning that 4.5 million fathers will have the right to see far more of their children than at present, and hopefully do "dad things" with them, like going camping or playing football, or just tinkering about with old bits of machinery.
But that doesn't mean that fathers aren't just as nurturing when babies are small. Many families share the bottle-feeding, and even the getting-up in the night. Nappy-changing isn't something that a self-respecting 21st-century father should balk at. Let's not forget that, once upon a time, people used to turn and look if they saw a bloke pushing a pram. The family is changing, even if that change seems slow.
But still, women who "get pregnant on the job", as it were, often feel that they are committing career suicide when they go on maternity leave; they fear that their places will be taken by men, or that when they return they'll be relegated to jobs that involve sorting the paper clips. Indeed, some fear that they don't get the good jobs at all. But if men have the same options, and take up the offer of paternity leave, then they'll be at the same risk of committing career suicide, too.
Eventually, we may hope, there will be a level playing-field – even though the alternative scenario, of course, leads to lots of couples having double the reason to put off having children altogether.
Let's hope that we don't wind up with the latter scenario. As anyone who has seen the film Mamma Mia! will know, paternity is an issue that moves us just as much as maternity. The film is about a young woman who, as she is about to get married, searches for the father she never knew. In the cinema, even hardened old blokes get out their hankies, and generally there's not a dry eye in the house. Everyone loves a dad.
There's a complaint that has been going on for years from men who feel that the pendulum has swung too far and that men have virtually no rights when it comes to their children. Finally, it looks as if the tide is starting to turn back, and not to the time when men ruled the roost, were only available to their children when a beating was required, and women were domestic drudges, who had to care for their children full-time, but to a time of greater equality and more shared parenting. Something that seems to me to be of enormous advantage to absolutely everyone.
Cyril Adjei, 40
Some professionals with established careers do manage to balance their family commitments. Cyril Adjei, 40, a barrister from Herne Hill, south London, has not had to change his working pattern severely. As he is in control of the work he takes on, he is able to enjoy time with his son Matthew, 2, and his daughter Esther, who is 11 weeks old.
"I try to get home early as much as I can now, but as barristers can work when cases come in, I'm able to see my children more when I choose," he says. And when he gets home, he mucks in with looking after the kids as best he can. "I'm sure my partner wishes I did more," he adds, laughing.
He also believes that government action alone will not give fathers the freedom to stay at home more often: "It also requires employers and employees to sit down together and be imaginative and flexible in their agreements."
As for fears expressed by politicians about absent black fathers, he is also unsure of what government can do to change the situation. "I'm of an ethnic minority, and politicians don't seem to have any solutions to the issue. But at least it's an area that they are now not afraid to treat."
By Michael savage
Mike Robinson, 40
A flexible working agreement allowed Robinson from Cumbria, to spend much more time at home with his daughter. His arrangement with his employer, a bank, means he can look after his five-year-old daughter, Emily, for two days during the week. He can also arrive at work late to drop her off at school, and leave at 2.45pm, allowing him to be at the school when the teaching day finishes.
"I've got a very good employer that uses flexitime as an incentive to attract staff," he says. He adds that taking such a large role in his daughter's life is a joy. "I know all the names of the My Little Ponies," he says. "I've been able to build up with other parents and teachers at her school. Things often come up at work, but you just have to keep a strict divide between home and the office. My daughter is my responsibility."
He says that other men should ask for a flexi-hours agreement if they want more time with their kids. "The reality is that most flexi-time requests are granted now," he says. "The problem is that people are often too nervous to ask for it in case it backfires."
Bob Owen, 39
Owen, from Dalston, east London, is a self-employed carpenter. He changed his working week so that he could spend Fridays with his two children, Ella, one, and Sam, three. It means his children only spend two days of the week at a nursery.
The change can make a week's work even more demanding. "I'm self-employed, so I sometimes find that I have to squeeze a five-day working week into four days," he says.
Looking after the kids can sometimes be more physically demanding than his carpentry work, but Owen says once he's out of the house, the enthusiasm of his children gives him plenty of energy. And looking after the children has changed his social life, too. "I've met lots of new people and gone to new places because of my days off with the children, like spending time in the playground," he says. "These are things I never thought I would be doing five years ago.
"There's still not many blokes out there, to be honest," he says. "It's always good to see another dad in the playground and I always try and go over to say hello."
Paul Knight, 47
When Knight, who lives near Yeovil in Somerset, separated from his wife three and a half years ago, he made the decision to give up some of the responsibilities of his business so he could take a bigger role in the life of his son, George, six, who has special needs. "It really freed me up to have a much greater role in my child's everyday life," says Knight. "I was able to do things like pick him up from school, as George goes to a local primary school very close to my home.
"It was a great decision, but it has been at a financial cost as my first priority is to be available for my child. If I didn't do what I did, I would only be able to see him every other weekend, which I didn't think was in his best interests."
Knight believes the decision has given him a much tighter bond with George. "He's certainly benefited from my input and the time we spend together," he says. "It's very rewarding, especially when you have a child with special needs. That sense of wanting to be involved is very strong. And when he does well, it is a wonderful feeling."
As a more flexible working regime has worked for him, Knight says he would accommodate a similar arrangement for either of his two employees, though it would be a struggle. He said the biggest difficulty would be the culture. "People want things straight away, and wouldn't always be understanding if a small business said it would have to fit work around family commitments. Most people are understanding, but some still think men should put their business or career first. For me, George is the priority and I wouldn't change what I've done for the world."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies