HE WAS a boy we envied: handsome, sophisticated, good at games, destined for university. But at 17, catastrophe struck: he got his girlfriend pregnant. He left the grammar school, she left the high school, and they married, fleetly. He took a local job. She had the baby. We felt we'd seen a hero's downfall - poor sod, worst thing imaginable, no life any more, etc. A cold shiver passed through us.
This was a quarter of a century ago, when the pressure on young men 'to do the right thing' was greater than it is now. Conservatives have been known to be romantic about this period, commonly referred to as 'The Fifties' but stretching back indefinitely in time and known to have lasted, in rural areas, until at least the end of the 1960s. Moral pundits contrast the 'decent' young men then with their 'feckless' equivalent today, who in the cellar of opprobrium have taken the place formerly reserved for single mothers in council flats. The hope is that the Child Support Agency, a much criticised body which was in the news again last week, will bring these young men to their senses - or at least bring in their cheques to the Treasury.
History teaches us to be sceptical about golden ages and decisive breaks in sensibility. Laurence Stone, in The Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987, describes numerous 18th and 19th century legal suits in which damages were awarded against absconding fathers: what judges and juries objected to, he writes, 'was not pre-nuptial sexual relations, which were normal (almost half of English brides were pregnant on the day of marriage), but the refusal of the man to marry the girl after she became pregnant'. Such refusals of the 'decent thing' were not unknown in the 1950s and 60s, either - an age not of gold but of fear, fumbling and ignorance. If you were lucky, the girl might unload the baby on her parents (who would sometimes pass it off as its teenage mother's mysterious late sibling). There were adoption agencies. There were people other people knew who knew people who performed abortions. And if all else failed, you could always disappear.
Certainly, I don't remember us being nice. It is a rule of human development that young men are sexually voracious for several years before they have the social confidence to enter a chemist's and ask for a packet of condoms, and in those days contraceptive machines were not easily found. Some of us were caught out. But, given the chance of not marrying the girl and not paying for the baby, most of us, I suspect, would have jumped at it. Reading an interview with a brusquely irresponsible young father of two children in last week's Sunday Times, I was struck not by how frighteningly strange and Nineties he sounded, but how little male attitudes have changed.
But it is true that the pressure on men has eased. The social changes which have liberated women - the Pill, and greater opportunity in the workplace - have also, in this matter of children, unburdened men. If the male partner in a relationship has said he doesn't want a baby, and the woman has been the one in charge of contraception, what are his responsibilities when she becomes pregnant? He may feel he's been conned, that the baby is her lookout, that the basis of their relationship has been violated.
This isn't the kind of change that was predicted in the 1970s and 80s. Then, it was supposed that, as the old simple gender divisions were eroded, so men would become feminised, domesticated, more child-centred than their fathers had been. It hasn't happened, not on a wide scale. Many men 'help about the house', but few assume the prime responsibility for running it. The New Man - the sharing-caring-flexitime sort, down on the floor for hours playing with his toddler - is a myth.
Partly it's a lack of role models. Novels and films provide countless examples of fathers who are wayward, unpredictable, who chuck up everything and just clear off: the latest is to be found, in absentia, in David Mamet's play The Cryptogram. But where, since William Cobbett in the last century, do we find the other kind of patriarch, concerned, gentle, stay-at-home? And beyond the lack of precedents lies the deeper problem of masculinity itself. It may be biologically determinist to say so, but the bond made by growing a child inside the body is not one which men can readily emulate. Until men acquire the capacity to become impregnated, there will always be some who feel about their children 'nothing to do with me'.
This is why the Child Support Agency, for all its limitations, is necessary. Its energies may be misdirected (should it really be chasing gay sperm donors in cases where lesbian couples are bringing up a child?), its income from absent fathers may have fallen several million pounds short of the target, its director may have been forced to apologise for its bureacratic inefficiency, and thousands of fathers can testify to hardship and injustice at its hands. But there is no doubt that it has a job to do: too many maintenance cheques have been lost in the post.
It's understandable that young fathers should be a particular target: the eagerness of the human male to nurture offspring rarely appears before the age of 30. But even once this feeling has waxed, it can also wane: sleepless nights, a demanding job, a sense of exclusion from home, the onset of that period of second adolescence known as mid-life - all these mean that older fathers, too, can't be relied on. I know a teacher who has walked out on two different pairs of his children, history repeating itself even down to their ages when he went. C'est la vie; people fall in love and out of love, and marriages break up, and blame is beside the point. But denying your children basic financial support, as this man did, is not easily forgiven, least of all by them. Anger with a spouse can prevent a fair deal for the kids. Guilt isn't always empowering, either. Nor is simple meanness easily underestimated. This is where the CSA comes in.
In parts of the US, the campaign to nail won't-pay fathers is much more draconian than here: there have been radio ads giving the name, age and appearance of absconders, with a commentary calculated to shame them into coughing up. This seems extreme, and very un-English - and, like all American customs, will soon no doubt reach these shores. There was something like it here once before, in the age of the charivari, a noisy public demonstration in which masked villagers would descend on the offender's house at night, beating pans and blowing horns and signalling through this 'rough music' the community's disapproval of a wife-beater or sire of illegitimate children.
The CSA isn't the charivari. It needs reform: its role should be not to humiliate, nor to fill government coffers, but to ensure children are properly supported by their parents.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies