Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Father's Place Is in the Home; Why Do Society and the Law Conspire against Single Dads?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Father's Place Is in the Home; Why Do Society and the Law Conspire against Single Dads?

Article excerpt

We "new dads" are just a figment of our flaccid imaginations, a chattering class creation. We don't exist - or we shouldn't, anyway. So we are told.

The case against us is derived more from nature than nurture: men are products of their penises, built for roaming, hunting, fighting, disciplining and most of all providing. This state of grace is immutable: try to change it and you're asking for trouble.

The onslaught has come from an unlikely coalition: back-to-basics traditionalists, breast-beating men, earth-mother feminists and new lads. Yet it all feels so familiar, taking us back to the days when women were told they didn't have the hormones, brains or bodies for anything more than the typing pool. Back to the kitchen, girl; back to the office, son.

Unfortunately we fathers are not too hot at answering back. Unlike the early feminists, we are not au fait with victimhood and have yet to build the networks to put our case on a national agenda. Our arguments often come across as anti-mum rather than as a logical extension of feminism: indeed, the public lead has come from sympathetic women such as Fay Weldon, Anna Coote, Patricia Hewitt and Adrienne Burgess, whose book Fatherhood Reclaimed has become the British bible on the subject.

So perhaps it needs stating right at the start that we newish dads have indeed arrived. Along with the estate-loads of single mothers has come an explosion in the number of single dads: 10 per cent of the lone parent total (or 200,000 men in sole charge of more than 300,000 children). In some areas the proportions are higher. A lifestyle marketing survey last year, The Black Child Report, based on surveys from six English cities, found that fathers comprised 23 per cent of black single parents.

And if you examine the fine print from recent surveys on British parental roles, you'll find that fathers are spending a higher proportion of time with their children than ever before (though the headlines usually focus on the fact that mothers are still easily outpacing their partners in this domain). Better-heeled working mothers may pay child minders to pick up the slack,but this is not always an option further down the scale, which is why, according to one government report, nearly half the main carets of children in parts of south Wales are men.

So why does our presence still excite such suspicion and denial? Any father putting in time on the playgroup coal-face will recognise that drop-the-nappy-bag-and-rejoin-the-job-queue look, or its humour-the-useless-lad counterpart. Like Dr Seuss's egg-sitting elephant, Horton, we are often viewed - and view ourselves - as interlopers in someone else's world. Yet there is persuasive evidence that once children are weaned, fathers and mothers are potentially equally capable of nurturing them. The trouble is that by this stage the pattern is usually set. Little girls get used to playing at being mums; boys do nothing of the sort.

During pregnancy the gap widens, and once a baby is born even the least "maternal" woman has little choice but to acquire the basic skills. Fathers, who ostensibly have the choice, often find themselves frozen out by partners who resent any encroachment on a role which offers security and power.

But it is not just wombs, breasts and custom that are to blame; the law and politics play their part, too. The most vital time for parents to "bond" with their children is during their first year of existence. For mothers this has long been facilitated by statutory maternity leave, and at the end of 1998 Britain will finally fall in line with Europe by giving effect to the EU Social Chapter Parental Leave Directive, which guarantees all parents three months off after the birth of a child. …

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