The Times

May 28 2000

Fatherhood should be taken as seriously as motherhood. By Jack O'Sullivan


Parent power: David Bartlett of Fathers Direct with Ilona, 3, and Reuben, 16 months
Photograph: Paul Clements

From here to paternity

by Jack O'Sullivan
The Times

Baby talk: Leo Blair may focus attention on paternity rights
Photograph: Mary McCartney
This week, James Fraser attended a Glasgow antenatal clinic with his wife, who is expecting their second child this autumn. "The midwife came out and said 'Hello' to Gillian," he recalls. "Then she showed her into the room and shut the door. Gillian had to open the door and let me in. The midwife didn't say anything. Then we had to deal with the problem that there was only one chair and nowhere for me to sit. It was so embarrassing."

For Fraser, 38, a charity fundraiser, the experience was typical and one familiar to most fathers. Tony Blair may have struggled through Leo's birth with his wife, Cherie, but chat to any new father and most will speak of being largely ignored by the services that are supposed to support parents. "You are made to feel as though you are on the edge looking in," says Fraser.

"You go into the antenatal clinic and there are women's magazines everywhere, posters about maternity leave, but nothing about paternity leave. The colours are all pastels and pinks. Nobody asks me any questions such as , 'Is this your first family?' the sort of questions which might be predictors of problems ahead. There is no dialogue with the midwives. They have a patter with my wife but nothing to say to me.

"We have had lots of material, leaflets and booklets and none of it mentions fathers. Of course, you don't make a fuss, because you don't want to upset your partner. But it makes me feel like a spare part."

All this ignoring of dads may fit the common misconception that fathers, at least in the first months of life, are superfluous, a feeling that perhaps modern dads are muscling in on what is really about mother and child. Yet a gathering body of evidence now endorses what many fathers feel - that what we do matters right from the very beginning of a child's life. In short, we imperil a child's future if we fail to take fathering as seriously as mothering.

We now know, for example, that children whose fathers are highly involved with them in their first month are performing better than their peers to their first birthdays. Breast-feeding is more successful when fathers are backing up the new mother and maternal postnatal depression is lower.

Research suggests that wellfathered six and seven-year-olds achieve better at school and even score higher IQs, an effect that disappears in later years as a host of other factors take precedence in determining IQ. However, studies also show that where there is substantial paternal involvement in middle childhood (between seven and 11), delinquency is lower. Where fathers are heavily involved in later childhood (between 11 and 16) children have higher educational and career aspirations. Indeed high father involvement in a child's life is an important predictor of social mobility, of whether a child will outstrip the employment achievements of parents. Among adults, the strongest predictor of altruism in both men and women is the level of care taken by a father in their childhood.

There are also lots of negatives that may be avoided by good fathering. It is commonly believed that boys are the chief casualties of poor fathering. This view, however, represents a misunderstanding of a reality emerging from many studies, namely that boys appear to be more vulnerable generally than girls to all sorts of psychological knocks in early life. Girls also suffer from poor fathering.

For example, a common feature among anorexic girls is a distant or punitive relationship with their fathers. It has also been found that 80% of women who feel emotionally distant from their partners have had bad experiences with their fathers and 90% of girls whose parents have split up in childhood find it harder to settle down in a relationship. There are now lots of studies indicating that where children continue to have a positive relationship with their father after divorce or separation, both sexes do better.

"Good fathering may not be a panacea," according to Adrienne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed, a study of modern fatherhood. "It will not necessarily save you but a really great relationship with your father will help you if life treats you badly."

Many fathers will not be surprised to hear of the research endorsing the importance of their role. As a father myself I felt it instinctively from the moment by wife became pregnant. I wanted - and she wanted - me to be there for all the antenatal visits. I remember being with her amid the debris in the delivery room after our daughter was born. That was the only place I wanted to be. I did not want to be marginalised, packed off home to smoke a cigar, have a drink in some lonely pub or blow up balloons at home for the return of mother and child. I wanted to be there. So I did what I still regard as an important act: I refused to go home. The negotiations were gentle and diplomatic. The hospital was understanding and my exhausted wife wanted me there. In end, I stayed three nights, sleeping in a chair, until my wife and daughter were discharged. That for me set the tone of my fatherhood, of not colluding with a culture which pushes us away from our children.

It is one factor that led us to move to Scotland, a move that meant I could work in one of the few posts open to me that allowed me to work from home. I had the flexibility to earn a living while my daughter sat on the potty in the doorway of my office.

Elsewhere there are more co-ordinated efforts to change the way fatherhood is treated. David Bartlett at Fathers Direct, the new national organisation for fatherhood, is at the forefront. Father of Ilona, 3, and Reuben, 16 months, he is establishing a network of family services practitioners across Britain such as health visitors, midwives, fathers groups and social workers. The aim is to help them make their work "father-friendly".

"I know I am really important to my children, because I look after them so much of the time," says Bartlett, a former civil servant. "When people talk about the unique bond between mother and child, it does not appear to fit us. I am just as important to them and I want to spend the time with them even if it means that I'm up half the night."

This model of inclusive fatherhood is surely what our sons will take for granted, just as we take for granted the notion of being present at the birth of our children. Progress is faster in America, where fathers are now increasingly being invited to deliver their own children.

In the workplace, fathering is also being taken more seriously. Big US companies, such as DuPont and Johnson & Johnson, now run highly successful lunchtime sessions for fathers to discuss "daddy stress", the strain caused by trying to combine demanding jobs with involved fathering. "Father-friendly work" is now a

recognised term in America, where payoffs in terms of higher staff retention, loyalty and productivity are beginning to show up in research.

But a generation of British fathers cannot wait for our culture to change all too slowly, a culture in which, for example, nearly half of all new fathers receive no paid paternity leave and a quarter of the rest get no more than three days. We have seen Blair visibly moved after attending the birth of Leo. Let's hope that the prime minister's high-profile encounter with fatherhood makes him act upon the policy implications of taking fathering seriously.

Jack O'Sullivan was Scotland Correspondent of the Independent and is now on sabbatical with Fathers Direct developing an on-line magazine for fathers. He can be e-mailed on j.osullivan@fathersdirct.com or telephone 020 7920 9491

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.