Guardian/Observer

In search of New Dad

Doting dad, deadbeat dad, five-minutes-a-day dad - as Father's Day approaches, Dave Hill asks which is the most accurate image of modern fatherhood.

Dave Hill
Wednesday June 14, 2000
The Observer

Big question: is this a grim age of fatherhood, or a golden one? Are dads with dependent children better at being parents than their own dads were, or are they getting worse? You could be forgiven for believing either is the case - or both. On the bright side, displays of paternal devotion have become ubiquitous, from the endless images in the 80s of New Men and their newborns, to their crescendo in recent weeks with David Beckham parading his little boy alongside his winner's medal. Oh yes: and the prime minister spent a fortnight at the cotside of young Leo.

But if such scenes seem to signify a fatherhood renaissance, another version of what's happening is less cheering. The "deadbeat dad" who leaves his family in the financial lurch has outstripped the teenage single mother as the folk devil of family life. And he is but one manifestation of a more generalised disquiet over men's failures in departments in which their own dads were rarely required to succeed: "being there" emotionally and dealing with the parts of parenting that are a grind rather than a romp.

What, then, is the true story of fatherhood today? In lots of ways it is one of uncertainties - those of fathers themselves and those of mothers and children about what fathers are and ought to be. The unsatisfactory but developing body of sociological data on fathers today bears this out. Charlie Lewis, professor of psychology at Lancaster University, has produced a digest of 21 recent survey findings relevant to fathers, for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In his introduction, he notes the "continuing confusion over the part men actually play in today's families, and a lack of consensus about their potential role in child-rearing".

The explanation for this is to some extent straightforward: it is simply that fathers vary. Indeed, over the past 30 years of rapid family change, they have become so varied that broad generalisations are treacherous.

This is vital to keep in mind given the current preoccupation with paternal desertion. While substantial numbers of fathers do lose touch with their children after a relationship ends, most maintain contact - and a vast majority live in the same household as their children. And when we look a little deeper at how modern fathers go about being parents, it becomes plain that we are living through a social revolution with the potential to be glorious.

It is a staple of "sex war" journalism that nappy-changing, dinner-cooking New Dad is a myth. It is true that, in most two-parent families, men do continue to be the ones who earn most, if not all, the money, while mothers take on the bigger share of childcare and other domestic responsibilities - but in households in which both parents do paid work, these things are commonly reported to be equally shared. There is also a substantial minority of households in which fathers are the main carers, with mothers going out to earn.

What's more, men have become more available to their children when they're not at work, being more closely involved and spending more time with them. Revealingly, the most pronounced shift in parenting from mothers to fathers is taking place not among the trendy, liberal middle classes but among families in which the men are unemployed or working part-time. The affluent may talk the talk, but it's the working man who is more likely to walk the walk.

Such trends buttress optimists' belief that a New Dad figure is slowly emerging, one who may replace the "traditional" template for fatherhood of male breadwinner and distant disciplinarian with something more rounded, more emotionally available and generally more involved . But while evidence of such a change is mounting, it is plain that the transition is far from complete or painless. When men today are asked how they feel about being dads, they routinely tell researchers they'd like to "be there" for their children physically and spiritually in ways their own fathers often failed to do. Yet many still don't do it and many who are actively involved with their children say they are unhappy with their situations.

Culture, not biology, holds the key to this discrepancy. Lewis notes that "men who work long hours and share childcare with their partners are more likely than others to report feeling stressed and dissatisfied with their lives". In other words, "having it all" can be a problem for fathers too.

There is also the little matter of a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. "Despite the increasingly 'hands-on' reality of fathering for many men," Lewis writes, "cultural stereotypes of fathers as 'providers' and 'breadwinners' continue to exert a strong influence over men, women and children's attitudes to parenthood." Perhaps this in part explains why, even though parents in dual-income families often say childcare is shared, it is rare for the fathers to describe themselves as the main carer or for the mothers to describe themselves as providers. Men are aware that more is expected of them as parents these days, yet they still see their principal duty as bringing home the bacon and still often regard themselves as less well-equipped for childcare than women are. What's more, mothers and children often agree.

Conservatives insist this proves the need for family roles to be re-configured along "traditional" lines. Yet when fathers raise children without mothers, whether due to bereavement or family breakdown, they frequently learn that, breastfeeding aside, there is no kind of nurturing they can't do, and once bound to their children in the ways mothers are, they don't want to be "free" of them again. This suggests that what fathers and families need most urgently is not a return to the past but to be given the kind of cultural permission and practical support for the beautiful, bruising task of parenting that mothers have bestowed on them by virtue of their sex. Can this be achieved? Will men - and women - organise to achieve it?

There is a long way to go. So much public debate about fathers has focused on custody and maintenance, with fathers represented by "fathers rights" militants bewailing judges and "feminazis". While the workings of the system certainly gives cause for concern, the wider effect has been to render the whole territory of fatherhood reform toxic to activists of wider vision and goodwill. Adrienne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed (Vermilion), points out: "The good dads/bad dads dichotomy . . . results, in part, from the invisibility of fathering. The only time we find out what they do is when we find out what they don't do, such as pay child support, or when they abuse someone."

Happily, this imbalance is beginning to be corrected. Fathers Direct, the information and lobbying organisation for dads, now has the ear of the government, which has backed small but important schemes to foster active fathering among men. Of course, there's a bit more to be done before Britain catches up with Sweden, which has its own minister for the family and regards male parents as equally important as female ones.

Still, let's look on the bright side. Maybe Leo will wake our PM up in more ways than one.

The facts

Fathers Direct is on: 020-7920 9491. Charlie Lewis's summary of fatherhood data can be found at www.jrf.org.uk/

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