How's your father?

More attentive than legend suggests

Wednesday June 16, 1999
The Observer

The changing nature of fathering is a subject which usually generates more heat than light. The issue has been exploited to promote a moral agenda around feckless fathers, family breakdown and a threatening new generation of unsocialised boys. In fact, the vast majority (eight out of 10) of men want to be fathers, take paternal responsibilities very seriously and - contrary to popular perception - succeed in fulfilling them, according to a thoughtful report from the Family Policy Studies Centre, Fathers and Fatherhood in Britain. Eighty-five per cent of fathers live with all their children under the age of 18. Spelling out such statistics does us two favours. First, it dispels the moral panic. Second, given the enormous changes in gender roles and employment patterns with which parents have to contend, it indicates the deep commitment the vast majority of men make to family life and raising children.

One of the reasons why this point doesn't get enough emphasis is that increasingly fatherhood is being matched up against motherhood and found wanting; this is a measure of the domination of the whole parenting debate by women. That has to change, as the report points out. We are living through a period of astonishing change in the roles and expectations of women. Such is its speed that men are only just beginning to think through how this affects their emotional and sexual identity. Fatherhood is just one aspect, though a very important one, of this revolutionary social change.

The support which women have in part won for their parenting responsibilities now needs to be extended to men. The most pressing policy implications are obvious: the length of the working week and paternity leave. British fathers with children under 11 work on average 48 hours a week, the longest in Europe, and most of them have little or no parental leave. If we want the best deal for children, we should not tolerate that.

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