Jane Sandeman, 14 October 2010
Although no formal family policies have been issued by the Lib-Con coalition as yet, every sign shows they think the family just as important to social policy as the last Labour government. David Cameron has talked about the profound influence of his late father Ian, claiming warm and committed two parent families have a greater impact on a child’s life than income. Nick Clegg has declared: ‘Good parenting, not poverty, shape a child’s destiny’ (1).
With this outlook underpinning future policy, it’s interesting to consider what a child’s ideal destiny is supposed to be. If it’s to be prime minister of England, then it would appear income does have something to do with it. Paying to go to Eton, being educated well enough to get into Oxford and then having the right social connections in the wider world, for instance, would seem to support that destiny considerably. However, what policymakers identify as good ‘outcomes’ from good parenting are at much more degraded level than this: that there will be x less crime in the future, which will save y amount of public money. Policy’s highest aspiration is for children to grow up into adults with decent self-esteem, who enjoy a sense of well-being and are socially normative.
Where do fathers fit into this much narrower view of what social beings are? It’s telling that David Cameron’s celebration of what his father was and did is not the model promoted as ‘good fatherhood’ in policies about family. Ian Cameron was an old fashioned father model. He went out to work early and came back late as he commuted from the suburbs to his stock broking job in London. He was born with a disability; but stoically refused to let that become a barrier to his full engagement in society. He was the model of a father which now seems a call from a dim and distant past. He’s a father whose role was to support his family by working, by showing what a man is.
But that type of role model is not the one promoted for the father of today. As Nick Clegg’s quote shows, it’s what happens in the home that’s important, not what happens outside it in the world. Increasingly, we’re told that who a child will become is shaped even before they’re conceived. Women of child bearing age are being told to think about their alcohol intake, their food intake, their folic acid ingestion in the event they may conceive. The propaganda war surrounding breast feeding brings into play the idea that children who are breast fed have higher IQs than those who don’t. And there is book after book from neuroscientists and pop psychologists warning that brains get hard wired by the age of three, so the nurturing of infants is elevated to a high status in the development of a child.
So, where do fathers fit into this world where there’s limited social validation given to an adult - man or woman - acting autonomously in the public sphere? Inevitably, the role that public policy wishes fathers to play is increasingly inward looking. The coalition is announcing a new system of flexible leave to allow new fathers to take six months off work. In practice, there may be limited take up of this offer. But the public message is clear: a father’s place is in the home.
The real and obvious difficulty with this is that fathers can’t physically have children. This means the domestic identity for fathers quickly becomes one of playing handmaiden to his partner. The Fatherhood Institute helpfully tries to give fathers some meaning in this world where the traditional father role has been denigrated. They publish a series of key research findings in the form of ‘five-minute guides’, on the subject of Why dads matter for key stages of fatherhood. These cover before, during and after the birth; in the early years; during school; for older children and whatever ‘type’ of dad they are (2).
Here is the reason why dads matter during pregnancy: ‘The better the relationship between a pregnant woman and her partner, the lower the woman’s stress levels. Maternal stress is associated with low birth weight, preterm birth and child behavioural and emotional problems’ (3). The father’s role has become one of not upsetting his pregnant partner in case the child turns out to be a badly behaved brat.
I am all for fathers loving their children and spending time with their children. But fathers have always done that. BBC Four ran a series on fatherhood in 2010 which examined ‘The myth of the tyrannical dad’. It showed that fathers were close to their family in the early twentieth century. ‘They helped look after their babies, they played regularly with their sons and daughters, they helped educate them and they tried to get them jobs’ (4).
What’s distasteful about the discussion of fatherhood today is it assumes fathers can’t relate to their children without being told what to do. Instead, they’re offered leaflets as part of the antenatal information on how to be a father. It’s problematic that looking after your family by going out to work, and seeing your role in the family as the stoic, less emotive one is disparaged. A doting dad has become one who wears his intensive parenting on his sleeve. If he doesn’t play with his children for x amount of hours, it could lead to terrible consequences. Worryingly, policy is doing for dads what it has so successfully done for mothers: scaring the living daylights out of them and then dictating how they should behave.
So, I say to fathers: be confident you can look after your children, love them and have a good relationship with them without being patronised by government information. It’s important for children to have a comfortable domestic life, but it’s also important children can see there’s a life outside the home to aspire towards.
Instead of accepting a father’s place is in the home, both mothers and fathers should question just how narrow and one-sided that way of thinking is.
Jane Sandeman, convenor, Institute of Ideas Parents Forum.
(1) Nick Clegg: good parenting, not poverty, shape a child’s destiny, Telegraph, 18 August 2010
(2) Why dads matter, The Parenting Institute, 11 August 2010
(3) Five-minute guide 01 – Dads during pregnancy and birth, The Parenting Institute, 11 August 2010
(4) The myth of the tyrannical dad, BBC News, 17 June 2010
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