Preaching to papa
Sara Hinchliffe does not care for the government's plans for raising good fathers
'We all need help being a dad sometimes', said Home Office minister Paul Boateng in September, at the launch of the first government-sponsored handbook on how to be a father. The aim is to get this advice booklet, produced by a group called Fathers Direct, into the hands of 85 percent of all new fathers, through a national distribution of 600 000 copies.
It might seem rather odd that father-of-five Boateng should welcome being told to put the baby to bed and give her a bottle (of expressed breast milk, naturally). But then, this patronising advice booklet does appear to assume that every father can benefit from expert professional guidance.
Fathers are told to build up a baby fund, sort out benefits and keep receipts for maintenance. Not only that - the pamphlet tells today's father he has to 'be there', too: supportively attending antenatal classes, building a relationship with his unborn baby by talking to his wife's womb, and making reassuring noises in the maternity ward (having first made sure to eat pasta for energy and put on loose clothes). He will not press his partner for sex after the birth, but he will cut the cord and take his paternity leave.
It is easy to be sarcastic about this advice, as several commentators have entertainingly showed. But don't lose sight of the message. The booklet sets out the New Labour-approved model of a Good Father. The Good Father does not make the authoritarian mistake of assuming that his role is solely to provide for his wife and children. He will be an active father. He will take his caring responsibilities seriously. He will respect his partner. He will behave differently from his own father. And to do this, apparently, he will have to be taught.
For new dads trying to do the best for their kids, some support and guidance might seem welcome - if not long overdue. But there is something else going on here. Behind the supportive language is a prescription. And where we see helpful advice, we can be sure that penalties for those who do not follow the model will swiftly follow.
There has recently been a barrage of discussions and reports about the role of fathers. All are concerned to ensure that fathers, in the words of Duncan Fisher of Fathers Direct, 'know their role is greater than just providing money'. Of course, they still have to provide the money. As a report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in June pointed out, fathers, mothers and children all agree that providing is central to fathers' role; and despite all the criticisms of the Child Support Agency, it has been a great success in cementing the attitude that men cannot walk away from their children.
Now, however, the government has decided that the traditional fathers' role is not enough. Underlying this discussion is a growing concern not with childcare, but with social stability.
Policymakers are obsessed with fears about the impact of economic change on family life - particularly the increase in the numbers of working women. Men, stripped of the authority that accompanied their role as breadwinners, are seen as a source of instability, crime and deviancy. According to the report of a 1993 IPPR conference on Families, Children and Crime (at which Tony Blair spoke): 'men who measure their personal worth only by the money they earn will be devastated by unemployment. And they will be unable to inculcate a sense of worth in their sons...something has to be done to provide today's boys with a new image of masculinity.' The hope is that by adding to men's traditional family role, with the new model of the caring dad, the potential disruptiveness of 'men with low self-esteem' can be overcome.
The success of this new attitude towards fathering can be seen in the recent rows over the Child Support Agency (CSA). Most criticisms have focused on the agency's emphasis on financial responsibility as the sole measure of good fatherhood. Critics contend that the CSA has failed because its formula does not take into account the costs of being a caring father - of having children to stay, or travelling to see them, the expense of second families, and so on. They argue that fathers have to be taught not just to be financially responsible, but to take responsibility for being there for their children.
While this approach often appears sympathetic to men, its impact has been to make fathering a more traumatic and difficult experience. Although fathers feel that their role should be to provide, they also appear to have taken on board the message that this is no longer enough. According to the Rowntree report, 'a conflict of responsibilities in terms of "providing" and "being involved" creates a double burden for many fathers'.
Meanwhile, the recasting of fathers' role gives government an ideal opportunity to meddle in family life and scrutinise men's lives in new ways. Investigating how much housework men do, how often they play with their children, how aware they are of problems at school is a much more intrusive approach than one which is only interested in whether men bring home the bacon. It seems to be proving easier to call the old version of fathering into question than it has been to create fatherhood anew. Hence the renewed policy emphasis on supporting those fathers who are prepared to reconstruct themselves according to the new model - and condemning those who do not live according to the new code of fathering behaviour.
Some of us might be forgiven for being pleased that fathers are being told to pull their weight. But they might bear in mind that it is not just men who are being told how to behave. You might be a new mother who doesn't want her husband to 'be there' all the time. You may not want him at the antenatal classes. You may not fancy him droning on to your bump, convinced that the baby can hear his 'low-pitched voice' more easily than yours, or staying over in the maternity ward after you've given birth if you fancy a rest, or kissing and cuddling to 'stay intimate' when you want sex instead. We are not just being presented with a model of the Good Father - but an equally prescriptive one of the Good Mother.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999