Ambivalence towards fatherhood has been a gross and costly error – why do we accept it?

Mother’s Day/Mothering Sunday is regularly a joyous affair in the media. There’s plenty of talk of what flowers and presents we should be giving our mothers along with various individuals including celebrities telling us how wonderful and inspiring their mothers have been. Father’s Day on the other hand has become something of a political football. Over the Father’s Day weekend the papers have told us that children are suffering from bias against men in society, that some women and children might be perfectly OK without a man around, or being given a list of things that good fathers should be doing. Trying to find a positive article has proved to be something of a challenge. At least Barack Obama managed to find time to give a short speech celebrating Father’s Day, although even then, part of it was given over to the loss he felt of not knowing his own father.

Frequently in these articles we’re told that masculinity and fatherhood are going through a deep crisis. The Fractured Families report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) published last Thursday finds that over three million children are growing up in lone parent households and estimates one million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers. On the same day a member for Fathers for Justice was arrested for defacing a painting of the Queen at Westminster Abbey. In a statement, Fathers for Justice identified the man arrested as “dad of two Tim Haries from Doncaster”. Campaign Director Jolly Stanesby, said: “Up to four million children will be without a father this Father’s Day. Tim Haries has lost all contact with his children and felt he had nothing to lose by appealing directly to the Queen for help by spraying his plea onto her portrait.”

There are fathers in this country who have abandoned their roles and responsibilities, but there are also those both living with their families and separated who want to be more involved, but being hindered in various ways. At both ends of the spectrum, the Government’s efforts to improve the situation are making a very limited amount of difference. For example Trades Union Congress analysis shows that just one in 172 eligible fathers are taking the additional paternity pay and leave (which was extended to 19 weeks of paid time off in March) which is now open to them if their partner returns to work early. The complexity of the arrangements are unlikely to have helped this.

All of this matters because research consistently finds that children living with both parents in a stable environment are much more likely to be happy, healthy and less likely to be living in poverty. State support to encourage strong families makes sense at a financial level as well as a societal one. The consequences of family breakdown can potentially be catastrophic for children and their parents. The CSJ’s report covers this at length and David Keen at Opinionated Vicar has provided an excellent overview and comment on it that is well worth reading. This is part of it:

Such breakdown would matter not a lot if the human and economic costs were insignificant. But they are in fact devastating. Children with separated, single or step-parents are 50 per cent more likely to fail at school, have low self-esteem, struggle to make friends and with their behaviour. They often battle with anxiety or depression throughout the rest of their lives.

Adults’ mental and physical health can take a huge knock when relationships crumble, making it much harder for them to achieve at work and be the parents they want to be. The costs are eye-watering – rising to £49 billion per annum by the end of this Parliament, it’s more than the Government’s whole defence budget.

For every £6,000 in reactive spending to family breakdown, the government spends only £1 on prevention.

David Cameron’s pledge to lead “the most family friendly Government we’ve ever had in this country” has come to very little, but no party can claim the moral high ground on this issue. The Labour MP, David Lammy, has called on his party to take the initiative writing in the Guardian this Saturday:

‘Family policy is not a zero-sum game: any gain for dads need not come at the expense of mums. Dads are not a risk to be managed, but a resource to be used for the benefit of the whole family. Sadly, the Labour party has yet to make these arguments unambiguously.

‘A tacit conspiracy builds up on both political extremes that is entirely to the detriment of women. The instinct of many commentators on the right can be to berate mothers who happen not to live with the fathers of their children, even though many will do so because they have been widowed or abandoned. Yet the commentators on the extremes of the liberal left who insist mothers do not need anything more than financial assistance from their partners are just as damaging. All the evidence shows that active dads are good for children. Children, particularly boys, who grow up without fathers are more likely than their peers to be involved in crime, heavy drinking and drug use; have low educational attainment; suffer low self-esteem and anger issues; and, ultimately, become poor parents themselves. Active dads make a positive contribution: they are good for children and they are good for mothers.

‘Ed Miliband should pledge to make Britain the most father-friendly nation in the world. It is not good enough for us to cede these conversations to those who demonise single mums and deadbeat dads but have nothing to say ourselves.

‘We need a family policy that is fit for the 21st century and we need a language of love and respect with which to frame it. Without this, it won’t just be the Labour party that loses out – it will be the next generation of children who grow up without a father figure in their lives.’

Only the foolish would deny that this is a big problem that urgently needs to be addressed, but even with the political will, there still needs to be coherent policy. Lammy has submitted a report to Labour’s policy review which recommends that both parents should be required to sign a child’s birth certificate. Currently 45,000 fathers are not registered on birth certificates each year. In 2009 one of those fathers was Ed Miliband. Lammy’s report says that fathers who do not sign their child’s birth certificate are less likely to be supported by family services in caring for their child, less likely to have close relationships with their children and less likely to support the family financially.

This would be a positive move as would a married tax allowance that could disproportionally benefit families on lower incomes if implemented correctly. Currently low income families receive less benefits if they stay together which is perverse and should not be allowed to continue. The Fatherhood Institute published a report in October that outlined a range of proposals to tackle fatherlessness which the Government could potentially implement. Many of these have potential, but what these recommendations demonstrate is that unless our government imposes authoritarian legislation, there is a limit to what it can achieve. Legislation can only go so far. What is even more important is that the language becomes more explicit with politicians from all sides supporting all families in their words and actions, but at the same time not being afraid to acknowledge that the most stable form of family, i.e. marriage is usually more beneficial and should be encouraged. The UK is unusual in this respect in that it is one of the few EU countries that does not recognise marriage in the tax system.

When it comes to marriage, families, broken homes and absent fathers, reversing the downward direction we are immersed in will never be attainable through the efforts of our politicians. It is far too big a moral and cultural issue, for politics alone. It requires a transformation in attitude and behaviour that is prevalent our society. Our teenage pregnancy, separation and divorce rates are still some of the highest in the developed world. Many of these trends are now being passed down through the generations which suggests the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, unless changes such as waiting to have children until a couple is married becomes popular again among a significant proportion of the population.

Of course taking Christian teaching – including getting married before having children, staying faithful to your spouse, committing selflessly to making a marriage work, holding off losing your virginity and not sleeping around with multiple partners – seriously again would dramatically alter the landscape. But can we see that happening when the value of Christian teaching is ignored or worse, despised? Barring a religious revival this is unlikely to come any time soon if people are too ignorant or prejudiced to take notice and accept that we all have a responsibility for our actions and their consequences. That doesn’t mean that Christians and church leaders should shut up on this. They have a great deal to offer and if the levels of engagement that the same-sex marriage debate has received can be directed towards positively addressing some of these issues, the Church could become a powerful advocate for change, especially if politicians are willing to side with it.

It’s worth remembering that just telling people to stop having sex as much and telling parents to stick together is not a winning strategy in itself. Where the Church works at its best is on the ground offering people in local communities something of value that often the State is failing to provide. Churches running marriage and parenting courses along with parents’ groups, debt advice and counselling makes a big difference. Getting into schools and talking about relationships in a positive and affirming way fills another gap. Practically helping out single parents and struggling families is of immense value. None of this is new. It is already happening up and down the country. The Church is able to offer hope, reconciliation and forgiveness in a way now other institution can.

For too long as a society we have turned a blind eye to the causes and effects of family breakdown. In an age of permissiveness and individualism, challenging certain behaviours, choices and trends over parenting and relationships has become increasingly frowned upon even if we all lose out as a result. How bad do things have to get before we realise that ambivalence towards fatherhood has been a gross and costly error? The time for a clarion call to put fathers back into the family structure where they should belong is long overdue.

Categories: Children & families, Government, Marriage, President Obama

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2 replies

  1. At the end of the day it is the family that has to do this. It is parents of parents of parents that have to show that a Mum and a Dad is better for the child/children; I do not wish to go into debate on a same-sex couple in this comment.

    We can blame all social applications delivered or discombobulated by the State. The State is not the family. The Church is not the family. Individuals joining together make a family; preferably monogamous couples.

    What has happened is that individuals have turned to the State to provide ipso facto their needs. Individuals have been encouraged by the State to take and get without due care and consideration and certainly not be seen to be responsible for their actions.

    I think the mistake Margaret Thatcher made in highering the age of those eligible for housing benefit, for instance, was to demote the teenager back to childhood and an unhealthy, not the word unhealthy, reliance upon the family and thus in the end upon the State. The family, quite rightly, should be the bastion of society. However both the education system – enforced time in education – and the social benefit system has failed to enable individuals to become responsible adults, and in doing so has failed to encourage and indeed to insist upon boys and men to be responsible fathers and has failed also to promote the seriousness of responsibility to girls and women of motherhood.

    Thus, though we can point fingers at the single mothers. That is only half of the problem. The other half is the now socially accepted norm for boys and men to walk away from any situation that involves a curtail on their pleasure or lifestyle. Of course to tar all single mothers and all the fathers of the single mothers child as irresponsible and selfish is wrong. Many do achieve a good result in caring for their child. But at the end of the day it has to come back to the parents of the men and women who decide that the State is the father and that therefore the girl or women need not worry about housing or financial needs and the boy or man can father as many children as he wants – purposely or not – without any responsibility on his part. This is not new of course. But the fact that society has embraced it as a norm ipso facto is new. And wrong.

    To end my comment on a high note marriage, though not Church marriage per se, is on an increase. As an institution marriage is the bastion of society. That is a good thing.

  2. Thanks for covering this in so much depth Gillan. Excellent article. I remember the surprise of a friend when she discovered that my parents hadn’t divorced yet (they still haven’t!) – but her experience, and that of many of her friends had led to that expectation – as though it is just part of growing up.

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