Over the years my blog readers have often come to my rescue when I have needed clarity and ideas. That time has come again. I have been tentatively commissioned to write a magazine article about fatherhood.
In the wake of the recent decision to allow parents to share their entitlement to time off work after the birth of a child, the question is whether the state should be encouraging fathers to be more sharing and caring and whether, in view of the mixed evidence on whether fathers actually want to change their role, such encouragement will work. (The magazine thought of me because several years ago I wrote a book with my own father called ‘what are children for’. Sadly, despite lots of press publicity, the book went down like a lead balloon and, as a consequence, I have the regular ego-puncturing experience of an account statement from the publishers which invariably tells me that the number of copies sold in the previous year is precisely zero). I haven’t yet sorted out my own ideas on this subject, nor spoken to, nor read up on, the experts. But my starting points are these:
In this case the Government does appear to be in the business of social engineering. As there is little evidence that ministers are responding to overwhelming public demand, accountability requires that we have an open and thorough debate about why.
The case for encouraging fathers to be more hands-on parents has four distinct aspects: the interests of the father, of the child, of the mother and of society as a whole.
Unless the Government is willing to be very heavy handed or to spend lots of money (neither of which fits the Coalition’s modus operandi) its actions will only work if they go with the grain of wider changes in social context and norms.
The emergence of an engaged, rounded but also distinctly masculine model of caring fatherhood could be an important step towards a more humane and contented way of living.
I have another thought which is even less well formed. Parental leave entitlement applies only up to a child’s fifth birthday (unless the child is disabled, when it is 18). As a (very proud) father myself, I have become more and more besotted and fascinated by my boys the older they get. Is there anything to the suggestion (requiring as it does huge generalisation) that perhaps paternal input is most valuable at particular, later, stages of a child’s development?
Far too many fathers opt out or disappear very early on in their child’s life. While not trying to defend them, could it be that men panic or simply feel useless at this early stage, and that rather than focussing on getting dads to be better in the early years (the focus of parental leave entitlement) we should be helping them understand how important they can be later on?
As you can see this is rough and ready thinking so – as always – I need my readers to set me straight.
PS Although a case can be made for a link between this subject and the RSA's focus on enhancing human capability, I will be doing most of the work on the piece in my own time. Mind you if any Fellows wanted to develop a project on supporting fathers.....