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Father not present

by
14 June 2013

IT IS Father's Day on Sunday. A website in the United States, whence this observance has come, has been offering discounts on Father's Day gifts; but only one, a "grill package" of different types of barbecue-ready meat, suggests any family activity. The others are a golf bag, a pair of headphones, and a subscription to Rolling Stone.

It is natural to be a little sceptical of the day, created 100 years ago as a counterpart to Mother's Day, the US version of Mothering Sunday. A Bill was introduced in Congress in 1913 to turn Father's Day into a national event, although it did not take off till the 1930s, when it was backed by the canny New York Associated Men's Wear Retailers. It is perhaps significant that, whereas the term "mothering" is applied primarily to the rearing of children, the equivalent term, "fathering", refers only to the act of procreation.

As in the past, the approach of Father's Day prompted the release of a report on unfatherly absenteeism, the latest one by the Centre for Social Justice. It suggests that about one million children grow up with no contact with their father. It talks of "man deserts" where, in areas of Liverpool and Sheffield, as many of 75 per cent of households with dependent children have no father present. (The bar is set very low: three or more contacts a year, and the household is deemed not to be fatherless.)

The disturbing thing is that this phenomenon has gone largely unexamined. Part of the problem is that families are varied and complex, so that any broad-brush consideration is only ever going to approximate to the truth. There are two things going on. One might be termed a social construct: housing benefit and social welfare mean that it is possible, if difficult, for a single mother to raise a family without a full-time income. The other is deeper rooted, the fact that child-rearing has traditionally been left to mothers. Thus the financial and political climate of the present has met the traditions of the past, without reference to the fact that the chief reason for those traditions, the long hours worked by men, is largely gone.

If there is no financial bar to equality of the sexes in child-rearing, there remains a psychological one. The current generation of absentee fathers was schooled on the previous generation, where the norm was for fathers to distance themselves from domestic life, often with the encouragement of their wives. Fathers of 50 years ago were commonly uncomfortable with babies, gruff with boys, awkward with girls, tongue-tied with teenagers. Their male offspring have taken this one step further. The question now is whether the next generation of males, reared largely by females, will follow this pattern to yet another level of dysfunction; or whether they will draw on the example of their mothers, and develop into the first generation of boys who are willing and able to nurture their offspring. Such a rosy view is subverted, however, by the financial demands on single mothers, as a result of which many children are growing up virtually without either parent.

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