Fathers in the frame

23 June 2017


ON RADIO 4 nowadays, it feels as if you are never more than ten minutes away from a social anthropologist. The Just So stories that they feed us about the evolution of our social mores are the perfect resource for a certain type of dinner-table conversation: pithy, knowing, gently subversive, and always prefaced by the disclaimer “apparently”.

My favourite from this week’s listening comes from Archive on 4 (Radio 4, Saturday), in which Mark Thomas (or more likely his diligent producer) raided the BBC cellars to bring us an account of fatherhood over the past five decades.

Apparently, social anthropologists say, a community allows its fathers to become more involved in their children in direct proportion to how much said fathers are required to fight for the community. The more aggressive and expansionist the community, the less they want their adult males to be cooing over babies. Attachment enervates. Like so many Just So stories, it is plausible —  until you think of how the requirement to defend a family can turn a mouse into a man.Fortunately, this survey did not rely on this, or indeed any one theory of fatherhood to do its work. Thomas not only has a good eye for appropriate archival nuggets — which here included everything from Peter Cook expounding his theory of conception via a warm seat to an interview with Matt O’Connor of Fathers 4 Justice — but contributed great connecting patter, not least about his own extraordinary father.

Archive on 4 opened with a surprising observation, drawn from a study of Good Housekeeping magazine over many years. In the period up to the 1990s, fathers tended to be presented in its photographs as besuited breadwinners, rarely engaged with their children. In the 1990s, fathers more often wore casual clothes, and interacted with the family. But, since the millennium, fathers have been almost entirely absent from family pictures. Does this represent a contemporary model of fatherhood, the result of adult male delinquency, or a triumph of some feminist agenda?

Similar questions were raised by It’s My Baby Too (Radio 4, Friday), in which Aasmah Mir explored the male experience of abortion. When their partners decide on termination, some men will walk away; others will want to be as supportive as possible, to the extent of accompanying their partner to the clinic. Good boys have been told that it is polite to say “It’s your decision,” but that can easily be read as abnegation of responsibility.

Of those interviewed by Mir, most conceded that we could do better in providing men with counselling, or at the very least an opportunity to talk. But we did hear from the opinionista Sarah Ditum, who declared that “the more you involve men, the more you take the focus away from women.” The man was “very much the junior partner” in the abortion process. Perhaps it should be no surprise after all that fathers are absent from the family picture.

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