21st century Dad: speech by Duncan Fisher, April 2004

At National Conference on Working with Fathers, 5 April 2004, London

When our daughter was born seven years ago, I suddenly became aware of the secret world of fatherhood. I found myself, like many men, transformed by this new experience, this new life, entrusted to the two of us. Yet I was stunned to hear so few public voices echoing my feelings about becoming a dad. While I was brimming with excitement, thrilled with the potential of it all, I found myself surrounded by a public silence on fatherhood.

Today, it’s changed, but seven years ago, there seemed to be so little celebration of what a man might achieve as a father, for his child, for himself, for the mother of his child. There was no plan, no great hope, no great ambition. Instead, we were apparently meant just to go back to work (if we had work), almost as if nothing had happened. It was very strange.

But then, just after our first daughter was born, a book appeared, Fatherhood Reclaimed.  It drew together a wealth of analysis and challenged the entire culture that renders fatherhood invisible.  This book created Fathers Direct.

And here I am today, standing in front of you, nearly 1,000 people, all of us come together to share our views on this subject. The author of Fatherhood Reclaimed, Adrienne Burgess, is here with us today – we flew her back from Australia specially. 

We all of us today bring our own experiences of fatherhood.  Experiences of our own fathers, or of ourselves as fathers or of the men who father our children. We may have positive or negative experiences – probably both. We may have memories that hurt. But one thing is for sure. This affair of the heart – this feeling about fatherhood – is no longer a secret one. Men are talking about it. Women are talking about. Children are talking about it.

Last Fathers Day, hundreds of children sent messages to their dads as part of a competition that we organised with the Department for Education and Skills.  “Dear daddy,” wrote Codie. “Thanks for always being there. I can’t tell you how much I love you, but trust me, I do.” And Jessica told her dad, “I love you so much, even though you embarrass me in front of all of my friends.” From dozens of such messages, you realise what an important part in children’s lives their fathers play.
But, perhaps most movingly, we heard the voices of children whose fathers were not there, but who, even in their absence, retain a huge presence in their lives. “I wait and wait”, Bella writes, “I don’t get a Christmas present or a birthday present. But I know he loves me in his own special way and I think that’s what’s special about my dad.”   And Daniel wrote: “Dear Father, I don’t say ‘dear dad’, because you have not been a dad to me, have you? I haven’t introduced myself yet. My name is Daniel…You might not remember my mother, but I think about you all the time.”

These words should move us to think, to imagine a new world, to establish some clarity about what we are seeking from fatherhood, both personally and as a society.

I won’t lecture you on the research about the potential benefits to children of father involvement. Most people are now aware of a growing body of research about educational achievement, social behaviour and long-term mental health. If you really want to get to grips with this research, I recommend the book published in its 4th edition just last month, The Role of the Father in Child Development.  

With children talking about their own dads, with fathers articulating more and more their hopes, with so many mothers wanting fathers to be more involved in the lives of their children, who would now seriously contest the notion that the father-child connection is a precious relationship that social policy should sustain and support?

The issue we must tackle now is the content of that social policy. And I have to be plain at this point. The social policy remains skeletal. Adrienne Burgess, still writing so eloquently and persuasively on this subject, writes:

“As a society, we do almost nothing to support fathers in their multi-faceted roles.  Whether in the work/family arena, in maternity and children’s services (where parent almost invariably means mother), in the childcare debate (where dads are hardly ever mentioned), let alone in separation and divorce – where, because the quality of the father-child relationship is so powerfully affected by the mother-father relationship, relationships between men and their children are often on the rocks long before either parent walks out the door.

“We have no targets, no aspirations for mainstreaming fathers’ involvement in any sector. Hysteria over the alleged ‘epidemic of fatherlessness’ erupts periodically – but who notices the one-in-three young adults from “intact” families whose relationships with their fathers rate as “very poor”?

“Who looks out for the father-daughter relationship, among the gnashing of teeth about boys growing up without role models? Who challenges the “cult of motherhood” which places such heavy burdens on new mothers – and, later, on employed mothers? Who notices that while girls are encouraged to broaden their employment horizons, and the number of women going into child care dwindles yearly, there are no corresponding strategies to prepare boys for non-traditional occupations?”

Adrienne’s comments demonstrate the depth of the problems we face in developing an adequate public policy in this field. But we should not be down-hearted. They also throw a light on the huge and exciting potential for change. As many family workers here know, making even the first hesitant steps to getting dads involved can yield considerable and deeply rewarding results.

But there is an urgency now to develop a coherent public policy. As more mothers enter the workforce, as more men face a future without full-time lifetime employment to deliver status and identity as breadwinner, as our understanding of the impact on children of their relationships with their fathers grows, engaging in the fatherhood debate at the public policy level becomes not an option but an urgent need – and not over whether or not “fathers matter”, but how we can support their relationships with their children. Because involving dads (not just divorced dads but all dads) matters to everyone.

It is a “must” if we are to tackle the gender inequalities that underpin our workaholic culture, deprive women of a fair deal in the workplace, and leave children short-changed.  It is a national scandal that a woman who has two children will earn, on average, half a million pounds less in her lifetime than her partner.

Supporting involved fatherhood not only supports mothers as parents and advances their employment opportunities, but it grants to men what they increasingly want as much as women – the chance to combine paid work with close and meaningful relationships with their children.

And it enables children to be cared for, to learn from and to enjoy their fathers as well as their mothers from infancy onwards – and to look towards a future shared role in caring for and supporting their own  – and other people’s – children.

So how are we doing? We have made some big steps forward. The introduction of statutory paid paternity leave last year was both practical and symbolic. We are honoured to have the author of this change, Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, with us today.

The encouragement that legislation has given to parents who want to work flexibly has also been welcome. And there are many fruitful and innovative initiatives inspired by individual units in Government. In schools, prisons, teenage pregnancy programmes, Sure Starts and family support services can be found some of the best practice in Britain around supporting fatherhood.  We are honoured to have many of the pioneers of these services here today.

It is not surprising that these initiatives are evolving in so many places at the grass-roots.  Here it is clear that supporting fathers is a key to achieving some of our society’s key goals – cutting child poverty, raising educational achievement and reducing crime.

A well-thought out strategy must have three foundations:

  • It must unlock the full potential of both mothers and fathers to care for their children
  • It must promote equality between women and men at home and at work
  • It must improve business efficiency.

All three are necessary because if we can build an alliance of government, parents and business around children’s welfare we have an unstoppable force.

And it is in order to build such an alliance that we launch today the Charter for Father-Friendly Britain.  The purpose of this Charter is to build father-friendly workplaces and father friendly public services.

We are delighted that BT, one of Britain’s pioneer employers, has agreed to spearhead the Charter project with Fathers Direct. BT’s clear understanding, born out by its working practices, that flexible working for everyone – women and men – is good for profits and for people, will carry huge weight as we ask other employers to develop father-friendly workplaces.

Likewise, we are grateful to Margaret Hodge, Minister for Children, and the Department for Education and Skills, which is backing the Charter as it relates to family and child services.

In preparation for the work on the Charter, we publish today our Guide to Working With Fathers, produced again with the support of the Department for Education and Skills.  The Guide highlights some of the best existing practice in family services and provides a toolkit for developing services that support children’s relationships with their fathers.

The Guide is a start.  We would like the Government to go further by introducing a public sector duty to consider gender – in England, as there is already in Wales.  In this we join our voices to that of the Equal Opportunities Commission.  This would require all publicly funded services to ask themselves if they sufficiently take into account gender differences when designing and delivering their services.

There are other things that Government should implement, in order to create a framework supportive of the relationship children have with their fathers.

  • In the workplace, there needs to be a shift towards assuming an individual’s right to flexible working, unless a company can show it would damage the business.  BT already does this – it does not even ask for an explanation of a request for flexible working, so long as the job gets done.
  • New fathers on two weeks paternity leave should receive 90 per cent of their salary.  Fathers earn two thirds of the family income on average.  Two weeks off at £100 a week does just not reflect realities.
  • Paid parental leave needs to be introduced with “use it or lose it” options for both mothers and fathers, so as actively to encourage both to use it.  And women need greater choice by being able to transfer some of their current leave entitlements to their partners, should the parents decide this works best for them.
  • For separated families, we not only need to proceed rapidly with changes in the family courts, but we also need to look beyond the separation itself to support separated families who do share care.  Is it right that where separated couples share care, only one parent can be recognised as a parent by state welfare in terms of benefits, housing and allowances?

I could carry on setting new and innovative policies that could make a huge difference to families and which do not necessarily need to cost a lot of money.  The key is a comprehensive and integrated policy, based on the three key principles: child welfare, gender equality and business efficiency.

To conclude, I would like to look beyond the UK to the wider world.  Everywhere across the industrialised and industrialising world, where work is taken out of the home, the issues of gender inequalities and “who looks after the children” are coming into focus.

Last month the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, involving 50 countries including our own, had its annual meeting in New York and considered the issue of fatherhood.  After recommending that fathers are included alongside mothers in support programmes, the Commission urged Governments “to promote understanding of the importance of fathers, mothers, legal guardians and other caregivers, to the well being of children and the promotion of gender equality”, through policies, services and the school curriculum.

Finally, I leave you with a poem. It was created in March last year by a group of researchers, practitioners and policy-makers from five continents attending the Bernard Van Leer Foundation and Fathers Direct International Summit in Oxford. One of their tasks was to describe “who are fathers?”  How do we explain the enormous diversity of fatherhood, not just in a single community but worldwide?  This is what they came up with.

Some children have fathers who live far away and send money or clothing
Some children have fathers who live nearby and visit regularly
Others have fathers who raise them alone.
Some children have fathers who share home and caring duties with their mother
Others have fathers who look after them full time, so their mothers can work

Some children stay with their fathers at weekends and in the holidays 
Others have fathers in jail
Some children have fathers who live at home, but are rarely there
Others have foster or step fathers

Some children have fathers who are too poor to provide for them
Some have an uncle or grandfather who fathers them
Some children have a father who is a child himself
And some children have no father figure at all

There are fathers who read bedtime stories to their children
And there are fathers who cannot read
There are fathers who love and care for their children
And there are fathers who neglect and abuse theirs

Some fathers attend the birth and every milestone in their children’s lives
Others have never even met their child’s teacher
Some fathers are ill, some commit crimes and some beat their children’s mothers
Others work long hours in hard jobs to provide for their families

Some are confident in their parenting role and take great pride in it
Others are frightened of these responsibilities
Some fathers run away from their children
Others, desperate to see them, are prevented from doing so
Fatherhood can be so different in so many ways
But one thing is universal
What fathers do … matters to children

Thank you listening.