Fathers are not out of fashion

Don't believe the hype - we are facing a crisis of female fertility, not fatherhood, says Jack O'Sullivan

The Guardian U.K., January 28, 2004

In some strange process of alchemy, a fertility problem experienced by some women has been put through the media machine and emerged as a crisis for men. Hysteria has struck many normally sensible people over moves to make fertility treatment more available to lesbian couples and single women. "Do we need fathers anymore?" headlines a fevered debate that focuses on fears of dad going the way of the dodo.
It is bizarre that a public question mark should be placed beside fatherhood. Academic research on the benefits of good fathering to children is compelling. Indeed, the case is so strong that supporting fatherhood is now a key policy for many government departments, a major factor in modernising children's services and core to Blairite objectives of tackling child poverty, crime and poor educational achievement.

So relax. The only people wondering whether we need fathers anymore are out-of-touch newspaper executives who probably don't see enough of their own families.

Those in doubt should take a look at a new book published this week, The Role of the Father in Child Development. Two of the world's leading academics in child development detail research showing that children with involved fathers have better social skills when they reach nursery, do better in national examinations at 16, and are less likely to have a criminal record by the age of 21.

Perhaps even more important are their conclusions about the impact of fathering on mental health. "In the long-term, patterns of father-child closeness might be crucial predictors of adult psychosocial adjustment," conclude Michael Lamb of the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Charlie Lewis, professor of developmental psychology at Lancaster University.

Such evidence helps explain why children's services are now heavily focused on increasing father involvement. At Fathers Direct, for example, we train hundreds of family sector workers from Sure Starts, social work departments, family centres, Early Years learning and maternity services who are concerned that they do not engage well with fathers. In April, a major conference at the Institute of Education, London, will focus on best practice in supporting fatherhood across the public and private sectors.

The prison service, particularly in young offender institutions, is heavily engaged in parenting education for fathers. It sees an emphasis on fatherhood as a route to cutting recidivism and reducing criminality in the next generation.

Likewise, the Department for Education and Skills has established a special committee to find ways of involving fathers more in their children's education and learning.

The NHS is rethinking its policies. Britain's newest maternity unit, in Grimsby, was designed to accommodate mothers and fathers in double rooms from admission to discharge. It is increasingly recognised that committed fathers are vital to new mothers in reducing the rate of post-natal illness, supporting breast feeding and aiding recovery, particularly given high rates of Caesarean births.

These policy shifts reflect that dads are more responsible for their children than ever before. So it is vital to children that fathers' caring role is backed by public services. Fathers do one-third of parental childcare in dual-earner families, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Patricia Hewitt, minister for women and secretary of state for trade and industry, signalled how important fathers are, both to the advancement of women and to children, when she made proposals before Christmas about extra leave for new dads. She suggested mothers wishing to return to work should be entitled to transfer the second six months of unpaid maternity leave to their partners.

So how does all this fit into the furore about fertility services? For a start, the key announcement, as far as fatherhood is concerned, is the decision to end the anonymity of sperm donors. The government has listened to grown-up IVF children and accepted that understanding biological paternity can be vital to psychological wellbeing.

The decision to make fertility treatment available to lesbian couples and single women is humane and just. I am fortunate in being a parent, but I have many childless, female contemporaries who would make excellent mothers, but who do not have lifelong relationships with men and are reaching the end of their fertile lives. Few fathers would wish to deny them an opportunity that they themselves enjoy.

Many of these women are more aware than most of the importance of fathers and male role models. If they have children without a man around, they often actively seek father figures to enrich their children's lives. It is surely right that those receiving fertility treatment should be actively reminded of the impact that good men can have on a child's life. But it is wrong to make the availability of a man a prerequisite of treatment. We are facing a crisis of female fertility, not of fatherhood. That demands sympathy and understanding, not hysteria and fear.

Jack O'Sullivan is co-founder of Fathers Direct, the national information centre on fatherhood. The Role of the Father in Child Development is published by Wiley.

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