It’s a scene you get on primary schools’ sports fields the length of the country: fathers jostling in a ragged line at one end of a running track. Some of them are loosening ties and slipping out of their brogues into rampantly socked feet; others slough off tracksuit tops and tweak the laces on their trainers; others cough into their hands and try to think of a way not to have to do what they are about to do. It is the fathers’ race – the end of the school sports day, a kind of satirical climax to the whole summer term, a reversal of the conventions, the tinies all having a laugh at their soppy-stern dads.
Of course, most fathers get it wrong. Instead of seeing the fathers’ race as a piece of entertainment, most of them interpret it as a chance for naked self-assertion, a chance to prove, once and for all, which dad has the aggression, the power, to thrash the rest.
I did this race only twice ever and I was so fanatically last on both occasions that the first time, my older son (then aged six) had to help me across the line while the nastier-minded mums all clapped and said, “Well done!” The second time, I was doing it three-legged with a man who came up only as far as my armpit. We were still going when the next heat began. “Shit,” he kept saying. It would have been easier to have picked him up and carried him. Some education authorities have banned fathers’ races because of the antagonisms they bring out and the terrible humiliations they inflict, and I would applaud them every step of the way.
But then this kind of brutality is hardly surprising when you consider that all fatherhood is predicated to a greater or lesser extent on the idea of competition, even for the most liberal and modern fathers. You get it in that strut that new fathers adopt as they push the buggy around the park, advertising the fruitfulness of their loins and their covert genius in having a baby at all. You get it in the way fathers bellow at their sons during football games, the aggression of one vicariously exploited by the other. You even get it in the sacramental writings that new fathers compose these days, when magazine editors have their first children, or in Feargal Keane’s Letter to Daniel. It’s finely wrought prose, all right, but it advertises its author’s sensibilities – his ability to yield to feeling – so loudly that in the end you get the overwhelming sensation that what he really wants to do is stake his claim as the most emotionally labile new father, the most in-touch dad.
And after that? After that, the problem is that there’s nothing else in fatherhood for fathers, because there is nothing much else that confers competitive status and garners the envy of other fathers. The rest of parenting – the stuff that mothers have had to manage alone for generations – is all low-level toil involving physical care, feeding, playing, socialising, clothing – tasks that men don’t see as real tasks at all, not least because they don’t get paid for them. However much the involved father tells himself that what he’s doing is important and right, he knows that the context in which he will be judged will be the old context, the perceived-status one. Which is why most fathers still stick it to the others on the school sports track in the fathers’ race.
This leaves, say, the government’s new policy initiative of introducing the option of three months’ legal but unpaid parental leave looking a bit forlorn. What father in his right mind is going to give up the prospect of being able to hide at work from the blitz of the first months of childhood and stay at home with his baffling new child, not earning any money? Even paid paternity leave, recently boosted by Cherie Booth, isn’t appealing because, even though you earn, you still have to be with your family, rather than out there competing for approval. If you take the father’s race as a central metaphor for the whole condition of fatherhood, then one or two policy nudges are going to be no use at all.
The solution is essentially dependent on time and persistence. We men need lots of coaching, lots of examples, lots of confirmation that anything as difficult as this is really worth doing. It took a generation for postwar women to expand their options to the point where they can pursue careers/ stay at home and run a family/do both, and there’s still much to do. To persuade men that their options seriously include childcare as well as wage-earning could take centuries. The way in which new fathers are currently cried up in the press suggests that social change is happening now all around us. But the isolated few who make the leap into new fatherhood only serve to point up the vast, unchanging majority.
In order to get real change under way, we need an endless diet of populist, thick- witted, affirmative images of male parenting – Becks hanging up his boots to look after Brooklyn full time, photo-spreads of top buggies in the car pages, celebrity gossip pages revealing Beatrice Dalle running into the arms of a haggard, food-stained house-husband. We need to have the idea of change and mobility drummed into our heads over lifetimes before we start to feel comfortable with the concept.
But even that, plus tax breaks and statutory workplace encouragements, may not work. What if it turns out that if there’s no space for rivalry, then there’s no space for maleness? It is not, after all, enough that I should succeed: my rivals must fail, too. What do you do, then? Build even bigger buggies, with more and more features, to parade ostentatiously around the supermarket? Give in to the inevitable and make the father’s race an Olympic sport? It will take some doing to get the man out of the father.
The author’s “Fathers’ Race: a book about paternity” is published by Little, Brown, £16.99