On 28 September, listening to Will Carling as he talked to Fergal Keane on Radio 4’s Resigning Issues, a saying came to mind: “A man wrapped up in himself makes for a very small parcel.” Carling came over as a microdot of a male. His take on his wrecked relationships with Julia Carling and Ali Cockayne is that he’s just a little boy lost who’d tried so hard to please that he’d forgotten to pursue his own happiness.
Amid all this self-delusion, a slither of honesty stood out all the more sharply – not least because it resisted the new paternal orthodoxy of the dad-evangelists among us. Fergal Keane, of course, is the author of Letter to Daniel, written when his son was newly born.
Dad-evangelists are all given to writing expansively along a similar theme: I ask myself not what you can do for me, baby, but what I can do for you. Which leaves the – no doubt unfair – impression that, while all this pontificating is going on, someone else is getting on with burping and bathing.
A father in touch with his feelings (if not with the dirty nappies) may be infinitely preferable to the damaging and distant dad. But this romanticisation of the paternal experience is as potentially damaging as the traditional idealisation of motherhood.
Carling is robustly not evangelical. There’s no doubt in his mind about whose needs take priority in the early months of his son’s life. “When they first come along, little babies, they’re not the most amazing thing that’s ever happened,” he explained to Keane. “They wake you up at night and they scream at you and they want food . . .”
One is tempted to say, “Almost as demanding as immature men, then?” – but the main point is that, guilelessly, Carling has spoken what he feels. And in the major reconstruction of fatherhood now taking place, we need more of that
Twelve years ago, Brigid McConville wrote Mad to Be a Mother: is there life after birth for women today? It was among the first of what has become a stream of books that have established that, while there is no such thing as a maternal instinct, the maternal whinge is rarely out of print. And with some justification – given the low value placed on caring and the British dislike of children and babies. Constructive whingeing is often the fuel of change.
“Mad to Be a Mother,” the book’s blurb explained, “offers some startling insights as to why . . . mothers, often struggling to adjust to new physical and emotional demands, suddenly find themselves caught in the double standards of man-made motherhood.” A decade on, it is fathers who are struggling to adjust to the new demands of fatherhood, man-made, but with women often very much in charge.
Men are no longer simply expected to give their offspring their money but their time and interest as well. Campaigners such as Adrienne Burgess have argued eloquently that it is conditioning and opportunity, not biology, that make a capable parent. “It is only a few decades since women were widely believed to be sexually passionless, intellectually weak and emotionally flimsy by nature,” she writes in the excellent Fatherhood Reclaimed: the making of the modern father. “Perhaps it is not unreasonable to suggest that before too long we will discard the beliefs currently so widely held that men are by nature less sensitive than mothers to their children and less deeply attached to them. Or that men should defer to women in parenting matters, on grounds of their biological fitness for the task.”
In short, men can do as good a job as women – if they are allowed to. So now employers are being pushed for more family-friendly policies. Public policy is also adapting to the new fatherhood. At the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, the Secretary of State for Social Security, Alistair Darling, hinted that paternity leave may be paid out of benefits for those on a low income.
And in law, too, there is movement. Recently, a Cambridge University study argued that legal rights over babies should be extended to include unmarried fathers.
At the same time, men are beginning to show the strain – just like women – at attempting to have it all. Parenting in the 1990s, by the Family Policy Studies Centre, indicated that men in their mid-30s in full-time work with a significant role in care for their offspring were “the least content”. Children bring their own rewards – but that doesn’t make it any easier to juggle a multitude of tasks. And carry the guilt of always falling short. Why don’t men talk about it more?
Will Carling is now in a legal battle to gain more access to his son. So are 5,000 other men, embroiled in the courts. If motherhood is “man-made”, then sometimes – to some men – it must feel that their fathering is entirely controlled by women. A study of young single fathers, for instance, found that these men were often desperate to maintain contact and support, but could conduct the relationship with their child only when they were “allowed” to by the mother.
Research tells us that mothers want fathers to do more in the home, but only under their command. The implicit message, therefore, remains that parenting is mum’s business, with dad lending a helping hand. Now that may suit some men, but it probably annoys and frustrates the hell out of others. Why don’t they say so? Sentiment and silence is no catalyst for change. The Australian poet, Les Murray, wrote: “Becoming a father, that is no/Achievement. Being one is, though.”
Wee ambivalent Will can’t be the only one who’s willing to give vent to the sound and fury of that struggle.