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Fathers have become second-class citizens

Toby Young says that Father’s Day is nothing to celebrate: today’s neutered dads have become overworked assistants to their children rather than paternal role models

17 June 2009

12:00 AM

17 June 2009

12:00 AM

Toby Young says that Father’s Day is nothing to celebrate: today’s neutered dads have become overworked assistants to their children rather than paternal role models

I cannot say I am looking forward to Father’s Day — not if it is anything like last Sunday. I was woken at 5.45 a.m. when my wife Caroline delivered a sharp jab to my ribs. Charlie, our one-year-old, was crying and it was my turn to get up. I knew from experience that there was no prospect of getting him back to sleep. My best hope was to whisk him down to the kitchen before his howls woke up the other three. For a blissful few minutes I thought I’d got away with it. I dumped Charlie in his playpen and fished Saturday’s Telegraph out of the bin. (Caroline always throws the paper away before I’ve had a chance to read it.) I was in the process of cleaning tomato soup off the sports section when Freddie, our two-year-old, started smashing his bottle against the side of his cot. That’s like the Bat Signal as far as our five-year-old daughter and four-year-old son are concerned. Seconds later, they were standing in front of me, demanding Coco Pops.

By the time Caroline got up I was completely done in — and the day had barely begun. Next, I had to take Sasha for a swimming lesson, then drive Ludo to ‘Little Kickers’, before rushing home to pick up Freddie and take him to ‘baby music’. Two sets of friends with their children arrived for lunch, which meant I had to cook two meals — fish fingers and peas for the children, Thai green curry for the adults. After lunch, I dropped Ludo off at a birthday party, took Sasha and a friend ice skating, then arrived home in time for ‘movie night’ — a weekly institution whereby all the neighbourhood kids take it in turns to watch films at each other’s houses. It was not my turn to play host, thank God — so instead I spent the time cleaning fish fingers and peas off the kitchen floor. After that it was supper, bath and bed, a task that never takes less than two and a half hours. It is not an exaggeration to say I haven’t opened a Sunday paper in five years.


Nearly every dad I know has a similar experience on Saturdays and Sundays. We are not fathers to our children — we are their overworked assistants. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that if a Martian landed in New York and saw a bunch of humans following behind their dogs, scooping up their poop and placing it in little plastic bags, he would conclude that dogs are in charge on this planet. He would think the same about children and their dads if he landed in London on an average weekend. Indeed, not just London, but virtually any city in the western world. And unlike in Jerry Seinfeld’s example, the Martian would be right.

The diminished authority of fathers is the subject of a new book by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball. In Home Game, he records his experience of modern fatherhood and contrasts it with that of his own father, who was largely uninvolved in his childhood. He points out that in the last few decades the marital contract has been renegotiated and men have had a huge number of parental responsibilities foisted upon them without getting anything in return. According to Lewis, the modern father now finds himself in a similar position to Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall: ‘Having shocked the world by doing the decent thing and ceding power without bloodshed for the sake of principle, he is viewed mainly with disdain.’

Home Game is essentially a comic treatment of the subject — a shrewd decision on Lewis’s part. In most educated western households it is perfectly acceptable for men to joke about being treated like unreliable employees by their wives, but woe betide the beleaguered dad who tries to mount a serious critique. Modern women have succeeded in stigmatising men who dare to complain about their predicament as sexist reactionaries. Proposing that men and women should embrace more traditional roles is akin to announcing that you’ve just joined the BNP. In this respect, I am no braver than Michael Lewis. Whenever the topic comes up at dinner parties, I compare myself to a white farmer in contemporary South Africa: I cannot help looking back nostalgically at the bygone era, but recognise that apartheid had to be dismantled in the name of social justice.

I wish I had a bit more courage, particularly as I have three sons. Among advocates of men’s rights, the main focus is on the iniquities of family law — and the bias shown towards women in custody agreements is clearly indefensible. But the people who suffer most from the diminution of paternal authority are adolescent males. A recent study by the Department for Children, Schools and Families discovered that white boys do worse in their GCSEs than Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, African and Chinese boys, not to mention girls from any background. The only groups that perform worse are ‘Traveller of Irish Heritage’, ‘Gypsy Roma’ and ‘Pupil in Care’.

Boys with a Caribbean heritage scarcely fare much better. The eminent African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson has long argued that one of the reasons young black men are responsible for a disproportionately high percentage of violent crimes is because of absentee fathers.

It might seem a bit of a stretch to link absentee Caribbean fathers with the middle-class pantywaists in my social circle, but the root cause is the same. How can we expect men, whether white or black, to embrace fatherhood with enthusiasm when there are so few positive role models in popular culture? An American study of how fathers were presented on television by the National Fatherhood Initiative discovered that they were portrayed as present and involved in children’s lives in only four out of 102 prime-time shows. The same is true of British television. Frank Gallagher, the alcoholic deadbeat in Shameless, is the norm rather than the exception.

This message is reinforced at schools, where children experience their first authority figures outside the home. The number of male teachers in secondary schools fell by 50 per cent between 1981 and 2001 and the ratio of female to male teachers in primary schools is now seven to one. It is hardly surprising that women now comprise 59.2 per cent of the national student population. Why would men want to continue their education when the message they’re bombarded with in the classroom is that they’re second-class citizens?

Home Game ends with Michael Lewis’s description of getting a vasectomy — at the request of his wife, naturally. Having submitted to metaphorical castration, he decides to go the whole hog. It reminded me of the final scene in Stepford Wives, in which we see the lobotomised Elizabeth Ross wandering down a supermarket aisle. He laughs off the indignities of the surgical procedure, as he does all the other humiliations his wife and children inflict on him, but beneath the jokes there’s a palpable sense of longing for a time when fathers weren’t objects of ridicule. I know just how he feels.


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