One often hears it said that ‘the devil is in the detail’, and family policy is no exception. If you don’t look hard for evidence of what’s really happening in families, how can you hope to develop policy that fits reality?
When we started our investigation of how information on fathers and father-figures is recorded in Britain’s main research and statistical datasets three years ago, we suspected we might uncover some gaps and inconsistencies.
And sure enough, we did. Our 59,000-word final report, Where’s the Daddy?, lays out in forensic detail how 16 large-scale repeated cross-sectional and longitudinal datasets (like the Census and the British Social Attitudes survey) identify, differentiate and collect data about British fathers – or, all too often, don’t.
Here you can read our Executive Summary, the Condensed Report or, if you’re really made of stronger stuff, the Full Report. In them, we suggest how things could be improved, to help researchers and policymakers better capture the diversity of fatherhood in modern Britain, including collecting data on fathers who don’t live full time with their children.
In a nutshell, what we’re saying is that we need different types of fathers, such as birth, adoptive or ‘step’, to be identified rather than being casually lumped together. And we need separated fathers to be reclassified in terms of whether – and how much of the time – they live with their children: full-time co-resident, part-time co-resident or non-resident. Currently, these fathers are typically classed as ‘non-resident’ or even as childless. In fact, they often spend a great deal of time (even as much as the mother) with their children and are very important to them and to their long-term outcomes.
In Where’s the Daddy? we’ve focused on the big datasets that set the tone for UK family policy. But as the UK’s largest trainer of healthcare, early years, education and social work practitioners in how to harness fathers’ enormous impact on children’s lives, we at the Fatherhood Institute know that there are ‘dad data’ gaps in frontline public services too.
Sometimes there is only space in the records-system to enter one parent’s contact details when children are registered in nurseries, schools, hospitals or child protection services, for example. Staff may feel unsure about asking for information about a second parent, in case there has been a painful separation, or because they feel (wrongly) that they’re breaching data protection laws by doing so.
I have some experience of this myself.
On paper, my son has grown up with a resident mother and a non-resident father (me). If you chose to, you could look at his mum as a single mother. In fact he has, for almost all of his 18 years, been surrounded by four loving parents. In our case, unusually, three of them are male. So if you wanted to paint a rounded picture of my son - from his health and education and socioeconomic status, to how we was brought up and what he’s achieving in life - you’d need to capture data about his mum and all three of his dads – me and his two stepdads. But the questions we get asked don’t reflect our family’s reality.
As a biological father with Parental Responsibility (PR), I’ve filled in plenty of forms that ask if I’m a father, and if my child lives with me. But while I can confidently answer ‘yes’ to the first question, I’m not so sure about the second: he’s stayed with me for around a third of nights...does that constitute ‘living with me’ or not?
My child’s mum’s partner would feel more confident on the second question than on the first, because my son has slept there more than half the time - but could be describe himself straightforwardly as a father? Not really. He doesn’t have PR for my son, even though he’s married to the mother. And what about my partner? He wouldn’t know how to answer either question: he doesn’t have PR, he’s not married to our child’s mother; he’s not even married to, or in a civil partnership with, me. And yet...he’s a massive part of our son’s life and has been since my son was two.
The fact is, all of us British dads are used to feeling a little bit surplus to requirements. Throughout my son’s childhood, public services have treated his mum as ‘chief parent’ - probably because she’s female (and we’ve all swallowed the idea that men are not interested in parenting, even when confronted by examples of that not being the case) and because they think it’s easier not to deal with more than one household.
At our son’s schools we always presented a ‘united front’ – a mother and father working together for their child, despite living in separate households. We gave two addresses and phone numbers, but only hers was ever used, even if it was me and my partner who did most of the pick-ups and drop-offs, and were much more likely to go to school events.
In the end, as individual parents, there’s not much you can do other than just get on with it. But for those whose jobs involve the ‘bigger picture’, our report clarifies that there are important changes to make.
If all we ever do is ask questions of and about mothers, we’ll design family services with only mothers in mind - pushing them into the position of feeling (and/or being) solely or mainly responsible for looking after children, and potentially holding dads back from playing a substantial (or equal) role in caregiving. That’s all bad news for gender equality, and for children – not to mention for academic rigour.
We need to start understanding men’s experiences as fathers and father-figures, and children’s experiences of being fathered: yes, by the men whose genes they carry but also by the other men who shape their journeys through life. By doing so, we’ll build up much stronger insights into what makes children happy, healthy and successful.