For the past year I have been conducting research into the male experience of marriage and family. On Monday the 3rd of August, the first of my interviews with men will be broadcast as part of BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour and the series will continue throughout the month. The first week focuses on young men's attitudes to commitment and the conversations highlight the profound impact of changing family structures and the consequences of absent fathers.
1. The shape of the family has changed immeasurable in recent decades as divorce, remarriage and single parenthood have become increasingly common. No one would wish to turn back the clock, but are we underestimating the impact that changing family structures are having on young men in particular?
2. Numerous research studies have shown that family values, beliefs, behaviors, skills and parenting styles are transmitted from one generation to the next (Belsky et al., 2009, Beaton, Doherty, & Rueter, 2003).
3. But if the experience of being parented is the initial source of information about what it means to be a father, what happens to boys who grow up without an appropriate model for masculinity, or paternity?
4. According to the The Centre for Social Justice, a million UK children are growing up without a father and three million children in the UK are growing up predominantly with their mothers. One in ten men in the UK never, ever, see their children, and a further 11% only see their children a few times a year.
5. On a broader societal level, the absence of fathers is linked to higher rates of teenage crime, pregnancy and disadvantage, but on a personal level, it is often the simple day-to-day things that matter most. One young man I spoke to, who was abandoned by his father when he was just two years old, spoke poignantly about the challenge of growing up without having a dad "just to teach him how to shave."
6. He was fortunate, because his best friend's dad became a kind of surrogate father and he even sat him down and gave him 'the talk'. This was something that other men who came from challenging backgrounds confirmed. In the absence of a father of their own, they created proxy role models from grandads, uncles, family friends, or even celebrities.
7. Although the issue of absent dads is usually discussed from the perspective of the abandoned child, some loving fathers are not absent by choice. One man that I interviewed has been fighting through the courts for seven years to get access to his two sons. He now believes that his only hope is that his boys will come looking for him when they are over eighteen. It is a situation that has blighted his life. And theirs. But as Penelope Leach pointed out in her 2014 book 'Family Breakdown', when some women realise that they can no longer deny a man access to his children without good reason, they are not above inventing them.
8. Sometimes young men are forced to become fathers against their will. Women play a more influential role in decisions about fertility (Testa, Cavalli, & Rosina, 2012) and they have the power to turn men into fathers, whether they want to take on that role, or not.
9. Next Friday, you can hear the story of a twenty year old man who reluctantly became a father when his teenage girlfriend got pregnant and refused to have an abortion. He was certain that he did not want to have 'a child'... however the birth of 'his daughter' awoke in him an instant and powerful desire to protect and provide. He is now a proud and devoted dad.
10. Several other men confirmed this phenomenon and explained how, even though they were often happily married, it wasn't until they were confronted with a pregnancy, or indeed a miscarriage, that their dormant desire for paternity was triggered (Habib, 2012).
More next week.