Daddy knows best: in praise of single fathers

‘Despite the negative images of single dads I was surprised by the number of positive examples of fatherhood I found’

The first time I met Will Mulcahey, he was sitting in the busy reception area of a centre offering temporary accommodation to young people in the East End of London.

I was scouting around for subjects for a book on young dropouts. Will, who was 20, was sitting on the edge of a table with little eddies of humanity swirling around him, chatting to his friend Darren. He seemed like a talker, youthfully good-looking, tall but not too skinny.

After we’d chatted for a few minutes he pulled out his phone and flicked through it, looking for something. Then he thrust it towards me. On the screen was a picture of a tiny baby with thick dark hair.

“Tia,” he said. “She was born two weeks ago. I have to see her. She’s just part of me.”

Will seemed to be on the verge of a momentous decision. He hated London, he said, he’d just broken up with Tia’s mother and he wanted to go back to Ipswich, where he was born. “I would leave, but there’s my baby,” he said, looking emotional. Then he looked down again at the little picture on the screen, a question forming in his head. “I wonder … is it enough?”

I wondered, too. Will seemed never to have settled to anything. His childhood had been hard — he didn’t remember ever seeing his father, and he remembered times when he and his sister ate nothing but beans on toast for months. He dropped out of a performing arts course at college, dropped out of the Army, dropped out of a job in a supermarket. Yet as it turned out, Tia was enough to keep Will in London.

I spent two years following a group of young dropouts and potential dropouts in London, Manchester and Barnsley. I was hoping to identify the deeper social causes of youth unemployment — among them early parenthood. I met young mothers and young fathers, and I also met teenagers who were being brought up by lone fathers, as well as by lone mothers.

I feared that I would find some very negative images of fatherhood because media coverage tends to portray single fathers as absent, drunken or violent, but as my research went on, I was surprised by the number of positive examples of fatherhood I came across.

There were some absolutely terrible ones, too — I met one teenager whose father had gone to prison when he was three weeks old, and whose subsequent appearances had usually involved violence, drunkenness or — on one occasion – the theft of his birthday money. But several of the young people with whom I spent time had very good relationships with their fathers despite not living with them all the time, and two actually lived with their fathers because their relationships with their mothers had broken down.

There are reasons to be hopeful that fatherhood is making something of a comeback. About 240,000 children are being brought up by single fathers, and the numbers of fathers applying for joint parenting agreements are on the rise. There were 9,000 such agreements last year — 500 more than the previous year — and a further 40,000 parents, mostly fathers, applied to the courts for contact orders. A report published yesterday by The Equality and Human Rights Commission also finds that men want to take a more active role in caring for their children: a survey of 4,500 parents in England Wales and Scotland of children aged under 16 found that four in ten say they spend too little time with their children. Yet 45 per cent fail to take two weeks’ paternity leave after the birth of their child with the most common reason provided being that they can’t afford it.

Although Will’s on-off relationship with Tia’s mother finally petered out at the end of last year, this little girl has become one of the few constant, positive things in his life. He has applied for full joint custody of his daughter, and continues to see her several times each week. The temporary accommodation, where he lived until this month wasn’t ideal, he said — he had only one bedroom and it had been broken into once. So he would pick Tia up from her nursery most days, and would take her to the playground in the local park. Sometimes he would take her to his mother’s house, a mile or so up the road. With no sign of a steady job on the horizon, Tia remained the one solid, indisputably good thing in Will’s life.

Such was the effect of fatherhood on Will that he sometimes seemed overwhelmed by an almost apocalyptic fear for her future. He had this sense that he wanted to keep her near, to protect her.

“If I had money I would buy some land and build a house,” he told me as we sat chatting in a supermarket caf?, just after yet another break-up with Tia’s mother. “I just want my baby to be happy. I want her to have things I never had. I just want her dad to be there.”

The overwhelming love that Will feels for Tia seems to sit uneasily alongside the more common images we have of fatherhood in today’s world, with its fractured family structures. Single fathers tend to get a bad press. We know that they head up just one tenth of lone parent families. We know that up to one half of the 13 million children in Britain today will spend part of their childhoods in a single parent family, and we know that around 1.6 million will lose contact with one parent — usually their father.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, has published research on family breakdown through his Centre for Social Justice. He told me that he believed many teenagers went off the rails because they lacked father figures in their lives. Seeking substitutes, boys would attach themselves to the leader of a gang or a drugs ring.

“These act as alternative family structures which are hugely rooted in criminal activity,” he said. “Girls become a sort of commodity — in street gangs women are often traded between gang members for sexual favours. If there’s a lot of dysfunction around you, without that male role model, you see nothing else but the same pattern; there’s no other check to make you reference something different.”

Yet the majority of fathers do stay in touch with their children after divorce or separation. And the models of fatherhood and male role-modelling that I saw were rarely so grim as Duncan Smith suggested.

In some ways, I felt that these single fathers got rather a raw deal. Will commented that although he shared the parental responsibility for Tia equally with her mother, the resources needed all went to her. When Will moved out of his temporary accommodation into a council flat, he was allowed to have only one bedroom, and was making plans to buy a sofabed so that his daughter could sleep in the living room.

His ex-partner received the child benefit, so Will needed to ask her to provide nappies and other supplies for the times when she was with him, because his benefits didn’t stretch to buying them. I could see, looking at the difficulties that Will faced, how easy it would have been for a less committed father to drift away and to stop seeing Tia. And while I did come across some bad examples of fatherhood, I came across some less-than-perfect examples of motherhood, too. I was left wondering whether it wasn’t sometimes fathers who made the better parents — if only they were given the chance.

I came across more than one father who had rescued his child from a difficult relationship with a mother. In South Yorkshire I met Claire, whose dad, Mark, had not worked since an accident decades before, and who seemed to view his daughter as the central shining light in his life. He had brought her to live with him at his parents’ home as a toddler. She told me that she’d been desperately unhappy at her mother’s house, and she saw little of her even though they lived in the same area.

“I don’t really expect anything of Claire. I just wanted her to grow up in a comfortable, safe environment,” Mark told me once.

Claire, who was 16 when I met her, was a lovely, puppyish girl. When I arrived at their neat semi she would bound to the door in huge Bart Simpson slippers. Mark, a low-key man with a dry sense of humour, lived on benefits and spent much of them on Claire — a good laptop, a new iPhone. When she started college, travelling in to Barnsley every day from their home five miles away, he confessed that he missed spending time with her.

“I do like to see you now and again,” he said once that first term, with a wry look. “We have a laugh.” They’d often talk fondly of the trips they’d take together out to Derbyshire, or to the caravan Claire’s grandparents owned on the Lincolnshire coast.

Similarly, in Manchester I met 18-year-old Rachel, whose father John had brought her to live with him at the age of 7. Rachel says now that her mother sometimes left her alone for days at a time while she went out drinking, and that she would sometimes arrive home with a “dodgy man” in tow. One of these men moved in and then became violent, she said. The ends of their regular weekends together had become increasingly traumatic.

“She started screaming when she had to go home; she wanted to come and live with me,” John explained. “After a lot of humming and ha-ing over a couple of weeks, I said: ‘Right then, you’d better come and live with me.’ I thought that anything would be an improvement. I thought that it was my right and my responsibility to take her into a different environment.”

Both Rachel and Claire are quite grown up now, but Will’s little daughter Tia is just 20 months. When I went to meet the two of them in London last week, Will was talking optimistically about pursuing an acting career while doing temporary work in a shop selling computer games.

Tia, dressed in a pink jacket that matched her pink hair bands, soon got over her initial shyness and treated us to big gales of infectious laughter. We wandered down to the play area in the local park, where Tia lay amiably on her back, waving her legs in the air while Will changed her nappy. “I’ve not done this before,” he explained over his right shoulder as he bent over her. Then he quickly qualified his remark: “Changed her in the park, that is. I’ve done this” – nodding to the changing mat and nappies — “hundreds of times.”

We watched as Tia ran from slide to roundabout and back again, a tiny bundle of delighted enthusiasm. Tia was always an easy baby, Will said: “She’s like me. She’s cheeky, she’s funny, she likes to dance.” I wondered if he thought she’d suffered at all because of his break-up with her mother.

“I don’t think it matters that we’re not together,” he said, quickly. Then he looked at her hard. “If she wants the world, I’ll bring it to her.”

Learning to Fail by Fran Abrams, is published today by Routledge, price £18.99.

Some names in this article have been changed