Family Units

Carol Sarler wrote a piece in The Times yesterday in which she questions the proposition that children need a father. She is clearly supportive of non-traditional family units, including same-sex two parent couples and rightly so.

The thrust of what she says is: that the modern notion of the role of a father is just that – a creation of relatively recent social scenarios. That historically, fathers have been absent or distant and children have been raised and nurtured by women. Hence the proposition that having fathers around might be desirable but is not necessary. Poor chaps.

But the fact of the matter is that many many children are raised perfectly well by one parent, often a mother but sometimes a father. But even though many of those mums might tell you they were better off without the feckless, hopeless waste of space that is the father of their child, I don’t suppose many of them would say that a child is better off without a father – just that the one they have is a poor example. 

And the point which really slightly irks me about this piece is that there is a whole lot of effort expended in demonstrating the proposition that men are useful only for their earning power rather than their nappy changing or nurturing ability ‘hunter-gatherers…were off and away garnering the means of survival – a function that, by the way, remains the most useful role for the father’. This rather offensive and limited view of men distracts Sarler from the obvious corrollary of her own proposition – if fathers are not a necessary feature of a successful family unit, and if alternative family units are just as good as traditional ‘mum-dad’ groupings – what makes a mum any more necessary than a father?

The point surely is that children need to be nurtured and loved consistently by at least one parental figure. We all know it is easier and possibly more likely to be successful when there are two people sharing the load, both financially and emotionally. But it can be done and is being done by single parents up and down the country and frankly, the fact that dads have not been hands-on through centuries of history doesn’t seem to me to be at all relevant to a father’s ability to step up to the mark and do the job of ‘mum’ where a mother isn’t around. If fathers are dispensable so then are mothers – who cares which one does the job as long as they do it well? It is traditionally men who have relied on a history in which women are drawn as insignificant to sneer at the ‘limitations’ of the fairer sex – good at baking and raising bairns, hopeless in politics or gainful employment. Of course thats tosh, but its tosh in reverse too. Sarler uses the same technique – conflating historical roles with innate characteristics.

I don’t want to be constrained by historical gender -parenting roles and I don’t see why any man should be either. I am likely to be the ‘hunter-gatherer’ in our family unit when it becomes three and my other half may well end up being the one at the wrong end of all the nappies and the teething and the rest. Who cares about roles. If it works it works. My only anxiety is that my kids may end up needing their father rather more than their mother.

Sarler may well be historically accurate about the development of our notion of fatherhood, but it is rather distasteful to hear her sneer at those who want to cast off the traditional roles and approach parenting from a flexible or less gendered perspective. In writing a piece which challenges those who are anti-lesbian to step forward and out themselves, Sarler comes across as anti-dad. I don’t know if this is what she intended but if its upset me, then I’m guessing some men out there might also be rather irked at her tone and insinuations.

We are ALL potentially far more than our forebears – gay or straight, male or female, single married or otherwise. How does a pro-feminist, pro-lesbian piece manage to sound as if it doesn’t understand that basic proposition?

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