Friday, 25 February 2011

A Century of Fatherhood s1e03 - The New Father - BBC TV programme.

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'In the 50's dream of married life, the husband had a clear role of provider and protector in his new home. But this dream of suburban family life had far less appeal to the generation of the 60's.

Some who'd grown up in solidly middle class homes saw suburbia as a trap, and wanted to break free from all convention, to discover who they really were.

One of them was public school boy, Rashid.

Rashid: "I always felt, very clearly, the ridiculousness of the moral code by which we lived. It was stultifying. It was rigid. I perceived myself at the age of twenty as a stuffed shirt. I couldnt say or think anything that hadnt been put into me by school, my parents, my family. I felt myself as an automaton."

The young men that would become the next generation of fathers were embracing the values of the 60's sexual revolution, with its explosion of hedonistic music and fashion. First to go were the taboo's on sex before marriage, once regarded as essential in encouraging couples to marry and stay together for life.

Rashid: "I ended up jumping into bed with the first woman who would have me really. Herself, a product of that same society, so already its a totally unsustainable relationship."

To begin with, the sexual freedom was liberating. It was made possible by the invention and widespread use of the contraceptive pill, but there were still many unplanned pregnancies. Young rebels like Rashid, soon became young husbands and fathers.

Rashid: "For a while actually, it was wonderful. Maximum sexual temptation, with maximum opportunity to express it. Very soon she got pregnant, and I was very excited because I've always loved kids, I've always been able to relate easily to kids."

Some British families were giving up on traditional notions of dad altogether. In an extraordinary piece of reverse migration, they rejected the material world of the west, and travelled East looking for spiritual and sexual enlightenment.

In 1977, Rashid and his family gave up their small farm to start afresh in an ashram in Poona. They joined 'The Orange People', becoming disciples of Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who christened them all with new names. This is where Rashid, formally called Patrick, got his new name.

Rashid: "For me, a lot of that time in Poona was to do with letting go of a lot of our conditionings to do with 'mine'. So we didnt have any possesions, we didnt want any possessions, we didnt need it. Ok, I had a record player."

Bhagwan's followers tried to free their minds from all ideas of western convention. Open and loving relationships were regarded as the key to enlightenment. But they soon found, it wasnt that easy.

Rashid: "In a sense I was sort of letting go of 'my' wife, 'my' son, and by that reverse logic, I was, in a way, expecting that I could be with a girlfriend, with my son there, and it wasnt a big issue for him that she wasnt 'my' mummy. Infact, it didnt work like that. But I didnt really recognise clearly how deep the old thing is. That this is 'my wife', and 'my son', and 'my mother'. How deep those are, or even that they are hard-wired into us."

The emotional importance of family ties proved stronger than Rashid imagined. Although he remained a loyal disciple of Bhagwan, his wife soon left him, and returned to England with the children.

Rashid: "At some level, I always felt that the relationship with Nicky (his wife) was ongoing, that we were still together, although we had to go different ways to do it. I lived celibatley untill I got a 'Dear John' letter from her, saying actually now, she's with Johnny, and its all over between us. And for me that was very painful."

Rashids personal quest would result in a painful separation from his children that would last for many years.

Rashid re-established close contact  with his children when he returned to Britain, and now has a large extended family.

Rashid: "They've given me unconditional love."

The 'swinging sixties' is a decade thats become legendary for its sexually daring and extramarital affairs. Of course, there was nothing new about adultery, but the permissive atmosphere encouraged young people to take a more open and honest attitude to sexual adventures. When the secret came out however, the feelings of anger, jealousy, and rejection that were unleashed, could destroy a relationship.

What was once a life time commitment, was ending in divorce, and the trickle of divorce cases became a flood, after the 1969 'Divorce Reform Act' made it much easier for a couple to split up.

But the new divorce laws also helped turn the marriage break up into a battle ground.

One glamorous sixties marriage which ended in a bitter divorce battle, was that of playwright Terence Frisby.

Terence: "She went to see a divorce lawyer. I said we dont want a lawyer, lets just try and sort this out between us. You've been unfaithful. I've been unfaithful. What does it matter. The lives we've been living, what big suprise is that? And she sort of concurred with that. But this man, Im pretty sure now, in retrospect, he fancied her, and he was determined to get her into bed if he could. And he made sure that no reconciliation occurred."

Terence was one of the sixties fathers who discovered how the new divorce laws put men in a vulnerable position when it came to access to their children. He had to fight hard to see his young son, Dominic.

Terence: "I turned up at my mother-in-laws house, and knocked on the door to see Dominic, and no one was at home, and I just stood on the doorstep on this summers afternoon. I thought I was going to see my son for the first time for months. And then afterwards an apology was made 'Oh, she wasnt well, sorry.' If she wasnt well, then where was she? She wasnt at home. And so, even then, every little trick and nuance was used to try and twist the knife, and I can remember the pain of it, of course I can, but I remember the rage I felt about it. I thought it was disgusting that the court should even let it happen, and my own lawyers just shrugged and said 'Oh well, thats what the courts do."

Paradise for Terence Frisby was simply being able to see his son Dominic. His legal battle with his ex-wife to get access to him continued. This made the time they were able to spend together all the more precious.

Terence: "One of the best things that happened when he was a kid, was swimming. I took him swimming twice a week, thats when I got to see him twice a week when he was five or something. I taught him to swim at a very young age, and he embraced the water as only kids can."

But these joyful moments were always cut short, by painful handovers.

Terence: "Coming and picking him up was ghastly, and taking him back was worse. I used to call it the Berlin Wall handover, you remember in those days in the Cold War, the spies that were handed over at Checkpoint Charlie."

For Terence Frisby, the separation from his son Dominic was so devastating, in 1974 he helped set up the group 'Families Need Fathers', which campaigned for equal parenting rights in divorce cases.

Terence: "Suddenly, we had an epidemic of men deprived of their children because of divorce, and I dont think that had ever happened before. Divorce before the sixties was very much a middle, and upper middle class affair. For the first time, we heard this murmur coming up from underneath somewhere, that 'its not fair', which it wasnt, Im sorry to say something so banal, but there you are. And, I think 'Families Need Fathers' gave a voice to that. I heard so many stories in their walk-ins of ghastliness. It was very good that people could come and hear it was happening to other people because as always in these things, its jolly good to find you're not alone in the world."

Meanwhile, the big influx of fathers who came to Britain as economic migrants from new Commonwealth countries like India and Pakistan, also felt the pain of separation from their children, but for very different reasons.

Laeeq Khan arrived in Bradford from Pakistan in 1967. His aim was to work hard, to create a new and better life for the family he had left behind.

Laeek: "It was a very big decision. I didnt want to do that, because that would mean leaving the two boys, but I had to take it because I was so ashamed of my earnings in Pakistan. Not to be able to afford what they want, and in future, what they will expect from me."

Laeek was a proud breadwinner, who's mission, like many other post-war immigrants, was to provide for his wife and children. By saving hard, he hoped one day to be able to afford to bring them over to Britain, so they could all live together again. Though this meant he had to live apart from his wife Ferhat and his children for years, there was no quesion about his loyalty and devotion.

Laeek: "There was no way I could send them a lot of money, which I didnt have, so the only thing which I thought I should do, was to keep writing to Ferhat. So that, she at least, have a link with me every day, or almost everyday. Before I used to go to sleep, I always had a letter beside me, in the envelope, stamped, so that when I got up in the morning, on my way, I post that letter to Ferhat."

The fathers who'd left their families in new commonwealth countries to make a new home in Britain, knew the agony of being apart from their loved ones all too well. In 1974, after seven years of separation, Laeek Khan's wife and three children set out from their home town in Pakistan to join him in Bradford.

Laeek's muslim cultural background forbade any public display of the deep emotions he felt. He couldnt wait to take his family back to Bradford, to the new home he'd brought for them.

Laeek: "Then I brought them home. I was very proud. To bring them in my house. They waited seven years, and I was very proud to be a dad then."

Laeek trained to be a television engineer, so he could earn good money and provide for the needs of his family in a way that had been impossible in Pakistan.

He embodied the best values of the traditional father.

Laeek: "The boys were waiting eagerly for me to come home, and when I opened the door, they were behind the door (cue 3 excited little boys). They all around me. And they loved me. As if nobody is more important in their life, than their dad."

Laeek and Ferhat Khan are now proud grandparents, and are happy with the new life they made in Britain.

Laeek: "Our birthdays come, we look forward to them. Any excuse to celebrate. I still kiss them. I still kiss them infront of their wives. It doesnt deter me. He's my son. And those are my grand children. So thats my life. Thats my happiness."

In the 1970's and 80's, the influence of feminism put further pressure on the traditional family based on marriages for life, in which the mother stayed at home and the father went out to work. It was hugely influential in persuading the younger generation that housework was demeaning and that their should be a more equal relationship between men and women.

Women now wanted a career aswell as a family, just like their husbands. The idea of feminism was embraced by many men too, who believed that becoming more involved in bringing up their children would also enrich their lives.

The traditional working class family was changing fast. A change closely tied to the decline of the manufacturing industries that had supported the male breadwinner. In place of the old nuclear family, came the rise of the single parent family.

The new father of the 90's was proving that he could be very successful as the principle carer of young children. But traditional attitudes that mothers were always best, meant there was an institutional bias against fathers taking on this role.

In 1995, Paul Lawerence became the proud father of his first child, Kareem. He was a devoted dad, but after he and his partner split up, Paul found himself powerless to get the kind of contact time with his son he wanted.

Paul: "What was peculiar for me, was that the entire system didnt seem to support the concept that a man could parent his child. Eventually after a few battles, we (paul and his ex-wife), had to go to court for access. When I went to court, I looked at the judge and I realized I could not win. Because I actually applied for full custody of my son. I realized I couldnt win because for her (the female judge), it was a stretch to imagine that a man would want custody of his child. And without being racist in the least, I suspect a 6 foot black man with a beard just didnt fill her picture of what a father looked like. And our society is more comfortable thinking of children with women."

After a protracted legal battle, Paul was granted an access order that allowed him to see his son, every other weekend. But the order was sometimes broken by Pauls ex-partner, and he soon discovered there was little he could do about it.

Paul: "I felt angry because I fulfilled my requirements. We had gone to court. The court said that I should have my son. All you have to do is bring him to the door at 7 o'clock on a friday. And you choose not to do that. And you choose not to do that because you know theres nothing I can do. Monday morning I can ring a solicitor, but in reality, theres nothing I can do."

Dan Gardners life was also turned upside down after his wife had an affair. The divorce that followed was part of a new trend in which women initiated more marriage break ups than men. Even though Dan was the childrens main carer, suddenly, his position in the family seemed under threat.

Dan: "In spite of having done the equalitarian, equal roles within the partnership and family thing, when everything was in such turmoil emotionally with me, I kind of returned to the traditional mans role. That somehow the mother has a right to the family home, in a way that the man doesnt."

And although he moved out of the family home, the risk of losing his children soon focused Dan's mind.

Dan: "It was non-negotiable for me. That we should have equal sharing in the lives of our kids. Carrie's initial assumption was that she would, of course, get the kids, which I resisted right from the outset. I was possibly a bit cruel actually. When she suggested that, my instant reaction was, well actually, I've been looking after the kids, I think any court would let me have the kids. And I think that spooked her. So that brought her around very quickly to the idea of having 50/50 care arrangements."

A new generation of fathers whose marriages split up, were now demanding shared parenting rights. This was rarely achieved, because the courts preferred the children to live with one of the parents, usually the mother.

The change from hands-on father with a day to day caring role, to weekend dad, was hugely painful.

Matt O'Connor was a loving dad with two young sons. When his marriage broke up, he saw how the legal system turned partners against each other, aggravating every grievance, and denying him his role as a loving father.

Matt: "I went from seeing my children every day, to seeing them in a contact centre, for what the judge described as 'a cooling off period'. Which was profoundly distressing. Not just for me, I think, but for the kids. Because your at home one minute, and you're sitting infront of the T.V, and the next minute you're in this cold, inhospitable landscape being watched by three people sitting at a table."

Matt abandoned the court system, and came to a friendly arrangement with his ex-wife, so he could have regular access to his children. Then in 2001, Matt formed 'Fathers 4 Justice', to bring the plight of fathers like himself into the public eye. They soon made the headlines with dramatic protests, in which divorced dads dressed up as comic book super hero's, and scaled famous public buildings.

Matt: "Guys. Get your super suits on, down the fancy dress shop. Get a ladder. Go. And that was it.

"People say, why do you do these things? why do you subsequently go off and start a campaign? I went off and started a campaign because the law wasnt being enforced, the court orders werent being enforced. The law is farcical, grotesque and abusive to all the participant's that go into the system, including the mums. But most of all children."

"What sort of person is gonna say, actually, you know what? We dont need fathers. What sort of person is gonna say, Well, we're gonna put you through 8-10 years of going through the family justice system, bankrupt the family, emotionally and economically, with no resolution. Its a fundamentally abusive system. What we're saying, is we cant necessarily go back to the traditional nuclear family, but the most important thing is two parents are better than one. Retain the love and care of both parents. And never, never, hate your ex more than you love your children."
With the divorce rate ot an all time high, family break ups were hugley disruptive to childrens lives. This was further complicated when the parents went on to form new relationships and marriages.

The 1990's heralded a new era of step-parenting. By then, 1 in 8 of all children were growing up in a step family. There was no more difficult situation for a step-dad, than to be regarded by the children as mum's 'toyboy'.

Fathers have come a long way in the last hundred years. Most modern dads want to enjoy an intimate relationship with their children from the beginning. And breaking the bond with their children is something they're less inclined to accept than before. Fathers in history have often been stereotyped as remote, distant, and uncaring figures, but across a hundred years of change, encompassing a social and sexual revolution, they've enjoyed much closer and more important relationships with their children than has been previously thought.

Those who did, have enriched their own lives, on the way, changing attitudes, and making new lives possible for their children.

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