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21 January 2011

A father's love should be for life

Keith MacDonald, pictured with his former partner Danielle Little.
Keith MacDonald, pictured with his former partner Danielle Little. Photo: NORTH NEWS AND PICTURES LTD

Keith Macdonald is called Britain’s Most Feckless Father. Admittedly, competition for that title is fierce, but Keith established a comfortable lead on Monday night when BBC1’s Panorama asked him to name his children. Tall, wan and sepulchral as a Dickensian undertaker, Keith was hesitant at first, trying to recall the eight children by eight different women that his 25-year-old loins had spawned. He managed the first six names, but then, with two children still to go, he got stuck, shrugged, took a stab at the seventh before finally admitting defeat.

Keith puts the feck into feckless. In his world – rise at the crack of noon, never get a job – scattering your seed in some demented harvest-festival tribute, at an eventual cost to the state of some £1.5 million, is just how it is. The only shock Keith expressed was when he was asked why he never used contraception. “It’s like wearing a wet sock,” Keith shuddered, “They’re vile. I just couldn’t do it.”

Giving life to eight blameless babies who will never know a father’s love and care, appears to be acceptable, but using a condom is repugnant. Welcome to 2011: post-morality and stigma-free. One in eight children under five will never meet the man who donated half their genes. Seventy per cent of young offenders were raised in a lone-parent home. It’s an anguished statistic. “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection,” said Sigmund Freud. Yet, in some of the poorest parts of the UK, families have been without fathers for three generations. For every feckless Keith, there is an uncertain young dad who would love a chance to be near his children if only their ex-partners would let them. Panorama asked a 20-year-old single mother if she thought her two little boys would miss out by not having a dad around. She could not have been more bemused if they’d offered her a crinoline and a horse-drawn carriage. For young mums like her, fathers are an extinct species. The dadda is deader than the dodo.

What takes your breath away is not just the social and ethical carnage that the change has wrought, but the speed with which it happened. As the Labour MP Frank Field says: “We’re the first generation in recorded history where society has not made the man who begets a child responsible for that child.”

A father’s absence can be as defining as his presence, just as an amputee’s body will always ache for its missing limb. Look at BBC presenter Justin Webb who revealed this week that his father was Peter Woods, a BBC news anchor in the Seventies. Justin doesn’t have his dad’s basset-hound pouchiness, but the amused ripple of a smile and determined chin are identical. Justin’s mother got pregnant when she worked with the married Woods at the Daily Mirror. The star newsman visited his son only once, when he was six months old. Justin claims that the “unswerving love” of his mother insulated him from the loss, but I suspect the wound goes deeper than even he can acknowledge.

Can it really be coincidence that the unacknowledged son grew up and went into news reporting? It’s as if he were following in his father’s footsteps to see if he could catch up and find him. I remember the Olympic gold medallist Marion Jones telling me that every time she crossed the finishing line she wondered if her errant father was watching. “Look at me, daddy, look what I can do,” is the deserted child’s silent plea.

Unlike most fatherless boys, with the help of a good middle-class education Justin Webb has grown up to be a devoted father himself. “There’s no pleasure like a young daughter putting her arms around your neck,” he once said, “Any man who hasn’t experienced that has missed out.”

Make no mistake, the man’s daughter has missed out, too. Scientists have discovered recently that girls whose fathers have left home start their periods much earlier than girls who live with their biological dads, and that the more a father interacts with his daughters when they are very young, the more likely they are to mature slowly and go on to have a happy, stable life. The large number of children living with stepfathers may actually be contributing to the worldwide trend towards girls reaching sexual maturity faster, thus increasing the likelihood of early pregnancy and yet more disadvantaged, fatherless children. And so the wretched cycle continues.

All the business people who this week said we couldn’t afford the Coalition’s plans for extended paternity leave should tot up the lifelong cost to society of a father failing to form a meaningful connection with his child. It’s important the law acknowledges that raising a child is not just women’s work.

Frank Field, who has taken on the role of ''poverty tsar’’ for the Coalition, has suggested schools should start giving parenting lessons. I would go further. Boys need to be taught that fathers are not just sperm donors, they have an irreplaceable protective role to play in their children’s lives. Girls need to be taught that treating the father of your baby as if he’s a turkey baster with a benefits cheque attached is as damaging as it’s cruel.

A producer of Channel 4’s Big Brother was once asked if there was any trait that linked the housemates. It was odd, he said, but he had noticed that the girls never had fathers. Too many lost girls and boys out there are looking to Big Brother to take care of them. All they want is their daddy.

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