Brief encounters

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 22 February 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:428
  1. Des Spence (destwo{at}

    It was our parting ritual. The train pulled in, and my father, holding his copy of the Morning Star, was enveloped by the billowing diesel fumes. “Christ,” he said as he rolled his eyes. I had started to cry. Too embarrassed for words at this public display of emotion, he punched me kindly till I stopped. My father may have been fat, balding, and not to everyone's taste, but he was the only dad I had, and I missed him. Back then I was the only kid in the class to come from a “broken home.”

    We British have come bottom of the pile when it comes to making our kids happy, a recent international survey has found, and once again absent fathers are a focus of concern. Although I am wary of surveys (apparently four million Americans report having been abducted by aliens, but I don't believe even alien technology could produce a tractor beam powerful enough to lift the average American), this is an important point.

    You need not spend too long in family practice to come across problem fathers—either as problems to their families or as having problems seeing their family. Men who are still shy of crying in public open the floodgates in the privacy of their general practice. Many fathers express stories of frustrated access, threats from former wives, and an almost universal sense that the courts express naked sexism towards them.

    Society still retains a narrow stereotype of fathers. We all share conversations about the inadequacy of a husband's domestic and parenting skill—“my other kid,” “daddy care,” and the rest. Good humoured it may be, but many a true word is said in jest. People are oily and will twist and turn, but if cornered everyone believes that women are genetically the “better” parent. Here lies the rub: unless society acknowledges that fathers are equal or have the potential to be equal parents—worthy of empathy as well as sympathy—then unfortunately some fathers will feel justified in ducking their responsibilities.

    It is not easy being a parent. “What did the baby have for dinner?” my wife asked. “The cat's food,” I replied. “Again—it's becoming his favourite,” she said, smiling. Some scars never heal: men and women may be different sorts of parents, but our children need us both. We need to do something to help families stay together; but if we can't, we can do much more to make sure they stay in contact. I may not like stupid skewed surveys, but I like railway stations even less.

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