Great Britain

Becoming my baby grandson’s carer was a wake-up call on the urgent need to better support fathers

In January of 2019, my grandson Lyle was born. As I leaned over and looked at him in the arms of my son, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I also wasn’t aware of how much that little 8lb boy would change my life.

Circumstances meant that Lyle’s parents weren’t able to look after him, so myself and my wife Allison stepped in to become Lyle’s kinship carers. At the age of 44, a baby moved into my house, and I began a process that I thought I had long ago left behind. Sleepless nights, nappy changing, tantrums (both his and mine) and a variety of near misses ensued. At the time I was on the Labour frontbench and gearing up for an election whilst managing childcare. I was always desperate to spend more time with Lyle.

In March of 2020 I got that wish and then some. No longer on the frontbench, I (like the rest of the country) was told to stay and work from home. Parliament became remote, and Allison and I hopped on and off Zoom calls whil playing and spending time with Lyle. A photo of my first remote parliamentary appearance was selected for Historic England’s “picturing lockdown” collection. In it, I am joining the remote proceedings in my office, whilst Lyle stands holding my hand and giving me some help. It is one of my favourite photos of us, and I think encapsulates the often-perilous marriage of work and care that many parents and guardians had to navigate over the course of the pandemic.

Lyle has taught me many things. He has given me some much-needed perspective in a career that often feels all-consuming, has taught me to recognise the precious moments in childhood frequently overshadowed by the trickier bits, and trained me to not leave anything valuable at a height below 3 feet. Most importantly, however, he has reminded me about how fathers urgently need our support.

I have recently become chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Fatherhood and am passionate about policy solutions that encourage a father’s involvement in their child’s upbringing. The role of the father has shifted dramatically in the last century, and we are now more involved in our children’s lives than ever before. However, legislation still seems suspended in the previous century. Fathers are currently paid two weeks paternity leave at a rate of £150 a week (roughly half the living wage). This amount is scandalous and leaves many fathers unable to take an active role in their child’s early development. No father should have to pay an economic penalty for wanting to be there for their newborn child.

Furthermore, and as my colleague Ed Miliband has identified, legislation like this reinforces the “men at work, women at home” rhetoric that is so damaging both to gender parity and to society more generally. We need legislation that encourages fair and even parental responsibility and empowers fathers to take an active role in their child’s development. We also need state investment in mental health services to enable fathers to unpick the often complex and overwhelming emotions that come with being a new dad.

Beyond legislation, as a society we need to be better at talking about fatherhood, masculinity, mental health, and the roles that we imagine men taking on in the household. The charity Future Men (which acts as secretariat to the APPG on Fatherhood) advocates a holistic approach, that offers support to expectant and current fathers, and encourages discussions about masculinity and the mental health implications of fatherhood. In a recent discussion with service users all men interviewed “cited becoming a father as a moment when they started to change their beliefs and had too much to lose to justify acting with bravado”.

Fatherhood, then, has the potential to fundamentally change the way we view ourselves within society. Giving men the opportunity to reflect and talk about that is vital. The Future Men report concludes that “addressing these issues at younger ages is key to supporting boys and young men to take a more plural view of what it is to be a man”. It takes men years to unlearn the damaging definitions of manhood, if they ever do, and this impacts both the child and the father. I wish that the conversation on fatherhood had been more advanced when I had my three kids, and that I could have been more honest about the things that I struggled with. Wanting and asking for support makes you a better dad, not a worse one.

Legislative and cultural realignment is hardly a new idea. For many years charities, mental health campaigners and families across the country have argued that the system doesn’t work for them. The purpose of the APPG is to encourage parliamentarians to do something about it, and I am therefore proud to play a part in it. The simple fact is that supporting fathers properly benefits everyone in the equation, and the sooner we recognise that as a society, the better.

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