Ladywood in Birmingham is one of several districts where, according to a new report, seventy per cent of children are raised in households without fathers. I went up to see the neighbourhood, talk to residents, find out what their lives were like. In a community centre, a bright and welcoming haven, I met Naz, a twenty-four year old black man. We sat in the canteen and talked. He was thoughtful, candid and completely trusting. About fifteen minutes into the conversation, an argument broke out at the counter between five, youngish men. You could see that one bloke was moving beyond words to violence. It all happened fast, like a chip pan fire. The cook, a big, authoritative bloke, tried but couldn’t quell the flaming fury, though he did get them to move out to the street. Kids and mums hanging out near the centre quickly cleared off. Chairs were hurled, horrible threats made by two of the men while the others tried to stop them. And then, suddenly, the rage was spent and they slunk away in different directions. An old man, sitting on a wall, said to me, ‘ See them? Not their fault. They don’t understand discipline. Had none as kids, growing up only with them mothers. Fathers all gone.’ I had no way of verifying that but I assume he knew the lads well enough. It is a tight little community.
Back to Naz who was eleven when his dad died: ‘ But he wasn’t around anyway. I didn’t feel anything at the time. And then when I had kids, I started to feel the loss. Maybe my life would have been different had there been a father figure. Kids I knew in our family who had dads were different. So having a dad does change you. My mum’s made me an independent, caring person. I could do better. But its hard ’ When much he went to prison for drug related crimes and has tried to go straight since then. But it is impossibly tough out there. Ladywood has a bad name and there are no jobs; the police, I was told by a priest, were too often heavy handed. Naz, I felt, was struggling against the odds and against himself. His two girls aged four were born to different mothers. ‘ So’, I asked him, ‘You’re repeating the pattern?’ His answer: ‘I’ve done wrong, I admit it. One of my daughters is strong, the other is not. Her mum blames me. I know I have to be there for them and I will be.’
Most people in this locality are either unemployed or on desperately low wages. The local MP, Labour’s Shabana Mahmood, is, I was told by her staff, deeply concerned about the endemic poverty and lack of life chances. And yet the roads and shop parade are clean, well kept, the parks too. I saw no graffiti or other signs of wilful destruction of the habitat. Two people racially abused me, but most were kind and open. The only thing that spooked me was the silence and lack of people around the estates. Where were they? In the evenings, I was told, the streets turned mean, but this was daytime. Maybe it was the terrible weather.
Outside a boarded up shop, a fourteen year old, white girl talked to Rebecca Myers, a University student who was helping me with this article. The teenager wanted to remain anonymous: ‘Some of my friends prefer being brought up by just their mums. Some do miss the dads- them not being there to, like, look up to them, to have that father figure. One of my friends gets upset about it sometimes, cos she just misses him- she’s never really seen him before and she just feels like something’s missing. These kids never had a chance to know the dads’.
I stopped three eleven year old girls on their way home from school. Two were black and one white. Did they live with their dads? Yes, they said, in chorus, bright smiles across their young faces, as they walked on. Then a few moments later they turned and came back:’ Actually we don’t’ said one, a little sheepishly. ‘That’s just what we say’. There were moments during this visit when I just wanted to cry for, with the children and adults I met. This was one of them.
Miranda- not her real name-, thirteen and mixed race, dressed in a very short skirt, was rowing with her mother near the park. Rude words flew between them like flying knives. They didn’t want to talk to me, but I still gave them my telephone number. When I was on the train back, Miranda phoned: ‘Yeah, I miss him. She [her mother] hates it but I miss him. Why shouldn’t I? He used to come sometimes and buy me stuff but she stopped him. So when this guy started waiting for me outside school, gave me stuff, I went with him and his friends. They treat me nice, like’ ‘ Who were the guys? ‘ I asked her. She put the phone down. There was no number on my phone so I couldn’t ask her again.
A man, 28, and of Caribbean descent, who wouldn’t give me his name, accepted that: ‘A lot of people here grow up without dads and it does affect them. But then I just think, it’s an excuse, you know? There’s no excuse for behaving badly. Girls, I think, tend to become more “out there” too young. The way I see it, they are seeking male attention.’ Another man of similar background was worried that ‘boys react more violently, angrily, without self control. Man, I am scared of them.’ He lives with his partner and children and has a job with the local authority.
A gang of four lads- white and mixed race- were, at first, a bit aggressive, but relaxed when one of them recognised my face from telly. In their late teens they were the ‘men of the house’, devoted to their mums who were raising them. They wanted to be seen as tough dudes, fronts they must have grown as little boys. Father’s Day, was ‘shit’, meant nothing to them. None was in education or training and don’t want to be.
The lone mums were eager to talk about their anxieties. Nicole, 23, has a daughter Egipt, aged two: ‘It’s sad. All children need a male figure as well as a female figure. If I had a son, it would be worse for him because he couldn’t ask his dad questions and things. My dad wasn’t in my life and I’ve always looked for that in a relationship- a father figure. My daughter’s getting to that age where she asks: “Where is he?” And I don’t know how to answer those questions.’ Does it help to be in an area where lone parents are a majority? ‘No because the children miss it regardless- they still feel alone. That’s why a lot of kids rebel. They are looking for a way to take out their anger.’ She is caught in a trap. She wants, she says, to work and show her daughter a better way, but childcare is too expensive.
Tracey, white, who was a single mum from the age of sixteen, concurs that too many ‘bad kids, doing weed and bad things because they haave no father to teach them better. Boys think I can do the sex thing, get a girl pregnant, do what he did’.
Yusef, a Somali dad with an autistic son, introduced me to his neighbour Rachel, a lone, white mother of a pale, young boy with golden hair and an older, black/mixed race daughter. Rachel looked exhausted and seemed nervous and wary. Her son’s dad did not keep contact but the girl’s father did see her regularly and they had a good relationship. Another young woman, Scottish, with two sons, said she was in a refuge trying to escape her abusive husband. That was an important reminder that sometimes not having a father is a safer option than living with one who is volatile and violent. One of her boys kept wandering off, and when a man with a van smiled and called him over, he sped off to him. It was creepy and terrifying.
Elaine, 42, an incredibly perceptive woman, would make a brilliant social worker. But she was, for now, stuck: ‘ There weren’t many single mothers in my mum’s day – whereas it’s the norm now. Everything changes when you have a baby. It’s easy for the man to just get up and walk away and start again. I kind of forced it with my daughter’s dad and then thought, what am I forcing this for? My dad, who was with my mum for life, gladly did it. I feel in a rut cos like other mums I can’t do a full time job because childcare is expensive. ‘ Does her daughter miss her dad? ‘ I don’t tell my daughter anything bad about her dad. Some women do that and it is as damaging. I tell her, your dad chooses not to be here but he loves you. If you are disrespectful to that image she holds in her heart, she might seek that imaginary person, love in bad places to replace what she thinks she should have had..’ Certainly Miranda, above, is in that groove and many of the young girls ensnared by grooming gangs were too.
The local convenience store is run by Asbhogal Singh, wise, unflappable, and a substitute father for many: ‘These children have no good male role models, aren’t parented properly. So every day, I personally try to help them, talk to them, teach them manners, make things happen. I brought my children into the world, so must be responsible for them. Their parents don’t think like that- because no one taught them. Girls now are behaving worse than boys. Even our Asian girls- I have seen three, with babies, living alone. It’s just not right’
Ladywood is a microcosm, an ecosystem you now find across the UK, US and many other countries where families of all classes first broke into small nuclear units and then that unit disintegrated creating chaos. Right and left wing ideologues fight each other; fathers demand their ‘rights’ and lone mums, bemoan their own lives- rightly so- and some them become hopeless parents. Children, the real victims, have no voice.
There are, of course, such girls and boys can come through and do well. During the two world wars, millions of men died and it was the norm for kids to be brought up by their mums. Only a minority seem to have gone under- maybe because there wasn’t wilful abandonment and extended clans and communities held such children aloft. My father failed us in most ways but other men- neighbours, uncles, mosque leaders and family friends gave me fatherly love, care and warnings. Most fatherless kids here and now don’t have these networks. Additionally, primary schools have few male teachers and so the good male figure is completely absent.
We can’t let this betrayal of children go on and on. American researchers have found that the self esteem of girls is seriously undermined without dad by her side. Some mature early biologically, physically grow up too fast while still lost in childhood terrors. Boys meanwhile display more delinquent behaviours and cannot manage their anger. Some studies found links with sexual violators. The US department of Health and Human Services conclude that ‘fathers bring positive benefits to children that no other person is likely to bring’ Children in intact families do better at school, are more independent and secure. Obvious really.
The organisation Addaction which helps alcohol and drug addicts is trying to address this issue with commitment and integrity. CEO Simon Antrobus told me:’ We are not saying that growing up without a dad means you will run into problems. But we did find that many of the people we were helping, especially in our young people’s services, had fathers who were absent from their lives. It is important to investigate how much of an effect an absent dad had on someone’s well being’. One of their reports, Dad and Me was written by criminologist Martin Glynn, himself raised by a single mum. Glynn is a passionate man who really understands the emotional undercurrents in young lives and what he calls ‘father hunger’. He has evidence which shows that children abandoned by dads are full of self loathing, are drawn to out inadvisable role models- gang leaders, older lovers and worse. There is no proven causal link but absent fathers are a common factor in prisoners, groomed girls, addicts, rioters, self harmers and suicides among the young.
Obama, whose own dad was useless, is spearheading a responsible fatherhood crusade in the US, a new civil rights movement. Though we have many projects and policies here, there is no big sense of mission to save these kids. Back in Ladywood, a pretty, young, white girl asked me for money, first sounding ferocious and then pitiful: ‘ I’m hungry. Me mum’s at work. Don’t have a dad. I can’t get in.’ I gave her cash and she ran to the chicken and chip shop. What next for her? Will she end up a lone mum? I expect so for she knows no better and society just doesn’t care enough to break the cycle.
A version of this article appeared in the Daily Mail in July 2013