On Babyfathers

(The Guardian)
2002

Battersea, south London, is a neighbourhood of intriguing social conjunctions. On one side, it’s pure middle-class whitesville. Dozens of restaurants line Battersea Rise, and here white professionals eat and greet, a short walk away from their £250, 000 flats. On the other (literally – the other side of Clapham Junction station), you’ll find the housing estates and low-cost council homes, where black and white working-class folk grow cheek by jowl. Uptown meets Downtown in the local shopping centre on a Saturday: successful thirtysomething women, their pregnancies delayed because of their careers, as is the fashion, with their all mod cons all-terrain prams, or their IVF-friendly triplebuggies, jostle with the proles, who sport humble, old-school ‘Mothercare’ prams. Their kids are either black or mixed-race, and the mothers sometimes stoop a little, because their prams are poorly designed and too short for them. These babies’ fathers don’t tend to be around. Not today. Maybe tomorrow, to take the young one out to McDonalds. Then gone again. This is ‘Nappy Valley’, the cutting-edge present, and very much the way of our diverging futures.

Seven years after Patrick Augustus’ novel ‘Babyfather’ put a fictional spin around an ongoing social phenomenon, and in the week that the Television dramatization of that novel hits our screens, the Babyfather/babymother culture is, if anything, more deeply entrenched. With the highest divorce and the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, Britain leads the way in unorthodox family arrangements. Given that the black population of these isles is, according to the last census anyway, less than 3%, it’s clear that we haven’t had that much to do with this situation, nevertheless it’s also true that that the Babyfather phenomenon is a largely black, largely Caribbean, contribution.

How did it start, then, this babyfather business? Historically, the roots seem to lie in the survival patterns adopted by many African and Afro-Caribbean families where the adultman in the family might have to travel and live far away to find work, leaving his children to be brought up by their mother and grandmother. These matriarchal structures tended to be more pronounced in the Caribbean where small,poorly-resourced islands added to the vicious family dislocations caused by slavery and its aftermath, making it even harder for families to feed themselves. Somewhere along this line, with absent fathers siring children, babyfatherhood began.

“There have always been babyfathers in the Caribbean”, says Carroll Thompson, 38, the singer and Queen of eighties lovers’ rock. She is quick to point out, though, the old class divide on this matter. ‘In Jamaica, the more middle-class types tended to look down on such a thing. But for many other groups they would say,’Oh, he’s my babyfather or ‘she’s my babymother’with pride, as a mark of respect to that person.”

But she, like I, and most black folk here over thirty, was raised by both her parents. Something happened,then,between the sixties and the present, to bring us to the position where, according to the 1991 census (and you can be sure the figures will rise when the new statistics emerge), over half of all Afro- Caribbean children,and one in three African, live in lone mother households, compared to 16 percent of white children and eight percent south Asian.

What happened, mainly, is Britain. The Britain of the fifties and early sixties was a place where abortion was,by and large,illegal, where unorthodox family setups were frowned upon and where, if you got a lady pregnant, you married and, no doubt, stayed with her. Mothers, generally, collectively-minded, put up with whatever grief their husbands put them through.

But with the onset of the pill, feminism, the change in moral climate and, crucially, increasingly generous and targetted welfare provision, women put up with less. This was true, to a greater or lesser extent depending on socialization, among women across all classes and races in this country but for poorer people,and remember the black population here has been, since the fifties, largely Caribbean working-class,the problems and the attendant solutions, tend to be more brutal, more materially-minded. Why should I stay, runs the argument with a littlemoney, ‘no fix-up’ man,when I would be higher up the council queue for homes just with myself and my child? My mother brought me up on her own, so I can bring this one up too. And so such a mother, still perhaps collectively-minded,but with the diktats of the ‘Me,Me,Me’and the instant gratification society that we live in also absorbed, tells her child’s husband to leave the home. The man may still be very fond of his baby’smother ,but agree that it is better for everyone this way. He may also have grown up in a lone parent home, and so he’ll feel his babymother can do it too. As with technology, so with legal provision. Where it starts, people will follow. And aswith the law, so with the climate. People, both men and women,will do what they can get away with,and what their peers are doing, and so a trend begins to mushroom.

It’s important then,to realise that the ‘Babyfather’culture is being driven as much by the women as the men. With black women doing better and better economically compared to the black men they may have grown up, they’re meeting other (white) men that they feel have better prospects, often jettisoning that teenage love they had their first child by. Until such ones get hitched again, they’re babymothers too, albeit corporate- style.

The middle-classes are joining the ‘Babymother’brigade in other ways too. White and black female contemporaries of mine, fast giving up on finding ‘Mister Right’, but keen to have children, are contemplating all sorts of ‘new age’ fatherless arrangements. It’s across all races, all classes now. The prams in Battersea shopping centre, be they ‘Mothercare’or all-terrain, may all be babymothered soon.
 


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