ONCE upon a time, I believed it didn't matter a whit whether a baby was born into a family with one parent or two. Or with two mothers or two fathers rather than a mother and a father. Why should it? What was important was not the number or gender of the parents, but whether or not they were loving and attentive.
That was, of course, before I had any of my own. Now I realise that bringing up children is a challenge even for two well-meaning and committed human beings, and that love in itself is not always enough to ensure a healthy, happy childhood. And almost 10 years down the line, I am increasingly convinced that fathers - even ones as fallible as their female partners - have a crucial role to play in the emotional development of their children, particularly when it comes to sons.
Last week, MPs launched an attempt to end the right of fertility clinics to refuse IVF treatment to single women or lesbians. Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris - a member of the Commons science and technology select committee - the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the British Association of Social Workers all want the current requirement for clinics to take into account the child's "need for a father" to be replaced by "the need for a family".
Doubtless, they believe they are blowing with the prevailing cultural wind, which accepts all family set-ups, however unconventional, as equally valid. After all, the view that fathers play a key role in family life was, until recently, restricted to those who revere Lord Nelson and talk a lot about the sanctity of marriage. Confusing manliness with machismo, a generation of independent women (and their right-on partners) have gone so far as to portray men as a bad influence on their sons, fuelling instead of subduing their natural competitiveness and aggression. In the past few months, though, masculinity has been staging a comeback. The Dangerous Book For Boys, which celebrates acts of derring-do, became an instant bestseller, and the word "menaissance", which is meant to encapsulate the rehabilitation of the notion of manliness, has entered the lexicon. Fathers, once relegated to the backroom of childcare, have been riding high on a tide of evidence which underpins the important part they play in fostering their children's self-esteem. Whether it's high-profile child expert Stephen Biddulph talking about the importance of horseplay, or reports that boys are suffering from a girl-friendly education system, good male role models are very much the zeitgeist.
This is something I can bear personal testimony to. Every day, it becomes increasingly apparent that I, alone, cannot provide everything my three boys need: it wouldn't matter how much time, patience and energy I had, what they require is someone who understands exactly what it means to be male and can teach them to channel their testosterone in a positive direction.
Nothing could have thrown this fact into sharper perspective than my family's recent holiday in Spain, aka two weeks of relentless physical activity which I continually tried to sabotage with trips to medieval villages.
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to a go-karting track. This wasn't a British-style go-karting track with safety belts and speed limits and a list of Do's and Don'ts on freshly painted walls. This was a go-karting track that looked as though it should have been in the Australian outback, complete with scrubland, stray dogs and a leather-skinned owner. There is no way that, left to my own devices, I would have let the boys loose on this health and safety nightmare. But my little adrenaline junkies need their father to foster their sense of adventure as much they need me standing on the sidelines screaming at them to slow down. They need their father to share their obsession with sport as much as they need me to temper it. Our roles are not equal or interchangeable, but hopefully, on a good day, our contrasting perspectives offer a degree of balance.
Of course, the MPs' campaign - and almost all debate surrounding IVF treatment - is not centred on what's best for children, it's centred on what's best for adults. It's about whether lesbians are treated differently to heterosexuals and couples to singletons, and it's driven by the presumption that having babies is an entitlement rather than a gift.
As equality lawyer and single mother Carol Fox, who after suffering from ovarian cysts gave birth to a daughter with the help of fertility treatment, put it: "It is a fundamental right for women to choose to have children, and it is not for a doctor, the Church or an MP to exercise any kind of control over reproduction."
Now, I'm not disputing Fox's ability as a mother (it sounds as if she's a much better one than me). But where does the moral authority for that statement come from? The irony is that - where IVF is concerned - conception can only take place if doctors do exercise control over reproduction. That's why it's a legitimate subject for debate, and why the views of the doctors and MPs hold as much weight as her own. Yet, the invocation of the words "birthright" and "discrimination" to secure anything we want but can't have has become endemic in a society so spoiled that a grandmother can convince herself that the strength of her desire to have a baby in itself justifies its creation.
I am not suggesting single mothers and lesbian couples should automatically be denied IVF treatment, any more than they should automatically be denied the chance to adopt. What I am saying is that access to fertility treatment should not be portrayed as a human right on a par with the right to liberty or education; and that, as a society, we should learn to accept that some things just aren't meant to be.
If fertility clinics are to be fair to the children they help create, they have to be allowed to at least acknowledge the importance of a father when considering applications for IVF treatment. Of course, they may then decide that this importance is outweighed by other compelling factors, such as the qualities the individual mother/mothers would bring to the task of child-rearing. To eliminate the role of the man from the equation completely, to suggest that fathers bring nothing irreplaceable to their children, however, is not only insulting, it flies in the face of all the latest research. Women may want to control every aspect of their reproduction. But what children need - it seems - are good mums and dads.