“Fathering today is not like I was fathered” is a statement that many dads identify with. It doesn’t mean that your dad was wrong, but as times have changed so too has the description of a good dad. Being a father means many things for different men, and can come with associated feelings of love, connection, and caring; and sometimes, grief, loss and regret. But, for most, being a father is the most important relationship in men’s lives. As a father myself, caring for the next generation is a key role in my life, as it is for most men, and is often associated with images of being both provider and protector.
Traditionally, mums have been the primary carers of children. But this is shifting.
Many mothers are keen for and supportive of greater involvement by encouraging dads to spend more time alone with their children and develop a separate relationship with them. Doing so builds their competence to be an active parent and develops their skills and confidence in nurturing. This is critical at a time when research shows that many dads spend less than 30 minutes a week alone with their child in their first year of life.
Men are very task oriented and more capable of providing support when they know exactly what is expected of them. That’s why it’s vital that both the child-rearing tasks and more mundane household duties are discussed and negotiated between parents. This ensures that emotional and practical needs are met.
To support dads in becoming more conscious of their relationship to their child and the ongoing role they play as they grow up, a positive thing for partners, family and friends to do is ask him about the birth of his child. Men usually allow the mother to tell the birth story, as they should. But by telling their version, dads own their experience and the likely changes they face. The birth of a baby is so rich in vulnerability and the need for care. Talking about it increases the fathers’ ability to connect and attach to their child.
A quiet place within
Among the many and varied descriptions of masculinity, the relationship that men have with their children is a very significant connection. This connection with close family relationships can be viewed as ‘the quiet place within’. It is a personal space that many men rarely talk about; perhaps because it doesn’t seem sufficiently “masculine”, is too intimate or private to discuss. Sometimes they don’t have the words.
While women are generally far more expressive, for men it is often not until their children have grown up, or they are approaching the end of their life that men express regret for spending too much time at work, and not enough with their family. Sadly, some men only start talking about the importance of their family relationships after a crisis like family separation has occurred.
A (beginning) revolution is underway
Traditionally far more the domain of women, Australian men are becoming more vocal about their role in fathering, and the value they place on connection with family, particularly their children. This is visible in the way dads talk about achieving a better work-life balance, and how they behave differently as they walk together with their children, proudly push the pram, or access parental leave.
How has fathering changed?
Even though dads have often focused on the practical parts of relationship and family life, today many more men are publicly stating that they want their relationships to be central to their lives. They want to connect with all in their family, be proud of them, talk, enjoy and feel good about who they are, protect and support in useful ways and provide the tools of life for their children.
The pandemic has meant that many dads (and mums!) have been around the home much more than they might ever have been. Workplaces have had to be flexible and unintentionally family friendly, although the uptake of these opportunities is still too low outside of pandemic circumstances. We have work to do as a society on this, and perhaps the pandemic will assist men to claim more in these ways.
It is encouraging to note that a recent Australian study showed that while average childcare hours for both parents have increased during the pandemic for dual-income families, there has been a relative increase for average childcare hours for males compared to females (Craig & Churchill, 2020).
Men are participating more in their children’s lives and the household generally, and for many this has been revolutionary in terms of what might be a better arrangement going forward. They have been better able to be active and present in their fathering, and to experience being both wanted and needed by children and partners.
Fathering tips to consider
When dads live with their children: Although there are changes afoot, many men short-change themselves and their kids, due to the demands of other roles and the hope that brief time together will suffice. It’s often mums who are left with a lot of the emotional connection and social arrangements – with men seeing themselves as an “add-on” to the family plans. Mums can encourage their partners to consider making their special relationship with their kids more of a priority. Children need their dads far more than most men realise, and maybe more than they show. Investing in quality time now and extending it each day will reap rewards. As kids get older, they may have less time, so this quality time is so important.
Create something together. Food is always a winner. Try camping or a picnic in the backyard. Dad’s time and attention is what children enjoy; watching a favourite show together, lingering over light conversation, colouring in together, playing board games, will all be very meaningful because they are about time with one of the most special people in their lives.
When dads don’t live with their children: Children are likely to relish receiving a video they can watch now or in the future, or a card or letter they can keep. Hearing their dad’s love, how often they think of them, and what it means to be their dad, reassures them of connection, dedication and their importance.
If a video call is the order of the day, children are likely to enjoy doing something fun, like playing a card game online, listening to a story or hearing about their day or their childhood. What’s important is that they don’t have to worry about any negative dynamics between their parents, so that they feel freer to participate and openly talk back. The best outcomes for children will occur when their parents are amicable and respectful.
At the end of the day, it’s important for both parents to think about how they would like their children to describe them to others – playful, fun, a good listener, caring, thoughtful – as you make memories that you can share forever.
If you get stuck…
Sometimes, professional help is required to develop new conversations together, and unlock old roles and relationship dynamics. Group meetings with other dads can also bolster the new directions you’d like to be going. For example, Relationships Australia NSW offers counselling and online or face-to-face workshops to support dads in strengthening their connection. You can find out more about them here.
There are also a wide range of readings and other resources available to start ideas flowing. https://supportforfathers.com.au/resources/
And if you are a dad trying to parent well while living away from the family, some resources include https://www.relationshipsnsw.org.au/support-services-category/post-separation/
If parenting has become fraught because conflict has got in the way and connection is damaged, or perhaps you are recovering from separation, or want to be a different dad, then getting some professional assistance can really help.
Call Relationships Australia NSW on 1300364277 or visit the website www.relationshipsaustraliansw.org.au