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On Fatherhood

I was intrigued to come across a report by the Children's Society on fatherhood by accident this week, as it's a subject I've given some consideration since I became a father myself four years ago. The opportunity to take part in a survey prompted me to pull together some thoughts on the experience.

Relationships with fathers are significantly associated with young peoples well-being, even when taking into account relationships with mothers, according to a recent Children's Society report. The report was released alongside a Fatherhood Survey, my answers to which are pasted below.

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Do you believe that fathers are important to their children's well-being? Please explain your reasons.

I have come to believe that fathers are critical to children's well-being.

This assertion stems from personal experience, from which I generalize after hearing similar insights from others. Transactional Analysis has given me direct insight into the way that my own relationship with my father has affected my later life and, as a friend and informal counselor to numerous men and women, I see a direct connection between the issues they are facing and the relationship with their fathers.

By way of example, I frequently hear my unmarried female friends in their late 20s and early 30s bemoaning the qualities of the men that they evaluating as potential life partners. Phrases like 'emotional cripple', 'nerd', and 'pathetic just doesn't get feelings' come out disappointingly often.

When I ask them to describe their own fathers, they often express love but amongst the happy associations are frequently phrases like 'emotionally distant'.If I go on to ask these women to envision what role models of manhood their brothers might have had growing up, the penny drops and they understand why the men they are considering as life partners might be the way they are.

What do you feel are the main barriers to fathers' involvement in children's lives and do you have any ideas on how these barriers could be removed?

Three barriers come to mind immediately:

      1. lack of access to role models for young men,

 

      1. a lack of safe spaces in which men can discuss their fatherhood, and

 

      1. mocking, negative stereotypes of male roles in families which would jumped on by women as sexist if corresponding stereotypes we're put forward about motherhood.

On the issue of role models, the male characters in the stories boys are given to read are often heroes who reveal themselves through physical action rather than emotion. In contrast, while the role models that young girls are stereo-typically given may not always be empowering and complete, they do at least express emotions: princesses cry and laugh, Barbie expresses joy, even if it's sadly only about shopping and so on. Perhaps we need more kids' stories where boys express positive emotions such as comradeship and belonging.

On my second point, there just isn't a normal space in men's lives when they can talk about fatherhood. The place men might have done this in days gone by (relaxing with friends after work) is not available to many new fathers in the west, as it would have been to a previous generation of men, because men are now expected to be so much more hands-on with their families.

It's easy for a new father to end up feeling quite lonely because, at work he has to be a professional and perform, and at home he needs to be a great dad and there's little space left for him to reflect. Of course that is not to say for a moment that Mums don't have it tough too being a Mum is one of the toughest jobs in the world. It's just that, like trying to manage a home and look after a young child, consistently earning cash to feed a family, trying to be emotionally available and not having time to see the friends who gave you a sense of who you we're prior to fatherhood do all pull in different directions. There are plenty of books about the mechanics of child-rearing addressed at men nowadays, but very few that help with the adjustment to a new role.

The adjustment required on becoming a father isn't helped by negative stereotypes in the west. I have pulled up one or two female speakers in public recently when they have projected stereotypes of men that would be considered outrageously sexist if they we're expressed about women today. Rightly, it is no longer acceptable to crack dumb blonde jokes about women, but Dads are still fair game for negative humor.

One could say that "fathers should just laugh about it" and of course they do. But asking that requires fathers to repress some of the very feelings that we are asking them to display when we also want them to be emotionally present with their families.

We need to decide: do we want Fathers to be strong Real Men, or do we want them to be loving and emotionally present? It's quite confusing to be asked to have it both ways. If we want Dads to relate more fully to their families, we need to stop mocking and denegrating their feelings and instead to acknowledge and celebrate them.

Do you have any ideas on how to encourage fathers who are not involved in their children's lives to become more active?

I recently moved from the UK to Singapore and the experience of seeing another culture through alien eyes has led me to believe that, while fathers are important in every culture, the barriers to their involvement in childrens' lives are probably different in different cultures. So perhaps the support fathers need may also be different in different cultures.

In the western world, I suggest that the necessary and important process of introducing equal opportunities for women is as yet incomplete. That's not just in terms of the 'glass ceilings' etc. that women still face but also, critically, in terms of new roles for manhood and especially around what it means to be a father.

On a very practical level, biology still dictates some kind of a split along traditional gender roles when you become a parent for the first time, however radical one's intentions. That is especially so in the difficult first 100 days of being a parent when the sleep deprivation, the learning curve and the adjustment are all so harsh.

Patterns get set in that first 100 days of a couple's first experience of parenthood, at a time when there is little or no time and energy to debate them, that can affect their relationship forever. Couples expecting their first child obsess about the birth, which is unquestionably a major event, but what comes after lasts a lifetime, not just a couple of days. We need to talk more about what happens after birth.

Reiterating my response to the previous question,in the very competitive work environment that both men and women face as they move up the career ladder, it is confusing as a man to be expected to Be Strong and Bring home the Bacon and also at the same time to be emotionally available and be present and involved. Some clarity about what constitutes a workable set of possibilities for the role of a father would be helpful: something pragmatic and rooted in reality not something derived from an ideological standpoint.

It would also help immensely if we moved away from using the corny tired metaphor of a battle of the sexes in media coverage about gender issues. We don't have to have a battle unless we choose to pick one: why not a discussion between the sexes, something leading to a win-win, rather than the win-lose mentality that seems so rooted in the past? That goes for feminism too.

I sense that some policymakers and empowered women are conflicted in acknowledging the increasing body of scientific evidence which demonstrates how different boys are from girls, and how much of our behaviour is determined by nature, not nurture. There's a tension in the public dialogue about this because admitting that differences between the sexes are real and profound and due to nature could easily feel like a chink in the argument for gender equality.

In particular, admitting to such differences would force a re-think of the way that we have feminised young boys' experience at school since gender equality rightly became a mainstream issue in the western world. We don't let boys behave like boys any more and many boys have no exposure to male teachers through primary education.

If they are lucky enough to have a live-in father, in the time he is present at home he is their only real role-model, which puts enormous pressure on him whereas young children of both sexes meet scores of female authority figures in their everyday lives. When they do find role models, those that boys latch on to are often projected as emotionally one-dimensional and distant (such as sports heroes and astronauts). There just isn't the opportunity for many boys to experience a lot of time with men who are comfortable in their own skin.

Men who seek to rectify that situation by creating opportunities to share time with children in the UK are immediately judged guilty before being proved innocent through a criminal records check. Of course women get checked in the same way but the underlying presumption is different. Organisations like the Boy Scouts have strong demand for places but can't provide them because there aren't enough men willing to take on the unfunny jokes about their possible motivations for doing so.

Friends who are male teachers tell me that they dare not comfort a boy in distress by giving him a hug, despite the fact that so many boys use physical action, gesture and body language as their primary means of expression. We have created a culture of fear in which we deny young boys the ability to share and explore their emotions in a wholesome way with men. Somehow we need to redress that.

I found it a useful exercise to complete this survey and research such as that the Childrens' Society is currently executing seems to me to be a vital foundation step in flushing out evidence to quantify where the 'pain points' lie in being a father today.

Perhaps future research could she'd some light on why having a first child in particular seems to present such risks to many many marriages and life partnerships. A very experienced couples counselor tells me that 99% of the problems she sees in relationships seem rooted in a failure to adjust after the birth of the first child. Sometimes people stick together for 25 years then it all splits apart but increasingly they just divorce and families are broken. Then they repeat the same cycle with a second or third partnership.

Becoming comfortable with the role of being a father is certainly the hardest thing I have ever done. I'm hugely grateful to my own father and to the folk who've helped me get used to the role and I would like fathers who follow me to have an easier time of it. My hunch is that there are quite a few of us Generation X fathers who feel the same way. All credit to the Children's Society for taking on this valuable work.

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Posted in Home Improvement Post Date 11/29/2016


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