Being a good dad has almost always been a case of succeeding against the odds. The conspiracy of cultural expectations, work culture or a misguided notion of what it is to be a man can be a powerful force to thwart the good dad in us. The same conspiracy also deprives us of the oft-forgotten joys and connection that comes with being a hands-on dad.
I recently heard Steve Biddulph speaking about his relationship with a less than perfect father. He declared that, as a dad, his dad “more than tried… he remained an affectionate, playful, sacrificing parent in a turbulent age.” By this he meant that being a great father was tough all those years ago because so much conspired against this.
Biddulph went on to recount a tale about this father being driven off the high street of his Yorkshire town in 1953. His dad was pushing his new son in a pram only to be greeted by disapproving looks from his neighbors and a group of urchins mocking him, chanting, “Your dad’s your mum.” Imagine the proud, new dad having to duck for cover because he dared to do what we take for granted these days. It is heartbreaking.
By the time I first became a father in 1991, the data was already in. An absent father makes for a tough journey through life – trouble at school, over-representation in jails, higher likelihood of drug dependency.
Modern dads are armed with the knowledge but committing to the vital mission can be as tricky these days as it was for poor Mr Biddulph in Yorkshire 70 years ago. I’ve worked closely with many families in my career as a teacher and I’ve seen how many times dads falter over the same, self-conscious concept of being ‘the man’. A student once told me his dad was proud he’d never changed a nappy. For another, maximizing family time meant losing face on the golf course when he admitted his working week as a specialist doctor was not as outrageously long as his colleagues.
In fairness to dads who struggle with hands-on fathering, we have a work culture which is unforgiving and unreasonably demanding. Sure we have contemporary trends which counter this mentality, paternity leave and flexible work hours, but that norm is stubborn and still full of fight.
I had plenty of experience however, with men who fought back. The obstetrician who, more than once, fronted for the school’s father-son camps straight after an all-nighter in the delivery suite, ready to go for the weekend. He was matched by the coal trader, who organised his international routine to ensure he arrived back in the country on time for the same camp. He was straight off a 30 hour flight and jet-lagged, but he was there for his son and up for the challenge.
There are more positive stories. I learned a lot from one dad, a futures trader, whose routine was to arrive home and swing into action. He would change nappies and banish his wife to the study with a glass of wine and the newspaper in hand. It might seem admirable, selfless, to support a wife who, in almost every instance, carries far more than her due, or to connect heroically with the kids, even if it’s through a smelly nappy, and it is. But the real winner here is dad.
Hands-on dads get the chance Mr Biddulph missed – to be there as their children grow up before their eyes. These men get the chance to do that. The baby asleep in the papoose on dad’s back within the blink of an eye is a little girl jumping into his arms in the swimming pool and pushing him under with squeals of delight. And what feels like the following day, that girl is ready to take dad by the arm for the father-daughter dance at the school formal. It doesn’t last long, and then it’s gone. Gone for good.
On more than 30 school father-son camps I attended as a dad, teacher and supervisor over a long teaching career I saw plenty of dads show up on the Friday night tired after a long week of work, but I don’t think I ever saw one drive home with his son at the end of the weekend without a smile on his face and a glint in his eye.
Steve Biddulph’s father told him on his deathbed, “I tried son.” Steve didn’t need convincing.