Welcome aboard Dad
So what does it mean to be a dad today?
Just think of the changes there have been for parents over the last 99 years. History tells us that fathers, whatever their stations in life, were not in the past involved with their newborn infants
Just think of the changes there have been for parents over the last 99 years. History tells us that fathers, whatever their stations in life, were not in the past involved with their newborn infants. The picture of the father pacing the floor - well away from the mother in labour - was a common one. The new baby, neatly wrapped up, was shown to him, and out came the cigars or beer. The baby was then returned to the women to be cared for.
The children as they grew up were very much ‘women’s work’ and even in the thirties or forties people marvelled at the father who took time to have a game with his child or showed a son how some piece of machinery worked. Dads could be there for a bit of rough and tumble, but anything bordering on feelings or emotions or physical care was strictly taboo This division of childcare continued until the women's movement began to take hold and, in one way or another, to filter into different areas of family life. But as women - many of whom would have been astounded to be thought of as Feminist - began to view their life differently, then the men were necessarily affected, and changes came about. Even if not into the ‘bra burning’ rebelliousness of the sixties, many women did begin to shift their opinions about what dad should or shouldn't do with the kids. It was a time to read The Female Eunuch and to question the accepted roles of men and women. Millions of women became feminists with a small 'f'. Childcare was never to be seen in the same way again.
But, and this is an important ‘but’, men began to react to the new role which was there for the taking. Men began to see the advantages of being involved with their children - really involved. Many husbands jumped at the opportunity to be by their wife's side during childbirth. In fact, to take an active part in support and encouragement during the labour. Once men were in the delivery room there was no stopping them, and conversations between young fathers were similar to those of young mothers as the pro’s and con’s of feeding on demand were debated. Dads took their turn pacing the floor in the small hours, and the early bonding which had been the prerogative of women for generations, was now shared between the parents.
Women still had one advantage. They had the blueprint handed down from their own mother about how to be a mother. Even if they rejected some of the ideas as too old fashioned, the essence of mothering was there. They had a good idea of what to do with their babies. Many had, after all, crooned over their dolls and dressed their teddies each night. It had been acceptable for little girls to go on cuddling stuffed furry animals long after their brothers had been encouraged to find other pursuits.
For the men, brought up by a more distant father who would never have been caught dead changing a baby's nappy, it wasn’t so easy. Young fathers had to grapple with a new way of being, and often had no support system or guidelines. (This was, of course, long before they could post a message in this and other forums and discuss burning issues with other dads). Older fathers looked on in amazement, and perhaps with regret, as they saw the closeness that a dad can have, emotionally and physically, with their new baby. Yet once the ‘new men’ had grasped the nettle they relished the warmth of the love which grew between them and their children. They were no longer restrained in showing their caring and sensitive side to their families. They carried their infant in a pouch with pride on family outings and to the supermarket.
No father today would agree to be turned into the father who was only expected to hand out punishment on his return home from work. The downside is that men are expected to be ‘there’ for their children 24 hours a day. This can be hard on the father who works long hours or who travels away from home for work. Fathers are expected to be at every sports day, parents evening, swimming gala, and this can be a heavy load on top of a demanding job. There are no pipe and slippers waiting for him when he comes home, but most likely a wife who has been at work herself, or a full-time mother who is looking for a hand in helping with the homework or with bedtime. Men cannot have an escape hatch by dismissing questions by saying ‘Ask your mother’ and many a manly heart sinks at the sound of ‘Dad, can we have a chat?’ or ‘It’s your turn to change the nappy.’ As with most things in life, with the joy come responsibilities. But I haven't met a man yet who thinks they are the losers.
Have women lost out? Perhaps. Certainly if a young family breaks down for any reason there is no longer the once automatic assumption that the children will stay with the mother. A father who has been involved with his children from day one will be less likely to give them up, and even to settle to being a weekend dad.
Of course, being a hands-on parent isn’t easy. Whoever thought it would be? Mothers have known that for centuries. Quite likely there are a few men who would like to turn the clock back to the more remote setting where the words ‘Father knows best’ were taken as read, and the children and wife were in awe of the man of the house.
Men have been allowed into the secret world of mother and baby, and they relish being there. Welcome aboard, Dad!
© Jill Curtis 2004 FamilyOnwards