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The new dads are doing it better

By Peter West - posted Friday, 3 February 2017


We often hear about changes in the gender landscape. Women are breaking down barriers. Girls are crowding into universities, and in the UK a new report says the family is changing. Still, there's a dramatic story that's hardly been told. Fatherhood is being transformed. But how?

Traditional fatherhood.

Up to about the late 1960s, work was seen as done by men. Nearly all men were breadwinners. They worked hard, long hours, six days a week. Mother stayed in the home to cook, clean and watch over the children. In the words of the men I interviewed for a book about how men changed in Australia, men worked outside, women worked inside. If a child misbehaved, Mother would say 'just wait till your father gets home'. Many boys in Australia caught misbehaving were told to go down to the end of the yard and wait for a thrashing.

What changed?

Women charged into the workforce from the late sixties onwards. In many families, mothers now worked as many hours as fathers; sometimes more. No longer could a father hurry out the door at 6:30 or 7:30 am and return around six, after a few beers with his mates, and expect to find his dinner on the table and the family assembled. As we moved into the 1990s and 'oughties' work became increasingly casualised and manufacturing declined in countries like the USA and Australia. Yet there were doors opening. Many of us urged men to grasp the opportunities they were offered and become fathers actively engaged in their kids' lives. We emboldened guys to 'be the dad you wish you'd had yourself'.

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New dads

What are the new dads like? Many want to be there at the birth of their children. When I barged in to see my youngest born in 1975, some harridan barked at me- 'Would you please leave!' I doubt that this would happen anymore. Mums and dads go together to classes about the new arrival. Community nurses counsel dad about how to change and care for baby. Websites have appeared suggesting ways a dad can bond with his baby. The new dad is determined to be a better man and take an equal share in fifty-fifty-parenthood. There are important changes happening. Teachers find that on parent-teacher night, they sometimes meet up with two mums or two dads. TV series have been made recording some of the newer varieties of fatherhood. Dads are likely to teach their children about the outside world. 'What job do you think you'll do? What are you good at? Look at this stupid politician!' These are typical comments from a father.

Women nurture, men play

The contrast between the sexes can be seen early. Simon Baron Cohen says 99 per cent of girls play with dolls at age six. Barely 17 percent of boys do. It's far more common for boys to play with guns. Childcare experts 'tut tut' in vain. Deprived of all guns, boys will make one, maybe by biting the middle out of a sandwich. A UK report said boys will play 'guns' and they should be allowed to do so.

Women seem to nurture more often than men. And women breastfeed more successfully if dad is supportive. They coo and sing to kids. Meantime Dad does antics to make his kid laugh. He kicks a ball around with them. Dads read to kids differently from Mums. I did! I would read 'What Do People Do All Day' and discuss what work people did. Fathering has been shown to have huge benefits for kids. They learn more and feel more secure. And fathering helps Dad know he's valued and loved. He becomes happier at work and at home.

One in three Americans are part of a step-family. One in eight Australian families are headed up by mothers. Divorce and separation are commonplace and mothers usually get custody (though there are complications and variations).

The Modern Families Index

This UK report studied 1,000 families across the UK with equal numbers of men and women. One third of parents feel burnt out, especially those aged under 35. Ninety per cent of one-parent families are mother-headed. Social commentators have warned of the social consequences of children growing up without the guidance of a father. We worry that in many families today, fathers are missing in action. In many countries, including Australia, we have 'fly in, fly out' jobs done by fathers who work thousands of miles from their family home.

Meanwhile, there are arguments every week about who does housework. No longer is it enough for dad to take kids to sport and put out the garbage. Perhaps Dad decides to mop the floor and then Mum feels his work is not up to standard. Uh oh, here we go again! There are cultural differences in families, but I've heard these arguments on four continents.

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There are issues here for all of us. Employers need to think hard about how to have healthy workers who can balance work and family. Some Australian and US employers need to pay their workers properly, and pay them the right wages and overtime due, as we hear over and over! Governments need to think more about making affordable childcare available.

Summing up

Some important truths remain. Children want their father's love. The most passionate story in my study of men are from a man expressing his love for his dad. 'Did you love him?' I asked of one man. 'Desperately', he replied. Men who lost their dad expressed this more than any: 'I never hugged him till the day he died. It would have been great to get a hug from Dad'.

I see dads with their kids in the gym change-rooms, or at the shops. A boy is chattering away 'Dad there's this kid at school and he said …'. Let's hope Dad is listening! I saw a little girl today climbing inside the back of her dad's T shirt as he chatted with another man. 'Hey Dad! I'm here! Talk to me!' she might have said. Dads, put your phone away! We know you have a million things to do, but don't forget your most important job is to be a good dad. When you're 70, you won't say to yourself 'Gee, I wish I'd spent more time at work!' But dads often say 'I wish I'd spent more time with my kids'. The good news is that many guys have heard the message. The UK report on families says most fathers insist on spending more time with their kids. It's great to hear that young men are determined to be the best dad a kid could ever have.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known expert on men and boys. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, University of Technology, Sydney.

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