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Why don't dads spend more time with kids?

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 6 June 2017


Kids want their dads to spend more time with them, research reported in the UK journal Daddilife.com says. My research, and that of others, emphasises the vital importance of dads for kids' intellectual growth, maturity and balanced development. And that goes for girls as well as boys. So here's the million-dollar question: If kids want dads to give them more time, why can't dads do so?

A couple of answers jump out. First, fathers spend more time at paid work than mothers. Nearly half of fathers in the above research done at the Australian National University worked more than 44 hours a week. "Fathers are more likely than mothers to report work-life challenges," Professor Strazdins said. Balancing all these things is hard for dads: time with kids, driving kids to school and sport, time with a partner, time on their own health and well-being, travelling to work and –work! Employers have to be steadily encouraged to allow dads freedom to do all these properly. Perhaps employers give women a little more understanding than men when it comes to things like visits to the doctor or looking after kids. And kids always seem to be catching some bug or other!

Second, old habits die hard. We still expect a man to be the major breadwinner, even though that term is rather antiquated these days. It was certainly talked about a lot when I interviewed older males for Fathers, Sons and Lovers. When a boy is growing up, most people don't talk to him about caring for kids, but focus on what job he will do, what career, and so on. Asked about being a teacher, one young man said "It would be a great job, if I was a woman". Maybe subconsciously, we expect women to go into 'caring' professions (teaching, nursing, social work) in which they are doing some version of mothering. We expect a male to be career-focused. If he fathers some kids we somehow expect that – as an admiral said to a naval rating asking for leave- "Sailor, you need to be there to lay the keel. You don't need to be there when the ship is launched". Fortunately many men do choose to be there at the birth of their kids and follow through with lots of infant care. So we need to work harder to re-educate society to remember that men are carers. And some of them care for people full-time, and part-time, in many capacities.

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Third, many men are going through separation and divorce. Nobody does well out of it, except the lawyers.

But it's a tough road for many men when access to kids becomes difficult for a dozen different reasons. I worry about guys who lose the family home and have to live in makeshift accommodation: and how and where do they see their kids? No wonder so many end up being with kids in public parks or "Macdougalls". A man in Sydney or Melbourne who gets divorced will probably lose the family home. And what can he afford to buy, with skyrocketing prices driven up, Sydney-siders believe, by foreigners snapping up properties in every direction?

Fourth, today the role of the father is disparaged or minimised. In earlier times, children were seen as belonging to fathers. The father was the natural parent, as it were. Too often today, paediatricians focus on the baby and its mother. It's rare for any of them to include fathers, though there are some like William Marsiglio who do. Dads are very important for kids at all ages. Research has shown - in particular- that having a dad actively supporting breastfeeding is a huge help for new mothers. Today feminism is powerfully spread through the media and by academics and influential others. It's the conventional wisdom of our age. Attempts to assert the rights of fathers get ridiculed or lampooned. There are many disparaging references to dads in US and British literature. Those defending dads are thin on the ground. Serious writing on fathers is often covered in the media and academia by women writers, with some important exceptions. Imagine a man trying to write about motherhood!

Finally, we give men the message that they are dumb. Here's an ad on Australian TV. A man can't get his TV and smart box working. A neighbour asks if he's switched it on. He does so. "Lucky something here is smart", quips his wife. Watch the sitcoms and comedies on TV and the movies. Men are shown as fools and idiots, much of the time. We can't ridicule black men: that would be racist. We can't mock Asian men. The public media warn us against lampooning Muslim men, or Middle Eastern men. We can't ridicule handicapped men; and people are discouraging us from mocking older men. But everyone can feel free to ridicule all of them, if we just call them men. "Thank heavens we can get them out of the way", women seem to be saying when they pack off retired men or men going to sport or work. So why would men feel confident looking after a tiny, fragile baby?

It's an issue relevant to many of us. Dads: what can we do to make life a bit less stressful and let you have better time with kids? Employers: what's your experience? Do unions have Dad-friendly policies? Teachers can benefit by involving dads with kids' learning, especially in some ethnic families. And mums are part of the whole deal too. We need to get dads better connected with kids, for everyone's sake.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. 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, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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