Families find father lode

A scene from TV show House Husbands, which airs on Channel Nine.
A scene from TV show House Husbands, which airs on Channel Nine.

THERE was a time, not too long ago, when a father's role was one of the distant disciplinarian.

He would never be seen in the delivery room, changing a nappy or packing a school lunch.

But the times they are a-changing.

Aussie dads are more involved in the daily parenting than ever before, and everyone is reaping the rewards.

"There really is a renaissance in fathering," says Steve Biddulph, renowned parenting educator and author of best-selling books including Raising Boys and The New Manhood.

"I think tomorrow's generation will be more equal and sharing, with boys more nurturing and girls more strong, with the influence of dads being so much greater in their lives than the gruff and distant dads of the past.

"My generation, the post-war generation, were the most under-fathered generation in history.

"In the last 30 years, fathering time has trebled as today's young dads reclaim time and close involvement with their kids, and do hands-on care of babies and toddlers, play with children, teach and help them."

In the United States, researchers found that this shift is most prevalent in lower socio-economic groups, where the nurturing side of fatherhood is a stark contrast to the often desperate reality of daily life.

Last month United States family studies expert Kathryn Edin visited the University of Queensland's Institute for Social Science Research to present a seminar on the changing role of fathers.

The seminar was based on an eight-year ethnographic study of 110 low-income unmarried fathers in Camden and Philadelphia in the United States, published in the book Doing the Best I Can.

Professor Edin said the revelations on how poor urban men viewed their roles as fathers turned the notion of fatherhood on its head.

The study revealed a redefinition of family life where the father-child bond is central.

"These men reject the old deal of family life where the couple relationship was central in binding men to their children, in favour of the new deal where the father-child bond is central."

"These men retreated from traditional aspects of the father role, but they have embraced fatherhood's softer side, imparting love and maintaining a clear channel of communication," she said.

Biddulph says in many cultures affectionate, hands-on fathering is the norm, not the exception.

"When I studied families in India and the Pacific, I was amazed at how affectionate and capable fathers were in those cultures. We lost the knack of fatherhood when work took men away from their families in the Industrial Revolution, but we are getting it back."

While many fathers are more involved in the children's day to day activities, the househusband is still relatively rare.

A report last year found in 84% of families where there was a working parent, the father was the breadwinner.

And while many of us celebrate the idea of a stay-at-home dad, it doesn't sit well with many baby boomers.

When researcher Deborah Wilmore from the University of Western Sydney studied 65 stay-at-home dads, she found that while stay-at-home dads had strong relationships with their partners and accepted housework as their responsibility, the most stinging critics of their decision were their own fathers.

Stay at home dad, Richard, 35 of Byron Bay, says his father is highly critical of his family's structure.

"My wife earns more money, so we decided once she was finished breastfeeding, I would stay at home with our daughter until she goes to school. Then we will look at the situation again.

"My dad can't get his head around it. He makes no secret of the fact he thinks it's not a man's job to change nappies or clean."

Richard says he was initially excited at the prospect of staying at home as he thought it would be "easy".

"I was so wrong," he laughs.

"I thought it would take a couple of hours to get the housework done, then I could spend the rest of the day watching telly, but it's pretty full on."

He and his wife had to make some ground rules. One of them was that unless she thought he was harming their daughter, she had to "butt out".

"Because she was so used to doing everything herself, she would unintentionally criticize. She would say I hadn't folded the clothes properly and I would be like 'Well, they're folded. My way'. Eventually we worked it out."

Biddulph says this is common.

"There can be a gate-keeping that women unconsciously do, not quite trusting the dads," he says.

"But if dads get involved, with bathing the baby or some other job, they gain confidence. Women who involve and encourage their husbands reap a real reward in having a helpmate for life."

The changing role of fathers in Australia is also reflected in what we watch.

While there was a time when fathers on television were mostly depicted as hapless or distant figures, shows such as House Husband portray fathers in a much more effective and hands-on way.

One of the show's stars, comedian Julia Morris, is full of praise for her husband, Dan Thomas, who gave up a career in advertising to stay at home with their girls while Morris pursues her career.

"I'm the dad," Morris told The Women's Weekly.

"It's fantastic. I get to live this insane double life."

Dan loves it too, he told the magazine: "There are a few dads who drop off (at school) every day and I think we all agree this is awesome."

The benefits for children of having a more involved father are overwhelming.

Research from the National Fatherhood Initiative found children with involved, loving fathers were significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behaviour and avoid high-risk behaviours such as drug use, truancy and criminal activity than children who have uninvolved fathers.

"Up to 85% of men in prison didn't have active dads when they were young," says Scott Longden, chief executive of the Fatherhood Project, a not-for-profit organisation that supports fathers in becoming more engaged in their children's lives.

"Kids tend to get their self confidence from their dads, so we want to create positive role models."

Biddulph agrees.

"There are marked improvements for children (when dads are more involved)," he says.

"They go further in school, do better and are less likely to have trouble with the law or get involved with drugs or alcohol. Teenage pregnancies are reduced. They have higher self-esteem.

"This all correlates with having an involved father.

"Marriages are more durable, because parents feel a commitment to the children. It's not about 'staying together for the kids' so much as 'working it out, because the kids need us to be a team'."


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Topics:  children family father lifestyle parenting

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