Brilliant, readable and revealing. One day we will live in a different world, and this will be one of the books that made it so. Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys
First published in 1998, Father Time revolutionised fatherhood by helping men work toward what really matters – balancing work and family.
Read an extract below.
We are within a generation of losing forever a sense of what fathering is all about. A plastic shell-like doll, made for TV and economically sleek, is replacing the fully-rounded figure of the nurturing and protecting father in traditional society. This is the ultimate form of a model which first took shape at the time of the Industrial Revolution. It is inherently corrupt and is destroying our families and our lives.
THE DISTANT RELATION
While men continue to produce children physically, increasingly, the father is becoming a distant family relation. An increase in work hours for much of the population has meant that fathers are less often at home. Moreover, when they are at home their children are asleep or the fathers are still in work-mode, finishing off some left over office task. Less time is being spent by fathers not only sharing their knowledge of life but more importantly, helping their children’s emotional development.
It’s true that many men also play a fatherly role for children who are not their own. Men who coach sporting teams and male teachers often provide children, especially boys, with the male bonding that is so important to a child’s development. But there are generally fewer parents involved in community activities with children than there were some years ago.
The teaching profession is also rapidly losing its male members. The fact that society so undervalues the group of people who, apart from parents, have the most significant influence on future generations defies logic. Many Asian countries which believe, as we claim to do, that children represent the future actually put their resources behind education. Funding is seen as a high priority and not an area for constant reduction. But in Australia the poor financial rewards mean that in public schools we have fewer male teachers than female and their numbers are constantly declining.
While teachers, whether male or female, have an equally significant influence on the development of the young children must be given the opportunity to build healthy relationships with adults of both sexes on a regular basis. This is as important at school, where they spend most of their day, as it is at home. Of course this does not mean that thrusting children into random situations with adults is at all healthy. What is required is an environment where stable, healthy relationships can develop between them.
Together with the fact that men as fathers or surrogate fathers are spending much less time with children than they should, is the increasing emphasis on materialism in its ugliest form. Newspapers are full of ‘heroes’ whose only achievement has been to make money. Little attention is paid to how they accumulated their wealth, whether their business practices are ethical and moral, whether they are good family men, or whether they have done anything for the community. Money has become the balm with which the popular press anoints its idols. We have lost the ability to see people as real human beings with both good and bad points or judge them on the depth of their character.
The elevation of such dubious types to star status gives us very poor role-models to follow. Some people who are sufficiently strong-willed and independent to keep their attitudes and values intact will be able to find their own way through these confusing influences. The rest of us, however, do look for someone who can act as an example to help guide us through life. Unfortunately, the media do not take their responsibilities seriously enough and keep coming up with false models for us to emulate, based only on the measure of financial success.
WHOM DO I TURN TO?
So where does a new father turn to learn the skills he is going to need? As a soon-to-be-father in 1989, I wandered into a large city bookstore in search of some books that could help prepare me for what I was about to be thrown into. I found a fair range of books dealing with a baby’s development and the mother’s physical and emotional development both before and after giving birth. There were very few books which even acknowledged that the father had a role to play. A couple were semi-humorous, introducing fathers to the pleasures of baby vomit, midnight screaming and baby diarrhoea. But there was nothing to help me understand better what I should be doing, and how I should be dealing with my own thoughts and emotions.
Attending ‘baby classes’ reinforced this impression. While it was acknowledged that the father had some role to play—mainly limited to impregnation and assisting his wife during labour—nobody seemed to be interested in supporting him as an active, informed participant in his child’s development. The Department of Health organises ‘playgroups’ to allow new mothers to meet up and share their experiences of child-bearing. But there were no forums where fathers could engage in any detailed discussion about the arrival of their child and what it meant to them. This of course continued a long tradition of men dealing in silence with major events in their lives, so it was probably not surprising to find such a lack of services for the father.
The result is that the father who wants to find out more about his new role becomes quickly discouraged. He goes back to being the uninformed support-assistant to his wife—as though he has no other function than that of support. Of course, supporting your wife is a key role and one that most fathers accept as an important task, though there is always the odd exception. I recall one senior executive at Microsoft who used to boast about his dedication to the company by telling people that he was away on business for the birth of all three of his children. Perhaps he will wake up one day and realise he has missed one of life’s most magical and important moments (three times!) for the sake of better revenue performance. A high price to pay.
Restricting the father’s role to support undervalues the part he can and should play in the birth and development of a child. It also presupposes that fathers have either little interest in what is happening or little of value to add. One could be excused for thinking that fathering is nothing more than a biological process. Many fathers’ personal involvement with their children is prescribed by a tight agenda drawn up by their wives, almost like a manual on how to be a dad until mum gets home. The common attitude that mothers should provide explicit instructions needs to be reviewed. Is it that men are genetically incompetent when it comes to looking after children or that they do not have the interest? Part of the problem lies in what society has accepted as normal behaviour. This has resulted in a pattern that has become perpetuated.
In a study some years ago E.R. Goldsmith and J.H. Greenhaus looked at differing models of work and family. They reported on earlier research by Joseph Pleck which suggested that social norms ‘permit’ women to forego work activities in the face of family responsibilities, whereas men are permitted to forego family activities in favour of work commitments. Fathers now use part of the time they would once have spent with their families to go to work, just as it has been considered normal practice for women to give up work to have children. The establishment of social norms that put a father’s work ahead of his family responsibilities creates a false sense of what society needs from fathers.
FACTORIES AND FATHERING
The effect of the Industrial Revolution on fatherhood has been well documented by many writers, including Steve Biddulph in Manhood and Adrienne Burgess in Fatherhood Reclaimed. In the second half of the 19th century as industrialisation intensified, fathers increasingly left the traditional home environment to work in the new factories. The family structure changed dramatically. The father was now no longer at home during the day and thus children missed out on the importance of his influence during their growing years. According to Burgess, early 20th century family experts declared that this new form of part-time fathering was actually desirable, somehow allowing a weary father to return home from the day’s work with a fresh approach to issues in the family domain.
The detached father who was created during the Industrial Revolution and still exists today was a new phenomenon. Previously, as many accounts of the time make clear, fathers would show a great deal of public affection for their children, nursing their babies and playing with them whenever they could.
Men are no longer the sole providers of resources for the family. While this is a generally positive trend, it nonetheless removes what has been for centuries a major characteristic underpinning the role of the father. It needs to be replaced with something that men can identify within defining their role.
As a result of the increased participation of women in the workforce, the provider role is now split and the father is no longer the major influence on the formation of a child’s view of the outside world. The fact that the mother is now as significant an influence is again a very healthy development, in that it ensures that children gain the benefit of at least two major sources of influence in their early years. As they grow older the number of possible influences on them grows and the role of both parents declines, particularly that of the father. Hence the father’s position in the family needs to be redefined in a clear way, giving a positive lead on what his responsibilities now are. Historically fathers have provided a strong developmental role with regard to their children’s work. In the second half of the 19th century in the UK more than fifty per cent of children entered their father’s trade.
Clearly the children were being trained into particular trades or professions by their fathers; long hours were spent ensuring the child picked up the skill that would allow them to become employable in their father’s trade.
Yet with this concentration of time spent with their fathers these children were also learning skills other than those focused on a particular trade. Fathers were able to impart life lessons to their children and children were able to develop very strong relationships with their father.
While the trend away from ‘following in your father’s footsteps’ is healthy for many reasons—not the least allowing a child to develop a truly independent life mapped by their own interests—we also lost this sense of a father providing ‘life education’ to their children. It is the loss of this second level of education that is problematic for today’s society.
One of the most negative attitudes towards fatherhood I have come across was that of the early child psychologist D.W. Winnicott, who followed the popular view of his day that the father was really most important as a symbol. His role was to ‘turn up often enough for the child to feel he was real and alive’. So much for any concept of involved fathering.
In discussions with executive groups I have heard a similar view expressed. Many executive fathers say explicitly they believe it is both right and proper for the children not to see a lot of their father. Comments such as ‘leaving them to their own devices builds self-esteem and individuality’ are common, ignoring the fact that all research on the subject indicates that such outcomes are not the result of leaving kids alone.
Too often fathers look at their responsibilities purely in the light of their own experiences. Such views are irrational, given the changes that have occurred in society over the last forty years. Harking back to a frequently faulty memory of one’s own childhood is no help in coping with the problems of fathering today. Some men argue that because they were brought up by their fathers in a particular way and turned out well, their children will do likewise with the same treatment. This is like saying, ‘When I was young my father used to beat me with a cricket bat and I survived, therefore I can beat my kids.’ The fact that some children whose fathers spent little time with them, showed them no emotion or physically abused them, grew up with no apparent emotional scars does not mean that such neglect was right.
One father I know, who is a real workaholic and is rarely home in time to see his children, defends his approach by using this logic. ‘My father used to work long hours and I never saw him and yet I turned out all right, so I think my kids will too.’ This sounds more like a shallow justification of his obsession with work than a well though-tout decision on what is best for his kids. What should be done is to combine the positive aspects of your past with some firm ideas of your own on what good fathering should be about.
ALL ON THEIR OWN
The effect of children spending time alone must be taken into account. In the book The Time Bind, A.R. Hochschild quotes a study of nearly five thousand eighth-graders in the US and their parents which found that children who were home alone for eleven or more hours a week were three times more likely than other youngsters to abuse alcohol, tobacco or marijuana. This was true for both upper class and working class children. Research on adults who had been left home alone as children suggested that they ran a far higher risk of developing ‘substantial fear responses’— recurring nightmares, fear of noise, fear of the dark and fear for their personal safety. Hochschild states:
In the grip of a time bind, working parents redefine as nonessential more than a child’s need for security and companionship. The blockbuster film, Home Alone, in which a child left by himself emerges as a heroic everyboy, masks the anxiety that infuses the subject of children home alone with upbeat denial. One husband in Amerco commented, ‘We don’t really need a hot meal at night because we eat well at lunch.’ A mother wondered why she should bother to cook beans for her children when her son didn’t like them. Yet another challenged the need for children’s daily baths or clean clothes: ‘He loves his brown pants. Why shouldn’t he just wear them for a week?’ Of a three-month-old child in nine-hour daycare a father assured me, ‘I want him to be independent.’
In the study of the giant Amerco firm in 1990, to which Hochschild refers (although the name was changed in the book to protect the company), it was found that twenty-seven per cent of children between the ages of six and thirteen stayed home alone while both parents were at work. Of course twelve-year-olds can look after themselves physically when they get home from school, but like all children they basically need to share their experiences and talk about their problems during the day. By the time 6 or 7pm comes around children no longer have the sense of urgency to discuss their problems or, perhaps more seriously, they have internalised the problems as a result of having no outlet.
In the past the mother was around not only to provide the services required after school but offer the love, affection and understanding which is difficult for even the most dedicated childcare worker to give. Services abound to help both parents maintain their careers and also have their children’s needs attended to. In America, for instance, Hochschild refers to ‘Kids in Motion’ in Chicago which provides transport to take kids from school to sport or music. ‘Playground Connections’ in Washington DC matches ‘play-mates’ to one another. In several US cities children call a 1-900 number to contact ‘Grandma Please’. There they can make contact with an adult who has time to talk to them, sing to them, listen to their problems, help them with their homework or just make them feel wanted. ‘Creative Memories’ puts family photos in albums, along with descriptive captions.
These services are a poor substitute for real parent-child interaction. What is lost in this business-like approach is any understanding of a child’s feelings and emotions or the role such activities play in providing an opportunity for parents and children to communicate. Taking children to after-school sport is not merely a taxi service. As well as enabling them to talk about the day’s events with the parent concerned on the way to the venue, it forces the parent out of the work environment. A father who no longer has to leave work by 5pm to take his son to football because he knows someone else will make sure Johnny gets to the oval on time is unlikely to leave work at 5 pm to watch Johnny train.
Increasingly the father is not required to be part of the daily running of his children’s lives. He is also seen as non-essential from a ‘provision of service’ point of view. Nobody seems to care about the child’s, or father’s, need for the love and bond that they can share.
PARENTS BUT NOT CITIZENS
Parental involvement in their children’s lives is diminishing, along with allied social responsibilities. According to the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, as quoted by Hochschild, the proportion of Americans reporting that they had attended a public meeting on town or school affairs in the previous year fell from twenty-two per cent in 1973 to thirteen per cent in 1993. Membership in organisations such as the Red Cross, Boy Scouts and Lions Clubs has fallen as well. A similar pattern is also discernible in Australia.
At my daughters’ school there are over 1,100 students. That would suggest there would perhaps be around 800 sets of parents (allowing for members of the same family being at school and for single-parent households). Parents’ and Citizens’ Association (P&C) meetings, where major issues about the school and its plans are discussed, are regularly attended by fewer than fifty people. Unfortunately, it is roughly the same fifty people who organise the major events within the school. It is not that the only parents who care for their children are those who attend the meetings but work pressures mean that it is easy to assume ‘the school will run by itself’.
One mother who had a son at the local public school moved him to a private school in Year Two. She told me that she intended to become involved in activities at the new school even though she had shown no interest in helping out at the public school. When I asked her the reasons for the change of heart, she told me the parent group at the private school offered both her son and her husband opportunities to create relationships which would be of use during their lives. Her motivation was not so much to help the school but to further her own social ambitions.
The problems resulting from children being left alone are clearly not wholly brought about by fathers being focused on work ahead of their families but also by the greater part women now play in the wider community. The fact that stay-at-home mothers have been able to keep the family together in the past does not mean that they should be ‘motivated’ out of the workforce as some politicians would prefer. What it does suggest is that for quite some time we have lived with an unbalanced home environment, which has only held together because women were at home. As we have seen, the underlying problem of fathers not being involved has been with us for the last couple of centuries. Many fathers also regard providing the money to run the household as a testament to their love and commitment. But as will later be discussed, this is more often an excuse for not spending the time and energy which is really required for good fathering.
FATHER TIME PAYS OFF
There is a strong correlation between the time a father spends with a child and the latter’s development. As Burgess notes:
Right through adolescence and in many different ways, the benefits to children of positive and substantial father involvement can be measured; in self-control, life skills, and social competence. Adolescents who have good relationships with their fathers take their responsibilities seriously, are more likely to do what their parents ask and are less limited by traditional sex-role expectations. The boys have fewer behavioural problems in school, and the girls are more self-directed, cheerful and happy, willing to try new things. Among adults, both men and women, the strongest predictor of empathetic concern for others is high level of caretaking by their fathers when they were little. Father involvement is also one of the major predictors of whether adults in their twenties will have progressed, educationally and socially, beyond their parents.
Research has repeatedly found that when fathers spend committed time with their children, the benefits are enormous. Among seven to eleven-year-olds receiving such attention, for instance, there is a much lower incidence of delinquent behaviour, while older children are more likely to go on to higher education and generally have higher career aspirations. Yet all the evidence points to less time being spent between fathers and children.
An interesting trend may also suggest that there exists a level of parental guilt with regard to time spent with children. In a survey of pre-schoolers in the US it was found that at Christmas time children asked for, on average, 3.4 presents and yet were given 11.7 presents by their parents. I believe that there is a direct correlation between lack of time spent with children and the increase in such ‘guilt’ presents. All children love toys and the receipt of an unexpected toy will bring the parent an immediate positive response from the child. All is well, broken promises recovered: not so. Firstly, the pattern being established is very unhealthy for both parent and child. The parent begins to believe that material goods can be used as a replacement for time spent with the child, while the child is being taught that the parent believes a present makes up for a commitment to spend time together. The lasting effect of a particular toy is very small. The lasting effect of time spent developing a relationship with a child is significant and lifelong.
Family time today is often defined by each family member engaging with their own screen (smart phone, Ipad, laptop, TV) watching their own content even when they may be in the same room together.
For very young children it’s easy to switch on cartoons in the morning or give them an Ipad (which of course is an educational item…isn’t it?) to keep them entertained and quiet. The fact is, however, that watching TV in the morning affects a child’s schooling by modifying its initially active brain pattern.
Night-times are cloaked in the seriousness of the evening news with sitcoms or personal content viewing to follow.
There is something quite strange about families sitting around a TV set at night and apparently enjoying each other’s company, but without any of the banter and chitchat that used to characterise home life. It is as though families have outsourced their normal intercourse to the television sitcoms, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.
The accessibility and availability of content on your smartphone means that you never have to just sit and think or sit and talk. You can always be wired and always be plugged into content that you want to engage with. This level of specialisation has benefits as it allows individuals to pursue their own areas of interest but it also continues to create insular silos within the family home.
Communication is lost when families sit down and let one or more screens engage the family. It also ensures that children stay nice and quiet, if not catatonic. My own experience is that when I came home from work and the kids were at school and they had not been watching television nor too engaged on their smartphones, they were more alert, more open to talking about their day and generally more active.
So how much time is actually spent with children these days? Suspicious of previous data based on estimates provided by mothers and fathers, the American researchers Rebelsky and Hanks installed microphones in the homes of parents of newborn children. They found that fathers, on average, interacted directly with their babies for 37.7 seconds a day! These fathers had thought they were spending at least fifteen to twenty minutes a day with them. Burgess reports that these findings have been recently reaffirmed by similar tests.
In a study entitled ‘Facilitating Future Changes’, J.H. Pleck and M.E. Lamb discuss research into the possible sources of men’s low participation in family life compared to that of women. This suggests that men’s work is not by itself a sufficient explanation. The amount of time they spend in paid work does have an impact on the amount of time spent with the family. Other social factors such as taking after one’s own father, social attitudes, lack of support from wives or peers and inadequate parenting skills also play a part. But even allowing for these influences, the main reason why men spend so little time with their families appears to be that they don’t really want to go home.
Other researchers have found that the tension between work and family is heightened when both elements are strong, though one will always ultimately prevail. On the other hand, if an executive feels a much stronger pull towards his work commitments than to his family, then no amount of pressure from his spouse or children will make him change his ways. Only if he is really sensitive to the importance of his family responsibilities will he put them ahead of his work. Often it depends on the relative rewards they offer. Work provides very clear and easily recognised rewards—money, power and possibly fame. The rewards offered by home and family are less easy to measure, except by such intangible factors as the development of a close relationship between a father and his children by establishing an intimacy with them in their early years that continues through the difficulties of adolescence and hopefully survives into their maturity and the rest of their lives. That in itself is its own reward.
MEN AND WOMEN: DIFFERENT WANTS
In a society with so many conflicting and confusing modes of behaviour it is hard to determine what people really want to do with their lives. According to the sociologist H. Glezer, in an article on ‘Juggling Work and Family Commitments’, when parents were asked whether they would prefer to work full-time, part-time or not at all, eighty per cent of men preferred full-time work, fifteen per cent part-time and five per cent said they would prefer not to work. However, only eighteen per cent of women wanted full-time work, with fifty-eight per cent preferring part-time work and twenty-four per cent saying they would rather not be in employment at all. It would appear that men were doing what they wanted to do—that is, working full-time—while the majority of women would have been happier in part-time work.
In an interesting study, L.Duxbury and C.Higgins investigated differences between the sexes in their attitudes to the question of work and family. They found that women are more likely than men to:
• put family demands before personal needs;
• feel guilty if they perceive that their role as provider takes away from their time as nurturer;
• exhibit greater concern and stress if they feel that they are neglecting their partners.
Men will be more likely than women to see being a good provider as key to their role in the family. They will also be more likely to think that their family interferes with their work.
HOME MUMS AND CAREER MUMS
Australian society is increasingly tending to devalue the work of raising a family. In what are meant to be enlightened times, women who choose to spend time at home rather than pursuing a career are often looked at as having given up their real calling. In the process of making sure that women have a choice when they become mothers, we have subtly suggested that women who work outside the home rather than at home raising kids are somehow smarter and more valuable. We should support both choices, but I fail to see how choosing to spend one’s time helping develop the next generation is not in fact the most valued job.
I recall having a heated argument a few years ago with a lawyer friend of mine. She had chosen to continue work when she had a baby, while my wife had chosen to stay at home and look after the children. My lawyer friend asked what my wife did. I replied that she was at home with the children, to which the lawyer responded: ‘Is that all?’ I guess in retrospect she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We then spent quite some time discussing the relative merits of working mums versus ‘at home’ mums. What was most annoying about the discussion was that she could not accept that deciding to stay at home with your children was a choice that some women make and that this choice should not be seen as having ‘taken the easy road’. Her position was that she needed to work and that she couldn’t imagine ‘wasting her talents’ by staying at home with her children. I applaud women who are able to balance a successful work life with the responsibility of raising children–especially in a society that continues to place the major responsibility for child rearing on the mother.
At the same time, I do not accept that there is any ‘right’ choice. While applauding working mums I also applaud mums who decide that the best use of their skills and energy is to stay at home with their children. This is in no way an easy choice. It is one that takes a woman out of an environment (work) where rewards are clear and each day has structure. She is removed from an environment of continual contact with adults and one where she can have some independence. The choice to stay at home is a very hard one. The ‘stay at home’ mum has determined that while she is making significant trade-offs in her life she is doing the best for her children. While ensuring women continue to have the choice we must establish a more balanced approach to valuing the choices made.
A MOTHER’S ROLE?
For some time, I have watched the way in which stay-at-home mothers were being looked down upon by the ‘career’ mothers who were able to hold down a major job and be a great mum. Nobody is standing up to defend the mothers who really believed they were doing the best thing for their families by being at home for them. There are no business-suited, well-coiffured corporate women defending their choice with any passion. The issue is not in fact which way of life is better, but executive mothers and their supporters should accept that being a mother at home is perhaps just as important a role as any corporate job. In The Time Bind Hochschild found that implicit in work-family conflict at Amerco was the devaluation of the work of raising a family. As a consequence, individuals studied consciously tried to escape the work of child rearing in favour of the paid work environment.
HAVING IT ALL
Assume for a moment that you wanted to pursue two distinct careers, say medicine and being an economist. I think it is safe to say that other than for a few extraordinary people it is unlikely that you could excel to the best of your ability in medicine while, at the same time, be the best economist going around. Chances are you might be very good at both careers but not the best at either and furthermore, it is probably fair to say that if you had focused on one career you would have achieved greater development and success than if you tried to spread your energy and time across two.
I think this is the same between working mums or dads and stay at home mums or dads–particularly for children up to and including the child’s time at school.
If you are trying to excel at being the best you can at work then it is likely that you will be expected to work longer hours than most, take on more complex task than others, travel more than others and generally be seen to be and actually commit more of your waking hours to the role.
If at the same time you are trying to be a very involved parent then this means spending more time with your kids, taking on more child focused roles (school drop offs, school reading, sports coaching, canteen duties, managing after school homework, driving kids to after school activities) and generally allocating more of your energy and time to trying to be an involved parent.
Clearly you can’t do both to their individual extremes. Assuming your career is one that requires long hours then you can’t excel to the highest level in your career and at the same time allocate enough time to be the best parent you possibly can. Something has to give and you can’t have it all.
The best you can hope for is achieving an acceptable level of success in your career while also feeling as though you are truly delivering as an involved parent.
Sadly, given our work roles seem to be more obviously demanding on our time, it is very easy to allow work to suck up more and more of our time and we are therefore allocating less and less time to our children and families.
This chapter has been arguing that we are on the wrong track. The facts speak for themselves: the decreasing time spent by fathers with children is having a detrimental effect on children. Further, children are not developing an ability to understand the role of fathers and men in society because fathers are so seldom with them. The values we are promoting in our society are more focused on economic wealth than on any sense of social wellbeing. We are allowing ourselves to be sucked into believing work and money are in fact the most important things in life. They are not.
What is most important in life is the way one looks at and takes care of one’s family, in the broadest sense. If we truly believed in the importance of looking after our children and each other and we were prepared to act accordingly, the world would be a better place. If fathers took more responsibility for their children, spent more time with them and opened their hearts to them, and to their spouses as well, we would be well on the way to creating a better and more humane world. It is as simple and complex as that. If you take only one thing from this chapter, let it be the point that as a father you have a responsibility to your children and yourself to spend more time with them and opened their hearts to them, and to their spouses as well, we would well be on the way to creating a better and more humane world. It is as simple and complex as that.
If you take only one thing from this chapter, let it be the point that as a father you have responsibility to your children and yourself to spend more time with them. You and they alike will benefit from this commitment.
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