Sunday, November 12, 2006

Rethinking fatherhood

In 1994 feminism in Australia was rampant and men could do no right. It is remarkable, therefore, to observe the shift back to a more traditional view of gender that is now underway.

In yesterday's Age, for instance, Stephanie Dowrick discussed the place of fathers within families and came up with this:

...fathers matter. And, good or bad, the effects of their parenting will go on reverberating throughout their children's lifetime ...

....[parents] will also have roles that are specific and distinct. When two adults become parents for the first time, the new father may best support both the baby and his unfolding sense of himself as a father by giving most of his support to the new mother: meeting her needs so that she can meet the inexhaustible needs of her new baby.

This requires considerable selflessness. Yet it is being able to step up and play this essential role that will set the tone for fatherhood ahead and for his individual strength and confidence.

As children grow older, the role that fathers play changes fast. Even with both parents in the workforce, fathers sill still often "represent" the outside world and its values more powerfully than mothers do. How fathers interpret the outside world and bring it home to their children through discussions and especially through example sharply impacts on the way children see themselves in the social universe.

What Dad values and believes, where Dad gives his time, how Dad offers or withdraws his encouragement or interest, how Dad deals with disappointment or conflict, whether Dad is able to be consistent and reliable, when and how Dad "takes charge", the willingness with which Dad takes responsibility, and how loving Dad is to Mum: these are all factors that will have a huge impact on the psychological development of children.

But perhaps nothing matters more than for a man to recognise while he is in the thick of it just how important family life is to him, and he to it.

This is an intelligent description of a father's role in the family, which runs counter to the general trend of writing about fatherhood for several reasons.

First, it views the father's role positively rather than negatively. A problem for men in a liberal society is that liberalism is set strongly against unchosen forms of authority (which is why the authority of kings and priests was targeted early on). Fatherhood fell within the category of unchosen forms of authority and so was often portrayed negatively in terms of repressiveness or domination.

Second, Stephanie Dowrick accepts a distinct, masculine role for fathers. The liberal view has been that gender is an oppressive social construct which should be made not to matter; therefore, much writing on the family has promoted the idea of "genderless" parenting (in which the motherhood role becomes the single unisex parental role) or of gender role reversal.

(I remember a Nescafe ad which ran on Australian TV in 1999 which had the jingle: "You can be mother when you are a man ... Open your mind you know that you can.")

We'll have to see how far the shift back to a more traditional view of gender goes, but it's a refreshing thing for the moment to find fatherhood portrayed positively as a distinct role.


  1. Sunday 12 nov 2006

    As a man who does the role swap thing with my wife I have come up against the perceptions of gender roles in parenting quite often.
    I even held the liberal feminist line that parenting can be "Gender Neutral" that you talk about here. But the reality is that most women only really pay lip service to it. When I tried to join into things like play groups I was only ever really tolerated rather than included. But when it comes to the domestic dynamic in the end some one has to take charge; there has to be an alpha individual in the family. My children know that when they scrape a knee that they can be comforted as much by me as they can by their mum but also they know that for a decision in a crisis what I say will decide the matter. There are times when you just can't be indecisive.

  2. As Iain knows or thinks, I am a feminist, but I never got this hating-men part from the anti-male feminists.

    I always thought it wasn't about being the same, but equal. It could be that I wasn't a feminist because I read some books nor was I indoctrinated at uni, I was raised a 'feminist' in a non-feminist home, ie I wasn't brought up thinking we weren't equal, nor was my brother. He and I were treated the same, same opportunities, as were my cousins. So feminism sort of happened around me.

    How do you hate someone you were meant to love?

    bobby.n, well yes and no. It depends if both work, or one is the homemaker and one is the breadwinner. And don't forget, many women were left in economic despair and hardship because of those 'traditional' roles. I'm glad feminism came, it was necessary, but I'm sorry they had to go too far with a good thing.

    I think the feminists achieved all they could by the end of the 1970s. It then was up to society. Sadly, they were on a roll!

    Oh, Iain, we all know that after deciding the matter, men check with the missus, hehe.

  3. In an attempt to "reconcile" "bobby" and "jessica", I think we must remember that government is heavily influenced by a particular type of "femminist". These people are the academic feminist "thinkers". They have created a whole new University department, and have the time, training, and committment to continue lobbying. They are hardly representative of women, but do continue to attract "converts" amongst those female students who've lived under a domineering or abusive father, or those who are simply young and impressionable. It is the equivalent of "whiteness studies", in that it apparently thinks that the only requirement is to be born a man to succeed in life (at most a "white anglo saxon protestant"). It is a good way of blaming their self proclaimed opponenants of being the cause of all the miseries of the world, and is thus just a form of vilification and blame shifting. All the while increasing the influence of "theorists" who can either get membership, or influence, the various discrimination bodies.