By Sandy Burgham
Pondering the faces of modern fatherhood
My daughter recently posted on Facebook a meme showing a toad-like creature with a grumpy face, and a headline that read: “How you feel when your mum comes home and all the fun and relaxation comes to an end”. One of the unexpected outcomes of maturing while previously-adorable children like my daughter morph into typical teenagers, is that my husband could now be my favourite person in the household (excluding my lovely pet spoodle of course). This wasn’t always the case.
When a household is juggling two careers, children going in opposite directions, pets, mortgages and various other commitments, it is easy for the working mother to start managing the household as one might a company division. I often thought, and probably expressed, in those earlier years, that everything would be fine if everyone just shut up and did what I said. Rest assured that they didn’t.
Lists were issued to an unimpressed husband who pretty much missed most of his KPIs (“key performance indicators” for those who haven’t suffered the tedium of a corporate performance review). Several other primary bread-winning mothers I know have also been accused of treating their husband like staff — issuing helpful tips on how tasks should be executed, as well as the benefits of an improved attitude. This easily spilled over into what fatherhood “needed” to look like.
Often what drives women’s behaviour to change men is not just practicalities, and some unfounded belief that we know what makes them happy, but a desire to fit into social norms. We are inundated with media images that portray either “dunce dad” (central figure on animated sitcoms), “failed dad” (usually action movie heroes), “traditional dad” (who Len Brown was trying to be) and now “perfect dad” (middle class yuppie in bicultural family as seen in advertising campaigns nationwide). Note that what is deemed acceptable behaviour changes over time — my own dad used to nip into the pub while we waited in the car, relatively common behaviour in the 1960s.
The social norm of fatherhood is now trapped somewhere between being the main breadwinner, sharing household duties including Jamie Oliver skills in the kitchen, some basic psychological understanding of a woman’s psyche, inborn DIY ability, willingness to be a coach for a kids sports team, and all of it delivered with masculine stoicism blended with a unique feminine sensitivity.
On a Sunday morning, our local park is inundated with 30 something Bugaboo-pushing dads displaying “perfect dad” traits, presumably while mum sleeps in or goes to yoga. It is also becoming increasingly common to see a stay at home dad at the school gate. I applaud these guys for willingly stepping back from their working lives to prioritise fatherhood. Often they are making a conscious decision to play a supporting role in a spouse’s career. This is still a big call for a man to rise above the social pressure to be in full-time paid employment. Despite the “perfect dad” framework on one hand, men are often trapped in success narratives which give work and pay centrality.
Many men 50-plus, like my husband (they don’t make ‘em like they used to, thank god), could not imagine willingly stepping back from their careers to prioritise being the primary caregiver. I call this “early man” social programming, and to counter this, I often rave on in a coach-like fashion that it is being “your own man” that really counts. Whatever that looks like.
Recently our daughter and I drove past my husband as he was taking a leisurely (versus lycra-clad) bike ride along the waterfront in the afternoon sun. Old habits die hard. Just as I felt irritated by his ineffective time-use — surely he could have been trimming the hedge — she remarked: “Dad is the happiest person I know. He is one of the few people who doesn’t feel the need to fit in. He’s a great role model”. Jeepers, I thought, lucky he didn’t listen to my attempts to reprogramme his upbringing and change his personality. I better throw him a few extra brownie points this Father’s Day.
— Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson September, 2014