Working out the working dad
There’s more to being a dad than earning an income, isn’t there? These days, dads have choices as Archimede Fusillo explains.
When you’re a so-called ‘modern dad’ the parameters of just what being a dad means have shifted since my father’s day. For men like my father, now in his sixties, being a dad usually meant being the family's principal bread winner, showing some aptitude with a tool or two, and generally being able to keep the rowdy kids in line.
One stern look from Dad was usually enough to keep my younger sister and I behaving like model children. Hand him an axe and he knew which end was for chopping - and still does! One stern look from me and my children think I've got something in my eye, and for so many modern dads, an axe is what the boss wields to pull the profit line back into shape.
This is not to suggest that the dads of my own father's generation were insensitive to the wider needs of a family. Or that they necessarily didn't genuinely try to take a more active and direct part in the family's well-being.
I think, for the most part, fathers like mine saw their role within a family in a much more linear fashion than contemporary dads do. What’s different now is the degree and range of expectations conferred upon the role.
It is not enough in the modern world of e-mail, space stations, and virtual reality for dads to believe or accept that their role within a family is solely or even principally that of bread winner. The rise of women into positions of influence, and the growing trend of women working in what were once traditional male jobs, has meant that a mum can be, and often is, the principal bread winner in a household.
Unlike my father's generation, we dads of the modern era cannot define our role within a family simply by virtue of the job or the vocation we keep. It should be no longer a matter of what you do to earn money that gives a father status within a family, but rather what the father does apart from earning an income.
When people like Steve Biddulph write and talk about the need for men to understand their inner self, he is telling men - and dads in particular - to look beyond their income generating ability or otherwise for some measure of their true worth as people.
The true worth of a dad is not in the size of his pay packet, or the luxuriousness of his company car, or even the title of his position. It lies in our ability to recognise that ours is a powerful and significant role in maintaining the cohesion of our individual families.
It is a significant moment in the changing culture of fatherhood when a man who holds a position of significant status suddenly opts out of the corporate world to spend time with his family.
Just such a thing happened a few years ago at Microsoft when one of their leading lights became a father for the first time and felt obliged to reassess his life. His decision and ability to forgo money and status for a lesser corporate role, so that he could have more time with his wife and child, sends a clear message to all us dads.
To an extent, we all have some control over the responsibility for the degree to which we take part in our family's day-to-day life. Whether or not we have the luxury of choosing to sacrifice money for time is not the issue. What is relevant is that dads can choose to become more involved with their family.
Today's dads are under siege from many areas. Not least of which is the IVF program and the implications of women deciding that they have an indelible right to bear children without the need for a traditional father figure in that child's life.
While this may be the case, it is the suggestion that dads are somehow dispensable that threatens to undermine the conscious decision of many men to want to be more involved in their families. It’s a man with limited vision who shackles himself to his job, his talents with tools, or his brute strength with issues of discipline, as a measure of his role as a father in the modern family.
The modern dad, like the modern mum, is a participating partner in family life. As such, their roles should be determined by personality rather than gender and skills rather than expectations. Both mum and dad should be committed to nurturing the best in their children. Is it fair that one parent alone should be relegated to the role of authoritarian quelling questionable or unacceptable behaviour?
Fathers teach their children respect by respecting their children, their partner and themselves. They teach their children the value of a balanced lifestyle by leading one themselves; by taking time to grate a carrot, read a book, toss a ball, ride a scooter and even do some housework if that is what it takes to bring the partners in a family together as role models for their children.
My father was of the old school. He worked two full time jobs for many years as I was growing up. Yet something of the modern dad must have been with him. He never failed to tell me that of all the things he could have done with his life, nothing gave him more pleasure, made him more complete, than to know he had influenced my life and that of my sister's for the better. We modern dads could do worse.
By Archimede Fusillo
Archimede Fusillo is the author of novels Sparring With Shadows and The Dons. He is also a motivational speaker and workshop presenter to teachers and students in schools throughout the country.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2001.