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Sydney Morning Herald

Support for dads helps kids, too

Sydney Morning Herald, January 1, 2004, Sydney, Australia

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, wrote yesterday that the complexity of the report of the House of Representatives inquiry into separating families was a "good sign". She is right. The problem with the debate so far has been its simplicity.

In effect, we have been treated to little more than a reworking of the sex war: a "goodies and daddies" paradigm in which blameless excluded fathers vie with heroic single mothers for victim of the year, and where fathers are presented as disposable or indispensable, disastrous or magnificent - never, as in the real world, somewhere in-between and subject to variation and evolution.

Meanwhile, Read More ..minal issues around fatherhood are rendered invisible; and the children's perspective entirely missed.

"Dear Dad, why do you always work? I hate it. On my birthday, please take a day off," wrote Adam (year 5) in a recent "Message to my Dad" competition.

"Please stop smoking because I wouldn't want anything to happen to you," begged Jessica (year 6); while Naomi (year 4) wrote simply: "You are my teddy at night."

Children who live apart from their fathers feel no less powerfully: "Every time my dad leaves, tears come straight out of my eyes. My heart breaks and I think that I've lost everything," wrote Emma (year 6).

"Dear Father," wrote Daniel (also year 6): "I don't say dear dad, because you have not been a dad to me, have you? My name is Daniel B and I am Rebecca B's son. You might not remember my mother, but I think about you all the time."

Who would seriously contest the notion that the father-child connection is a precious relationship that social policy should sustain and develop? This does not mean being starry-eyed about fathers who fail, and keeping them in families where they do Read More ..rm than good.

But it does mean recognising that whatever a father does, negative or positive, affects his child, and that most fathers are, in some ways if not in others, assets to their children - or can become so. Not just through shared activities and communication, but through the time, money and skills they contribute to the household, the support they provide to their children's mother, through the networks (family, friends, workmates) attaching to them.

And in less tangible but no less meaningful ways, as a cornerstone of their children's identity and security, as the family representative of that powerful archetype "the father" and through their tendency (as one researcher put it) "to be irrationally emotionally connected to their children". That is, to love them madly and stay loyal to them for life.

As a society, we do almost nothing to support fathers in their multi-faceted roles: whether in the work/family arena (who talks about giving working fathers "choices"?), in maternity and children's services (where parent almost invariably means mother), in the child-care debate (where dads are never mentioned), in the criminal justice system or in education (where strategies to engage fathers are as rare as hens' teeth). Let alone in separation and divorce - where, because the quality of the father-child relationship is so powerfully affected by the mother-father relationship, relationships between men and their children are often on the rocks long before either parent walks out the door.

We have no targets, no aspirations for mainstreaming fathers' involvement in any sector. Hysteria over the alleged "epidemic of fatherlessness" erupts periodically - but who notices the one-in-three young adults from "intact" families whose relationships with their fathers rate as "very poor"?

Who looks out for the father-daughter relationship, among the gnashing of teeth about boys growing up without role models? Who challenges the "cult of motherhood" which places such heavy burdens on new mothers - and, later, on employed mothers? Who notices that while girls are encouraged to broaden their employment horizons, and the number of women going into child care dwindles yearly, there are no corresponding strategies to prepare boys for non-traditional occupations?

As Read More ..thers enter the workforce, as our birthrate plummets, and as Read More ..n face a future without full-time lifetime employment to deliver status and identity as fathers, engaging in the fatherhood debate at the public policy level becomes not an option but an urgent need - and not over whether "fathers matter", but how we can support their relationships with their children. Because involving dads (not just divorced dads but all dads) matters to everyone.

It is a "must" if we are to tackle the gendered inequalities that underpin our workaholic culture, deprive women and men of a fair deal in the workplace and at home, and leave children short-changed.

Supporting involved fatherhood not only supports mothers as parents and advances their employment opportunities, but it grants to men what they increasingly want - the chance to combine paid work with close and meaningful relationships with their children.

And it enables children to be cared for, to learn from and to enjoy their fathers as well as their mothers from infancy onwards - and to look towards a future shared role in caring for and supporting their own (and other people's) children. All this has been recognised by Scandinavian governments for more than a decade and is driving British government funding for Fathers Direct, the UK information centre on fatherhood, which is charged with taking fatherhood forward as an issue of national concern in Britain. How to go about it here?

First, to recognise what fathers already do: 90 per cent attend their babies' births, usually describe it as the peak experience of their lives, and are much more likely than their fathers to take care of babies, be in "sole charge" and aspire to close and loving relationships with them.

Fathers are also second only to mothers in caring for school-aged children; and despite doing much Read More .. breadwinning, still manage to undertake around one-third of family work.

Second, to recognise what our governments - federal, state and local - are already doing to support fatherhood projects all over Australia, and then to go one step further: to develop national policies to tackle the barriers to involved fatherhood. Not just through "work family" policies (although without these, little can be achieved) but through the conscious analysis and dismant-ling of the norms and practices that undermine men's sense of their own value as parents, and that fail to equip them with the skills and self-confidence they must have, if they are to develop, and maintain, close and positive relationships with their children - from the cradle to the grave.

Adrienne Burgess is a writer and consultant , works with Fathers Direct in Britain, and is the author of Fatherhood Reclaimed: The making of the modern father (Vermilion, 1997).

Miranda Devine is on leave.