I read a beautiful quote at the weekend – “He didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.” It’s been three years since my father died – unexpectedly and without any warning that allowed me the chance to say goodbye. Like so many whose fathers are no longer with them, Father’s Day for me is bitter sweet now. Bitter because I miss him – I would give anything to have that last conversation with him I couldn’t have – and sweet because it’s a day when I can openly share memories and simply remember the man he was. To me, the man he was is this quote. He led by tacit example, allowing me to make mistakes and find my way without any judgement, and his strength of character became the strength I have today.
We know parenting isn’t easy, particularly in the early days when we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing, don’t quite trust the several hundred books we’ve bought to tell us, and quite frankly wish we could just pop them on a shelf and pretend the whole parent thing was happening to someone else. I’m sure my Dad must have felt this, but the male role then meant that mothers took the baby baton and ran with it, while the slightly-deranged-through-lack-of-sleep fathers sat behind desks in the workplace. Time with their children meant brief snatched moments – morning and evening – with mothers taking on everything else in between.
To a certain degree – and forgive the generalisation because I know there are exceptions – fifty years on and little has changed. The bulk of parenting still sits with the mother, but the difference now is that there are more working mothers than there were when my parents were navigating the unfamiliar territory of bringing a baby into the world. The juggle is blending childcare and careers and many have no choice. Flexi-working where it exists, lower paid occupations and, if they are lucky enough, working from home are often the only options for many working mothers. The irony here is that this multi-tasking makes women more efficient, more adept at swift problem-solving and equally placed for the higher paid positions occupied by their male counterparts (but that’s another article altogether!)
So let’s look at this from the father’s stand point. In a society where the gender occupation and pay gap is still a gaping hole (and putting aside for now the reasons why), when children come along the decision has to be made as to who is going to be the main breadwinner. With growing families to support, mostly the higher income is always going to win the day – perpetuating the circle of workplace inequality that keeps fathers working and mothers mothering. So if you think about it, there is also little choice available to fathers when it comes to dividing the work/parenting roles. Like it or not, the majority of Dads are the key workers, and building the same in depth relationship that mothers have with their children – understanding their needs and quirks as they grow – is harder and sometimes impossible to achieve.
If there is some good to be found when we are through this pandemic it’s that this is going to change. The enforced working from home over the last three months has opened up a whole new world to fathers. I’ve read so many articles recently where they talk about this new enjoyment of spending more time with their children, learning their daily routines, understanding their moods, having a child run to themfor comfort instead of always to the mother, and being involved in home schooling to see for themselves triumphs they would otherwise only hear about at the end of a long day – all simply because they are now there. It’s still a balance – they have to learn to work through the noisy family chaos, down tools for childish demands at any given moment and divide their time – but welcome to our world!
I had a great relationship with my father. He worked hard at developing a bond with my sister and I. He wanted to understand us, to take on those parts of parenting that allowed him to know us better and to play a bigger part in our daily lives than his working hours could give us. Like many fathers, he did the best he could with the time he had. Of course, our relationship was different to one I had with my mother. He couldn’t always know the subtleties of my mood that became second nature to my mother, or sit with me throughout the night when I was unwell, or be there to talk me through the daily inflated dramas of childhood. But his heart and his will were always there. When he didn’t have the time to say what he wanted to say, he found other ways to guide me. And he most definitely led by example.
If working from home is going to become the new normal for many fathers, just imagine the strength and depth of the relationship they are going to be able to forge with their children now. I thought I had it good then!