Parenting: working dads at centre of new family research

Children see spending time with their fathers as ‘special and unique’.

There’s no aptitude test for fathers, no mandatory training or licensing system to ensure all dads are good dads. No; for this role, laws and regulations give way to nature and nurture, a miracle of love expected to close the loop on a picture-perfect family. It’s assumed young men somehow know how to find a partner, settle down and adjust to fatherhood. And in a traditional arrangement, where the new mother provides life, sustenance and comfort, the new father offers security and stability — with any overt display of love and affection a bonus. This has worked, more often than not, for generations, yet it seems all parental roles are now up for debate.

So how, then, in 2017, do we judge a successful father? Is success measured by how much a father provides for his family, what car they drive and where they holiday? Is success measured by how hands-on a father is in the rearing of his kids or the kind of adults the kids become? Perhaps the question is not how we judge a successful father but who does the judging. Clearly, the kids will have the final say.

Researchers from the Australian National University, the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Berlin Social Science Centre recently sought to see fathers, particularly working dads, through the eyes of their children. They examined the relationships of about 3000 fathers and their children aged 10 to 13 and published their findings in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Coincidentally, the kids studied were about the same age as my son and daughter, and the topic of work-life balance is something I have considered a lot.

When the kids were asked about their fathers’ work, 63 per cent believed their dad worked “about the right amount”, while 35 per cent believed he worked “too much”. More than half of the dads said they missed out on family events, while a fifth said their jobs made family time more pressured and less fun.

As a journalist, I frequently work Sundays and public holidays, do not expect to have Christmas or Easter off, and feel a need to stay across the news after hours. It may not be physically demanding but it fills my brain to the point of overflowing. I also worry about the future of my profession and my industry, wondering how different the next two decades of work will be to the past. As hard as this job can be at times, I know it is better than many, and infinitely better than no job at all.

In the study, the researchers asked children whether their father spent enough time with them and found 63 per cent said “about right”, 27 per cent said “not quite enough”, 7 per cent said “nowhere near enough”. Funnily enough, 2 per cent said their dad spent “a little too much” time with them (if my kids said that I would spend more, purely out of spite, and tell even more bad jokes).

Children see the person before they see the role and, as you’d expect, can be oblivious to adult responsibilities. In our perfectly imperfect household, both parents work but mum is the life of the operation (that’s the toughest gig of all). She smiles. She sees. She remembers. She connects. She gets involved, with every enthusiasm and no sense of shame. Sometimes, it seems we live in the ultimate frat house — and I’m invited! — and sometimes it is an old family cabin, with me the awkward stepdad arriving late in a suit. But nevertheless it works, and I’m very grateful for that.

The study asked kids how close they felt to their dads and 54 per cent said “very close”, while 38 per cent said “quite close” and 8 per cent said “not very close or not close at all”. I hope my kids feel close to me but I can understand children, in general, not feeling close to their parents. They’ve got a lot going on, and what they want from their parents may not be what their parents determine they need.

Parenting is one giant paradox. I would die or kill for my kids, without hesitation, yet I’m also the likeliest to yell at them, give a disappointed look or seek to end to their fun. These beautiful creatures of mine should be living carefree lives but their screenplay comes with a monotone soundtrack from Dad: “Get out of bed! Start doing things! Do different things! Stop doing things! Get into bed!”

But maybe there is a time for everything. Maybe, where work and life intersect, having flexibility shows a willingness to put kids first.

“Children were more likely to enjoy time with their fathers (perhaps surprisingly) when he worked longer hours but were less likely to enjoy time together when he worked weekends,” the researchers found.

“Very long work hours, working under time pressure, and being unable to vary work hours all increased the likelihood that the children would report that they did not have enough time with their fathers.”

Years ago I gave up a more senior position so as not to keep working late, forgoing promotion opportunities for more consistent hours. For me it was a question of priorities and one I grappled with, perhaps too openly. (One night my daughter, the future human rights lawyer, won an argument with me by yelling “Go to work!”) Nights with the family are worth defending, even if they’re a haze of lunch boxes and forgotten homework and hidden devices and forced cleanliness. Now I take regular days off to safeguard our weekends and am fortunate to have worked so long in the same job to earn such flexibility.

“Overall, our findings reinforce other evidence that children view time with fathers as special and unique, especially their time together on weekends, whereas long hours on weekdays are viewed as part of the job, up to a point,” the researchers wrote.

Special and unique.

Having lost my father young, the role of dad has always puzzled me, as child and then a father. Growing up in the country, my mother worked school hours, took us fishing, cheered from the sidelines, taught us to drive: fathering as well as anyone. When someone gave me a book on manhood for my 21st birthday (worst gift ever) I was insulted to read that all men had a good father. Surely if my mother can father, two mothers can father, and maybe one or two fathers can mother, so long as everyone is focused on the child? That’s not selling fathers short.

Most dads I know would slay a dragon for their kids, but we have to accept that medieval fighters aren’t always in demand. In the interim, we can be put to better use. Maybe we depict the dragon as those “frenemies” who talk trash at school and online, or the maths formulas that just aren’t sinking in. Maybe we can see our children as the real modern-day fighters, the ones who need us to support them or tend to their wounds.

Of course, any fathers who are followed by the black dog have other considerations. I’m mindful that sometimes I’m at home but not really there, my thoughts still at work or far, far away. I’m mindful that how I deal with things is a real-life lesson for those who may yet go through such struggles themselves, and my availability to them speaks volumes.

Astonishingly, through nature and nurture, the miracle of love, I find the kids giving me what I need, even if I haven’t been able to do the same. These moments — far removed from the next article or the mortgage or the broken washing machine — remind us who we are. My son’s face by torchlight, exhausted but exhilarated after a day’s hiking. My daughter laughing uncontrollably as I try to outrun her in a game of one-on-one backyard touch footy.

Increasingly, my feelings about being a father are based on how my children feel about me being their father. As parents, we want our children to have but we also want them to feel. We want them to be confident, compassionate and curious, to see the value in hard work without being distracted by all the pretty things and quick fixes. We want them to thrive as themselves.

Maya Angelou — the American writer, entertainer, activist and mother — put it best when she said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

My kids make me feel like a rock star, a creative genius, a superhero, a king. All I want for them, growing up, is to know what it’s like to feel the same way, and, just as important, what it’s like to make someone else feel that special.