Fathers caught in identity crisis

Published in the Courier Mail on 8 Sep 2003

THE murder of a young child is always tragic but when it is at the hand of their own father, as we saw last week, it is doubly so.

As we reflect upon these recent events, as many celebrated Father’s Day this past weekend, we have to wonder what has happened to fathers in our nation.

More than 400,000 families in Australia with children aged under 15 have no father present. While we applaud the excellent job done by solo mothers, who provide for their children financially and emotionally, we also must recognise the huge social cost of fatherlessness to our nation. Fatherless households are more likely to live below the poverty line. Children with absent fathers suffer in areas of education performance and are more likely to be involved in crime.

Fatherhood is in the midst of an identity crisis. Changing social expectations, longer working weeks and the rise of reproductive technologies all contribute to a sense of confusion about the role of fathers. How do they balance their work and family time? Are they even necessary? Can a family benefit equally from two female parents? Is the rising prominence of the issue of fatherhood simply a backlash against the feminist movement?

These questions are nothing new. In 1888, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, asked: “What is a father, a real father? What is the meaning of that great word? What is the immensely great idea behind that name?”

Our society suffers from a father-hunger. Men have been marginalised, their contribution to family life is denigrated and they have been given few positive role models to follow. Very often their own dads were distant fathers, as were their fathers before them.

Our society is more likely to be suspicious of fathers than supportive. A large number of professionals in family-related services hold unduly negative views of men as fathers. The proliferation of negative role models in the media, and the scarcity of positive discussion about fatherhood provides little encouragement to men who strive to be great fathers.

Being a father means much more than just siring a child. Being a father, or “social fatherhood”, involves all the day-to-day activities and responsibilities that child rearing demands. It includes shaping a child’s values, affirming their sense of self-worth, teaching them to love, guiding them through life’s many trials and giving them the life skills they need to one day be parents themselves.

Combine those responsibilities with the increasing average work week, and it is little wonder that a 1997 national survey found that more than two-thirds of men were estimated to have had no children by the age of 30. Put quite simply, fatherhood is a challenge — and it’s not for the faint of heart.

We don’t make it any easier when we even start questioning the need for a father in a family. Increasing numbers of women are turning to artificial insemination by donor so that they can rear a child without a father interfering. They don’t have to worry about meeting a man, they don’t have to take time to build and sustain a relationship, and they remove the possibility of messy custody battles if the relationship breaks down. While this may seem ideal for women who can afford to give up work, or pay for childcare, it fails to take into account the important question of whether it is any good for the child.

The past few years have seen an increase in research and writings that affirm the vital role that fathers play in the development of their children. While the social complexity of this issue makes it difficult to recognise all causal relationships, few people would deny that fathers have a significant impact, positively or negatively, on their children.

With that in mind, perhaps we should consider starting to honour the position of father once again. Instead of disregarding headship as oppressive, we could start to recognise its inherent value. Men can start to lead their families once again, with kindness, with compassion and with integrity.

Of course, there are a multiplicity of social factors we need to address — from work-life balance, to family courts procedures, to education and relationship training. But you have to start somewhere. And maybe that starting point could be honour.

Dostoyevsky was right. Father is a great word, and it is an immensely great idea. Which is little wonder considering it came from the greatest Father of all.

So to all the fathers reading this, we want to honour you — for all the good you do, for doing the best you can and for trying to find your way through this confusing world that has been constructed for you.