Dads on the Run

NEW ROLE FOR DAD

Rob flips a few files into his briefcase while trying to wrap up a business call.  He checks his watch for the third time and the instant he puts the phone down, he grabs his jacket. “Cheers, guys.  I’m out of here.”  A few heads look up to bid him farewell and good luck.  An overseas business trip?  A job interview?  No, Rob is leaving work to attend his daughter’s fifth birthday party.

In days of old, there were prescribed roles for men and women, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the home.  Mothers were the nurturers and caregivers; fathers the providers, the firm masculine presence.   Everyone knew where they stood, but at what cost?

“My father watched me play cricket once in my life  – once,” Rob says.  “I want to be part of my daughter’s life.  I want to know who her friends are, what she does at school.”

An attractive, 30-something stockbroker, Rob has had to work extra hard to maintain a bond with his daughter since his divorce three years ago.

“I call her every evening. I never miss out on my time with her.  I take my leave to correspond with the custody schedule.”    Rob’s divorce was not an amicable one, and his daughter’s well being and happiness are central to him.

IT’S ALL ABOUT BALANCE

Michael Scott, an executive life coach, says that one of the big changes in society today is the closer sharing of values between men and women.  “Men are fed up with leading a one-dimensional life and are seeking balance.  It’s the problem I hear about most in my practice.”  Before changing his focus to the behavioural sciences, Scott spent 15 in the conventional corporate environment and thus knows both sides of the fence.  “Men today not only wish to have successful careers, they also want to be good parents, husbands, friends, to be part of their communities.   Each additional aspect requires an energy level and time, but they’re often not sure how to go about it.  That’s where I fit in.”

And while it would seem that to create a successful career, time wouldn’t allow for the development of other facets, Michael Scott says that is not true.

“It is correct that life is often a trade-off.  But we’ve found that the more well- rounded a person is, the more successful he or she will be in a leadership role.

A workaholic brings one perspective only, whereas a multi-dimensional person brings many perspectives from his other roles in life, and having a more intimate relationship with a child can be a great source of inspiration and energy.”

“Men in general are becoming more attuned to their psychological and emotional lives,” agrees psychologist Leonard Carr.  Well regarded as a corporate consultant and for his forensic work in custody and access cases, Carr says that 15 years ago very few of his clients were men, but now most of his practice is male.  “Popular culture has encouraged this shift, what with the proliferation of self-help books and people like Dr. Phil.  And not only is it more enriching for men – it also enriches the lives of the children and spouses who interact with them.”

Darren, who is in his late 30’s, is a warm and open man, MD of a chain of travel-related retail shops.  He says that he was once hugely ambitious but things have changed.

“As soon as I became a parent, my life balanced out.  But that’s also happened to all our friends.  Today it’s just more acceptable for men to be more nurturing and balanced in their approach to life.”

Being Jewish, Darren grew up with very close family bonds and commitments, and while he had a good relationship with both parents, he admits that his connection with his father was a distant one.

“It was that generation.  Fathers didn’t get involved.  We are just so much more aware these days.  We read books about parenting; we take courses on it.  35 years ago, children were entirely the woman’s domain.”

MY FATHER, MYSELF

Traditionally, a man’s relationship with his father has been task driven, functional and cold.  In previous generations fathers were not usually involved in their children’s day-to-day activities.  When asked why this generation, particularly, had veered from the norm, Leonard Carr points out that it began with the baby boom generation – the ones who were going to ensure that their lives would be the new improved version.  However he also speaks of access to information.

“It used to be that people emulated what they’d grown up with as they didn’t have any other influence.  But the TV generation has seen fathers such as Bill Cosby, whose entire programme is based on his relationship with his children.  We’d never seen fathers like that before in South Africa.”

Fred, a tall handsome attorney, agrees that South African men have been going through a huge learning curve over the last fifteen years.  “Being shut out of the world made us insular, but now that we’re back in the fold we see what’s happening overseas, and are able to learn from international trends.  It’s all very exciting.”

Leonard Carr concurs that the last 15 years have been pivotal for South African men.

“Attitudes began to change when men were allowed into the delivery room and they realised they had a role in their child’s life from the beginning,” he says.

“Men were once explicitly excluded, and had no option but to invest more into work.  Women interpreted their actions as disinterested and uninvolved, and would invest more in the children.  Those attitudes set mutual patterns in marriage, but today there’s far more partnership around the parenting process.”

Rob, Fred and Darren were all able to attend antenatal classes with their wives and were present at their children’s births – and couldn’t fathom doing otherwise.  They speak of their connection with their own children as completely different from anything they experienced growing up.

“I consciously deviated from my own relationship with my father when I became one myself,” Fred states.  Dad to children 2 and 5 years old, Fred says he is delighted that they are both daughters.  “I was nervous about having a boy.  I didn’t have a positive role model for the father/son scenario and was worried about making the same mistakes.”

“I did have hobbies with my father,” Rick allows, “but they were his hobbies, not mine.  I had to fit in with him if I wanted to spend time with him.”

“I guess it’s the era, but my father never spent time in the kitchen or changed nappies.  I’m happy to do both.”  Darren sits up in his chair.  “Nobody looks down at me or thinks I’m soft.  I want to be more nurturing than my father was.”  Rob agrees.  “A real man doesn’t worry about these things.”

NOT A METROSEXUAL, BUT…

One has to admit that the gender lines have blurred over the past generation.  Today’s man cooks and cries and cares for children.  In fact, his child is not the “seen and not heard” variety but actually a really interesting little person and great fun to be with.  But it’s not always plain sailing.

“If a man is nurturing and protective,” says Carr, “he’s labelled weak; if he’s strong and macho, he’s called a jock and a brute.  It takes an evolved kind of person and relationship to play with and negotiate these roles.”

Rob, Darren and Fred all acknowledge that there’s a freedom in less strictly defined roles, but admit that it can be a bit stressful, and in this changing environment one has to find one’s feet.  It may be confusing to many men, with an accompanying sense of frustration, being threatened, feeling less powerful and respected.   However they all accept that within a marriage one needs to define the lines and walk between them, and that there is a continuing need for revisiting and renegotiating the roles.

And while some men are happy with a complete role reversal, Rob, Darren and Fred prefer to carry on working rather than becoming the primary care giver.   That’s not to say that they don’t think they should give 50%.  They do confess, however, that their partners are doing the lion’s share, as well as running careers and studies.

“If I spend less time at home, my wife must spend more,” David notes.  “My main concern is that she’s happy and confident within herself.  If being at home caused her unhappiness, we’d have to assess the situation again.”

To be an involved Dad and still bring home the bacon, a few things have had to change.  Men are learning the art of task sharing, time management and multi-tasking, and are becoming more co-operative and less competitive in the workplace, covering for each other for those important functions such as birthday rings, cricket matches and dance recitals.

THE (NEW) MEANING OF SUCCESS

Success comes in various forms, and it’s something that men may want to assess.  Michael Scott says that it’s all very well to be a winner in the rat race, but the winners are still rats, and what have they got to show for it?  “It’s all about choices, the costs of lifestyle.  When men come to me with this dilemma, one of the things we do is to assess what success means to them; what choices are available; what does it take to feel satisfied?”

That’s something Rob has examined closely.  He no longer cares to hang around after work and network over drinks, even though he knows it may further his career.  But by and large, he feels that the workplace has become more normalised; bosses also have families and are in the same situation themselves.

“At one point I was driven by greed, but now I go for quality of life.  It’s nice to have both spiritualism and materialism, but if I had to choose, I’d take spiritualism.”

Fred is not entirely in agreement.  A self-employed man to whom time is money, he spends about 11 hours a day at work, though he admits that his days sometimes run a lot longer.  He feels a tremendous amount of guilt because he would rather be at home with his wife and daughters, but feels a strong sense of responsibility.  “I need to keep them clothed and fed and be able to take them on holiday.  Education is expensive; we live in a nice house.  Yes, I could cut down on some hours to spend more time at home, but our lifestyle would reflect it.  And while my wife says she’d prefer that, she also likes the money I earn.”

However Fred carries on to speak of the heartache of knowing he is peripheral in his daughters’ lives.  “I try to get home before bath time and to read stories at night.  I spend time with them on weekends but because I’m not part of the fabric of their lives, they see me as expendable.”  His attempts at spending quality, rather than quantity time with his children are not entirely successful.  There are times that he simply does not know what to say to them.

“The real stuff of intimate relationships is the mundane, ordinary aspects,” says Leonard Carr.  “Kids live in a very immediate reality, and if you’re not there at the moment, the moment is lost.  But father figures should not feel excluded from the mother/child bond – they must rather develop their own relationships with their children than try to compete.”

AND HOW DO YOU DO THAT?

“Have private jokes with each child.  Create memories and substance in very simple, everyday things.”  Leonard Carr gives an example of how he manages to have individual relationships with each of his four sons.

“I often take one of the boys to a bookshop.  We’ll maybe have a bite to eat or something to drink and then browse around the shop.  I can see immediately what sections he’s drawn to.  From there a conversation is easy to initiate and my son involves me in his interest.”  And, he says, the more you know about your children, the more interesting they become.

Michael Scott advises men to be aware of the culture of the Protestant work ethic that permeates our society.  “It leads to a lack of balance, intimacy, inspiration.  We’ve all grown up with it, but we must be wary of it.”

Rob says he now selectively picks the work functions he attends, and has looked at ways of downscaling his lifestyle to live better within his means.  “I’m looking at changing industries and wish I had done so five years ago.  It’s only now that I’m aware of what real quality of life means, and it all comes down to priorities.”  He has come to value the time he spends with his new partner, his daughter, his friends and his extended family  “Life is like a wheel – all the spokes have to be the same length or the wheel falls apart.”

SIDEBAR #1

You may not be able to spend lots of time with your children, but you can do a few things to enrich the moments you do have together

–          learn the fine art of time management – skip after work drinks unless they’re absolutely necessary and you can be home in time to tuck your kids in.  If you can manage to get home for their bedtime regularly, you’ll become an important part of their daily ritual.  In fact, make tucking in your child your after work drink!

–          do your best to be there for your children on their important occasions.  You may not be able to make every school play, but if you manage to catch the end of a cricket match, or ballet recital, they’ll be delighted that you’ve been there.

–          Remember what’s going on in their lives.  If they’re having their first sleep-over, or going somewhere special for school, make a note to ask them about it.  It will bond you together.

–          Be present when you’re with them.  If you’ve left the office physically, but not mentally, you may as well have not made the effort.  Turn the cell off for half an hour and give them your full attention, even if you’ve heard the story before.

SIDEBAR #2

Children’s lives are enriched by having a strong father figure in their lives.  It doesn’t have to be a biological father, or even a male, but father figures are important because:

–          They often encourage their kids in physical, vigorous and sporting activities.

–          As they are usually not the primary caregivers, their interaction with their kids is more about the fun things, such as developing interests and hobbies.

–          Children get a glimpse of the outside world through their father’s eyes.

–          The biggest problem for single mothers is discipline.  A father has a bigger voice and presence.

–          By talking to children about their world, a father introduces them to various, different facets of life.

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