Lisa Fraser defines what makes a good dad in the 2020s.
In 1949 a manufacturer called Flaminaire released an advert telling children that all their fathers wanted in life was a cigarette lighter. This marketing campaign marked the beginning of Father’s Day in France. Three years later, the government published a decree making Father’s Day a national holiday, which continues to be celebrated on the third Sunday of June each year.
The UK introduced the celebration later, after President Richard Nixon signed the day into law in the United States in 1972.
The late introduction of Father’s Day contrasts with Mother’s Day, whose origins had been found in religious calendars for centuries, through Mothering Sunday and its link to the Catholic feast of the Annunciation.
With recent cultural changes and scientific breakthroughs, one might wonder whether we will still celebrate Father’s Day in coming decades. After all, women can now conceive and bear a child whenever they want through in vitro fertilization. Strictly speaking, women no longer need a male partner to procreate. A world without fathers is theoretically possible!
But closer to home, it can be tempting to dismiss the role that our own fathers have played in our lives.
How many psychotherapists deal with women feeling they have not been loved well, or not loved enough, by their fathers, and so struggle to create meaningful relationships at adult age?
Women having to heal painful father/daughter relationships is not a new trend. We see it throughout history and literature and even in the world of entertainment – from Lisa Simpson feeling constantly let down by her father Homer, to Lord Capulet trying to force his daughter Juliet to marry Parris. Even Greek Gods had issues with father/child issues: Zeus had to be hidden from his father Kronos, who was systematically swallowing his newborns!
These issues manifest themselves differently across different cultures. Coming from a Latin country, discovering manhood in England was for me like a sociology class: I had so much to learn about men’s behaviour in England! Talking to female friends with experience of dating in England made me realise how common attitudes like ghosting were. I heard countless stories of female friends complaining about male passivity and lack of self-confidence
I noticed too how the weak man syndrome has crept into popular culture, with passive men made the butt of collective jokes. I find it frankly heart-breaking to see men being so openly discarded in TV programmes and magazines. This type of targeted attack seems to be culturally acceptable in the UK, in a way it would not in other cultures.
Call me humourless if you want, but Father’s Day cards also sadden me. Most of them make fun of men’s overreliance on their spouse, their lack of emotional courage, and their presumed disinterest for anything other than DIY.
While I like a good dad joke as much as anyone, I wonder how men can flourish in a popular environment constantly telling them they are useless.
But the media are also pushing the opposite agenda, accusing men of being excessively affirmative: alpha males are denounced as toxic; they are criticised for taking too much space in company boards, and even in films and plays.
This environment is confusing: should men step up, or step down? Should they be stronger or softer. or should they rather be ‘softly strong’, if that even means something? No wonder the highest suicide rates in the UK are found in men aged 40-49.
As a woman, how can I not agree that we should work towards a more equal society, and that society should be more women-friendly. However, this should not happen to the detriment of men. This striving for equal dignity should be a collective endeavour, a team work, rather than a national scapegoating of half of the population.
The truth is: I need men in my life. I don’t like admitting it, but the fact is I am physically less strong than my male friends. Hormones make me unwell sometimes during the month, and if I can have greater support these days, I welcome it with gratitude. When I’m grocery shopping with a male friend, I am grateful if he offers to carry the bags for me, because it’s clearly less challenging for him than it is for me!
These are personal observations; I’m conscious they are countercultural. But over time, I’ve learnt not to be ashamed of asking for support from people who care about me, if they can offer it without too much effort, and if they do it out of kindness.
This attitude is only about allowing individuals to use their full biological potential, to support other individuals who have different skills and limitations. This is the essence of solidarity in society. This can be a form of successful manhood.
This solidarity is also relevant across time, throughout life. Men’s and women’s biological clocks are different: men in their 60s like George Clooney routinely attract younger women; whereas women in their 60s are just seen as, well, older women.
Without a reflection on manhood and solidarity, we could easily end up in a situation where older men run away with younger women when they feel like it, while older women grow older and lonelier all on their own.
Therefore, another form of successful manhood is when men make the commitment to be a loyal partner across time.
These biological needs give men reasons to step up. From a woman’s perspective, there is also a will to see men step up.
Kudos to mothers who clean the house, do the school runs, the grocery, the cooking, all the while keeping down a day job. Women are strong; they’re perfectly capable of doing it. But the sad truth behind these situations is that at some point, in the chain of events, a man let her down. She stepped up because her partner did not.
Would women want to share the responsibility of being a modern woman, expected to work, be sociable, and perhaps have children? Yes. Would we want to share that mental load? Yes.
While society is sending confusing messages these are clear opportunities for men to step up: simply by recognising that two is better than one; that they can share the load of a woman; and by being the faithful team member in a team of two.
Again, this message is countercultural. Modern, Western, secularised values tell us to follow our desires, and to focus on the self above all things. Rampant individualism makes it more acceptable for men especially to limit themselves to casual dating, and to frequent the singles scene until late in life.
Choosing to remain single is – of course – a valid choice which helps some men and women flourish. However, I can’t help thinking that it doesn’t usually encourage the flourishing of men as…men; as individuals who are created to be in a relationship.
By refusing to commit to someone else, they also lose the opportunity of developing their personalities as husbands or fathers. This has not only a personal impact but also an impact on society.
At this point, I should acknowledge that not everyone will be a husband, or a father. Sometimes, life circumstances, health, or mental health, make us embrace different paths in life. It doesn’t mean that these lives are less successful, or less fulfilling.
Fatherhood is not just a biological state. It is the act of creating growth, of begetting something greater than oneself, through the support of another person. It can happen through a family, natural birth, but also through adoption, as a step-dad, through foster care or even through committed friendship. Hugh Jackman, the all powerful Wolverine, the iconic Marvel Super-Hero, became a dad through adoption.
The act of fathering is also broader than feeding a child breakfast and tucking them into bed at night. Fathering also happens when a man steps back from self and puts a greater good before his immediate needs, for the sake of love. Fathering is about dedicating time and effort to create something sustainable, which will last well after our death. Fathering is about using the unique gifts of being male to foster growth.
We’ve all seen a football coach who trains school kids in the local park on Saturday mornings, come rain, hail or shine. This man is often not the young players’ dad, but he is certainly a solid father figure to each one of them, particularly if those youths come from a broken family background, whose selflessness and commitment are creating positive lifetime memories for them.
The sacrifice of love can easily be overlooked, or dismissed.
-“Dad is being grumpy.”
-“Dad doesn’t show his feelings.”
– “Perhaps he doesn’t have a heart.”
– “Why does dad always look at his phone when we’re together. Am I not enough?”
The challenge of fatherhood is that children look at their fathers without having any experience of how tough, demanding, and draining, paternal love can be. Children seem to be born with the expectation that we should receive perfect, undivided, all-encompassing love. If this does not manifest itself clearly and constantly, it’s easy to assume that manhood, or fatherhood, is flawed.
Growing older helps revisit the type of love we received from our parents. It’s good to look back and reassess this relationship after we’ve built some experience of relationships and commitments of our own.
Grumpiness, awkwardness … What if they were not signs of loveless relationships but the symptoms of a life of self-sacrifice, a life of love precisely? How do we know if our father, or our husband, has done well? What are the meaningful proofs of love?
How a man treats women should be the basic, number one, sign of successful manhood.
The American actress Angelina Jolie talked about the deep wound of having a father lacking respect for her mother. She articulated well how it made her enter abusive relationships, with men who disrespected her at times. The ability of a man, husband or father, to treat women with dignity and respect, is a sign that shouldn’t ever be overlooked.
Continuous presence is an equally important feature of successful manhood, which also involves committing oneself to marriage and family. Modern society doesn’t incentivise men to live this out. We (men and women) are told we can wait; postpone life decisions; we can focus on pleasures and have fun for as long as we want – we’re young forever, aren’t we?
Yet consider Marylin Monroe’s existential pain, as she never knew the identity of her father … It can surely be seen as a consequence (at least partly) of not having a man stepping up in the formative early years of her life. I’m coming to see how much merit there is in simply being there for others, even when the quality of one’s presence could be improved.
Now, when I see a father who has stayed faithful to his family through storms and hardships, without giving up, I realise how valuable, and extraordinary, that is.
At some point, this man decided to merge his destiny with this particular woman, and he remained true to his initial word. Whether there were hardships, bumps on the roads, he stayed at her side: this presence is a gift that shouldn’t be overlooked.
I often hear from female friends that their father was distant, or didn’t pay due attention to their achievements. While this saddens me, I’ve learnt with time that tiredness, and the need to withdraw, can sometimes be an unintended consequence of immense love.
Having to leave the house, go to work, and come back home exhausted at night, is not fun for fathers or mothers. But there is a greater purpose: through a lifetime of efforts, children have a roof above their head and food on their plates. It doesn’t mean the father has to do it all, obviously. But the challenges of parenting cannot be underestimated.
Feeling overwhelmed, and needing to disconnect from the rest of the family, can simply be the result of having no break from parenting. It’s not a lack of love. It’s just a moment of peace , in a life made up of self-sacrifice.
In the excellent novel The Century’s Daughter, Pat Barker describes the life of Liza, raising her family in a mining area in the early 20th century. They lived in utter poverty; most men in the area were alcoholics, and absent ones at that. It gives a frankly grim image of fatherhood and manhood. Yet stepping back from the story, it’s worth considering what is unsaid: men absent from the novel were probably spending their days labouring underground, in the mine, to allow their children to be fed and clothed. What looked like abandonment was actually the ultimate gift of self for their loved ones.
Sadly, people’s moral compasses are not obvious, and we cannot always see what drives their action.
One day, as I was sitting in the park, I saw a father watching cricket on his phone while his child was playing around, desperately trying to catch his attention. I felt so sad for the kid, and I prayed he received the attention he deserved.
Now I’m older, I look back at the episode and I think: kudos to the father for spending the afternoon with his child. Well done, man, for doing the right thing, turning down the invite from your friends to go and watch cricket; well done for not spending the day at a stadium with them.
You could have done better – we can always do better! – but well done for choosing your child over your hobbies.
Great men and great fathers do not get rid of their inner child, and his passions and dreams. What makes them great is that their moral compass is pointing in the right direction.
They can be tempted to try alternative paths, of course: have fun, give up responsibilities, perhaps? But a successful man and father knows that his role requires him to think about something beyond himself, because other people’s lives rely on him. This self-sacrifice for the good of others is both the challenge and the immense beauty of the role.
The last feature of the successful dad I want to mention is consistency. Modern society sells us dreams of passion, fireworks, and fun beginnings. We don’t hear so often about how successful love is based on routine, stability, and renewed commitment to do the right thing, day after day.
Washing the dishes to help out at home after dinner; driving the kids to school day after day … It’s not exciting, but renewed, small acts of charity are the only way to build emotional security, and to root love.
Loving every day, without withdrawing this support unexpectedly, is a powerful way to step up as a man, husband, or father. I wish those silly Father’s Day cards making men feel useless could disappear from the shelves.
Men who commit to love one person when they could simply live a life of pleasures as single men are amazing. Men who are committed to the growth of a child, of someone vulnerable, or of a local community, are unsung heroes. Our grumpy dads who didn’t often say ‘I love you’ but who came back home at night, tired from a tough day’s work are everyday saints.
Let us try to see love where we are tempted to see failure. And if we notice these small self-sacrifices, let us tell the men in our lives how great they are. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it more than a supermarket card poking fun at their DIY failures.
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