Opinion Madonna King: We need to help find the sweet spot for more involved dads

Madonna King: We need to help find the sweet spot for more involved dads

Madonna King fathers and daughters
The focus has been on fathers taking on an equal share of parenting. But what barriers prohibit that, asks Madonna King. Photo: TND
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At a pub a few Saturdays ago, a couple of hundred dads sat around talking about how they could be better fathers to their daughters.

Over steak and beers, they mused about how to grow independence in their daughters, how to communicate openly to them, and what they might not know, but needed to learn.

Five years ago, this type of gathering would be rare.

Perhaps even three years ago.

But increasingly, many fathers are trying to find the sweet spot between being the provider and the parent, in a move that deserves both institutional encouragement and legislative change.

Too much, men are seen as workers first, and fathers second, whereas women are seen as mothers first, and workers second.

The proof of that is often seen on award ceremonies and ensemble days, where fathers are few and mothers fill school halls.

But it’s changing. In part, that’s a silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud.

Working from home, once-absent fathers have been eating breakfast with their children, around to help with homework, and sitting down for a family dinner.

It’s a generalisation, of course, because some fathers have always done that. But many, many have not – and lockdown flipped, or at least moved to even up, the parenting stakes.

That doesn’t mean dads did more chores; early evidence suggest they didn’t. But they were more involved with their children, and more engaged in their homes.

And it’s something, as a community, we need to value before we all head back to the grind of working outside the home.

What’s the value of a home office to family life?

How crucial to the future of our children could be an encouragement for one parent to continue to work from home? How could we ensure bequests are not only directed at single-gender male schools?

The pub lunch was organised by FOGS, a Brisbane-based group of Fathers Of (only) Girls, and the queries posed by dads showed how parenting is a great leveller.

Property developers and medical specialists, carpenters and internet marketers all had the same questions.

What’s wrong with parenting by gender? Shouldn’t daughters be treated differently to sons?

How can fathers help build resilience in their children, and get them to value hard work?

How do we destroy the instant gratification that has swamped teen life, thanks to a world where everything is only a key-touch away?

The average age of their daughters, on this occasion, was 13.

But fathers of younger daughters are increasingly becoming involved; wanting to ensure their daughters are able to match (and beat) their male peers as they approach high school and the work world.

Until now the focus has been on the need for fathers – not all, but certainly some – to stand up, and take on an equal share of the parenting. And that should be the case.

But what about those barriers that prohibit that?

It’s not just in workplaces, although that should remain a target.

Emphasis should be directed into making it easier for women to take those senior roles that have been too long the domain of men.

But an equal emphasis needs to go into ensuring the role of fathers in parenting is given the same focus that has been traditionally provided for women.

At home too, fathers describe a glass ceiling where sometimes it is hard to take a step forward, without the rest of us – as mothers – taking a step back.

Or, as one female school principal explains, mothers might need to accept that there’s more than one way to change a nappy or pack a dishwasher.

Perhaps where most gains can be made here is in the education system.

Male teachers, particularly in primary schools and girls schools, are scarce and our children could benefit from more men standing in front of a class. What incentives might be added there?

If we create affirmative action to encourage women into particular areas, why not match it to draw more men into teaching?

And what about outside the classroom?

Fathers routinely explain how their entry into school grounds is met often with immediate suspicion. They’re directed to the office, or approached within seconds by someone wanting to assist them.

That’s not the case with their female partners, who run the mothers’ groups and the tuckshops, the reading groups and most other volunteer roles.

Fathers view their position there with a degree of tokenism, perhaps matching what their female partners experience in management meeting.

Family makeup is constantly evolving, and that’s a good thing.

But it shouldn’t be an excuse not to encourage better parenting in all families. Some men will never make good parents. Some women won’t either.

It’s time we addressed both. For the sake of men. For the sake of women. But especially for the sake of our children.

And today, being International Men’s Day, when 80 nations across the globe acknowledge the value men play in families and local communities, perhaps is the perfect time to start.