Traditionally, fathers were breadwinners and disciplinarians. Fathers taught their sons how to play football and encouraged their children to “buy a block of land”.
I’ve been researching fatherhood for 25 years and, in the past, the traditional role of the father was manifest. But this is changing substantially.
Today’s fathers are far more eager to take on the job of fatherhood and are determined to be less distant and more hands-on than their own fathers.
The most emotional part of my book Fathers, Sons and Lovers was when I got men talking about what they wished their dad had done. One said sadly that it would have been great to get a hug from his dad. The result? Today’s dads are determined to take up the role and do it better.
Research shows this desire even among adolescent males whose girlfriends became pregnant unexpectedly. Dads are diverse and becoming more so. My discussions with fathers found many did not feel confident with newborns.
New fathers feel less confident and need more support from families and friends. However, the research also found that mothers were more successful breastfeeding when the father attended breastfeeding seminars, showing that the support of the father has empirical benefits in raising children.
Getting involved early is vital for men to do the many tasks of fathering in a way that satisfies them and their partners. Fathering transforms men. Australian men in my research believed there was a very defined traditional notion of being a man.
Men felt they must be strong, never admit weakness, not be emotional except in sport or in the privacy of the bedroom, be endlessly interested in sex, and be wary of anything soft. Only small variations of the “how to be a man” script came out in US research.
But fatherhood takes men into a domain of nurturing, which is often previously foreign to them. Men in a 2012 study said their children had made them better men and given them useful insights into themselves.
Fathering has many proven benefits to children, with fathers orienting their children to the outside world with talk of work, money, sport and adventure. The challenges of fatherhood are being met in part by more positive messages to dads.
Fathers are increasingly attending school-based workshops on being a father. Governments and employers must reinforce the idea that fathers have a key role in raising a child. Researchers strongly recommend that pre-natal classes include informal discussions with expectant fathers.
In addition, they should encourage men who are about to become new dads to seek advice from fathers and grandfathers. Fathers have come a long way since the days when they were distant authority figures.
Young dads are showing their determination to outdo their own fathers, by seizing on the role with energy and enthusiasm. West is a casual academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.