Monday 27 January 2020

Why the emancipation of women is the best thing that ever happened to Irish fathers

With Father's Day this Sunday, Carol Hunt takes a look at how parenting became a 50/50 deal

Paul Redmond with his children Amber (8) and Cody (6) and writer Carol Hunt
Paul Redmond with his children Amber (8) and Cody (6) and writer Carol Hunt
Angela Redmond
David and Harper Beckham

'Will you talk to your daughter?" was a familiar phrase in my home when I was a teenager.

It initially began as a loud appeal from my mother - like most other mothers of her time, she had responsibility for the upbringing of the children - to my father as she attempted to put a few manners on her truculent adolescent daughter.

Like many fathers of his era, my father worked every hour he could. When he wasn't working, he was training, coaching or playing football.

He wasn't up to speed with the Machiavellian machinations of a stubborn teenager. Or perhaps he secretly approved of them?

"Hello daughter," he would smile at me, as if the power struggle he just witnessed between his wife and daughter hadn't actually occurred. "What would you like to talk about?"

I would laugh, flutter my eyelashes at him and join in the game - father and daughter colluding together against the rest of the world, who just didn't understand them.

God love my poor mother. How does one compete with the magical bond a doting dad has with his adoring daughter? She didn't even try.

She would shrug her shoulders, shake her head and mutter, "You're as bad as she is." But we both knew that she approved hugely of our obvious love for each other.

Angela Redmond

Angela Redmond

Years later, when I had become engaged to be married, as they say, my father gave my husband-to-be some words of fatherly advice.

"Don't make the mistake I made when I got married first," he said. "I thought my role was to provide a good stable house, to put food on the table and make sure all the bills were paid.

"I thought my responsibilities ended there. But fathers of my era had it wrong. We should have spent far more time just being with our families, spending time with our kids. It took me years to learn that. And you don't get that time back. Don't waste it."

When my dad was a young father, we didn't know any man who was a stay-at-home-father. Not one. If a father was unlucky enough to be unemployed, he wouldn't use the free hours in his week helping out with the housework and childcare. That just wasn't done. You wouldn't see him down in the park pushing his kids on the swings.

David and Harper Beckham

David and Harper Beckham

And in the very odd case where some brave bloke might break ranks and help out with the kids and the cooking, he was thought to be somehow less of real man, somewhat lacking in those essential macho-provider hormones, the ones which made the father, legally, the head and master of his household.

Both fathers and mothers knew what their roles were in society - the same ones that their own fathers and mothers had inhabited, that of provider and carer. There was rarely an overlap.

And then those damn feminists starting getting ideas about women working outside the home, earning their own money, paying their own bills.

Suddenly, all the traditional notions of fatherhood were up for grabs. Fathers no longer had a specific role as the provider of the family. Increasingly, women were going out to work - some part-time, and some - unbelievably - full-time. Family life was turning on its head.

And oddly, the role of the father within the family was going to become crucial to the ability of many women to cope with work and family.

This may sound strange, but for Irish fathers, the best thing that ever happened to them was the emancipation of women from the home.

Why? Because it left a gap - a gap which society had always assumed could only be filled by a woman - but now, needs must and all that, could be filled by a man.

Yes, the statistics show that women still do the lion's share of housework; cooking, cleaning and all the boring stuff that has to be done in order for life to be liveable. That's another day's work. Another day's argument. Another battle still to be fought and won. But, where the care and nurture of children was concerned, suddenly fathers began to sit up and take notice.

They began - to use a current phrase - to 'lean in', and many of them found that they quite liked spending more time with their kids, they liked getting to know their children and take more interest in the day-to-day minutiae of their lives.

They found, much to the surprise of many, that they could do this 'mothering thing', if not better than then certainly as well as many women. Amazingly, the kids didn't leave the house naked or go to bed starving if they were left in the care of their fathers occasionally.

Today, fathers routinely dress their kids, cook for them, play with them, talk to them and generally enjoy their company. Compared to half a century ago, it's not an understatement to say that there has been a revolutionary shift in how men now involve themselves in the life of their children. And a very welcome one.

Some years ago, when my daughter was quite young, my husband had her out for a walk and a chat and a bit of good 'daddy-daughter time'.

He was surprised to be stopped by an elderly woman who said: "It's just so lovely to see how you men today interact with your children. You're better men than your fathers were. You know what's important".

This is exactly what my father told him so many years earlier; being a hands-on father to your children is probably the most important job a man can have.

And yet, old traditions die hard. Even though so many men today care for their children - and we've seen a big upsurge in the number of stay-at-home fathers - fathers are still not even mentioned in our Constitution.

It's the mother that the State still considers to be the nurturer and carer of the child. Our refusal to introduce paid paternity leave shows how the State still refuses to acknowledge the essential role a father has in the life of their child.

To a girl, a father is her first love. To a boy, a father is his first hero.

Research indicates that fathers are as important as mothers in their respective roles as caregivers, protectors, financial supporters, and most importantly, models for social and emotional behaviour.

My own father died some 15 years ago. I still sometimes think I can hear his voice telling me everything is alright, assuring me that there's nothing we can't deal with, no problem we can't sort out together.

Interestingly, research shows that daughters who have good relationships with their fathers do better at maths. My daughter's favourite subject is maths. Well done dad. And happy Father's Day.

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