​​If we want men to be better parents... sorry, but we need to be nicer to dads

Society still struggles with the concept of fathers being anything more than babysitters. Oliver Keens wonders if this might be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy

Tuesday 25 April 2023 06:30 BST
<p>‘I parent like I’m George W Bush: from the gut, not based on any significant store of information, knowledge or intellectual base’ </p>

‘I parent like I’m George W Bush: from the gut, not based on any significant store of information, knowledge or intellectual base’

I actually haven’t seen Eddie Murphy’s 2003 comedy Daddy Day Care. Ironic, given that around half the people I’ve met since becoming a dad think it’s my life story. The film, which revolves around two inept men running a daycare centre, comes up frequently – for example, if I’m telling someone my plans for me and my sweet DNA clones the next day. “Ooh, hello Daddy Day Care” is the common (if quite camp) reply. Now, there are plenty worse things one can hear, it’s true. But all the same, my perennially tetchy take-home is that too many people still can’t conceive of fathers being anything more than babysitters. Which is a problem for everyone, because if society keeps automatically deferring to mothers, men will never occupy a truly responsible place in a child’s life. Not that I’m blaming anyone for underestimating men, you understand.

A few years ago, I heard veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman speak at an event. She mentioned – in passing – “the modern man”, a cultural phenomenon of my Eighties childhood that foresaw a new wave of men putting down pints of stout and filterless cigarettes, and picking up babies. Harman wearily surmised that “we were all waiting for modern man to show up… and in the end, he never really did, did he?” I think about this a lot whenever I watch slightly pompous dads holding court and opining on the hot-button, right-on parenting issues of the day: the importance of skin-to-skin bonding after birth, the evil of plastic toys, isn’t it awful that girls wear pink and boys wear blue, etc. But ask most men where the Red Book is – the standard NHS record issued to new parents that documents a baby’s weight and vaccination status – and the same men clam up. They can talk the talk, but in parental situations that comprise a male and female partner, it’s almost always the mother who carries the heaviest, most complex burdens. We know there’s an imbalance. But how do you approach the underperforming half? I’m really sorry to say but it might actually be more nuanced than just calling a dad a lazy, no-good piece of meconium.

I’m always brought back to a report I read about when my eldest was two, which stated that kids benefit most in life from dads who are happy to be dads. Kids who showed the fewest signs of behavioural problems before they became teens were raised by men who were secure in their status as a dad and felt engaged in fatherhood. Remarkably, according to the research, this made even more of an impact on a child’s life than things like housework and childcare. A dad who feels good about being a dad – who feels purposeful, motivated and driven – is therefore the most useful thing for both children and society as a whole.

It’s rare for me to know much about parental theory. In all honesty, I – like around 95 per cent of the well-intentioned dads I know – parent like I’m George W Bush: from the gut, not based on any significant store of information, knowledge or intellectual base. Regardless, there are so many modern fathers out there in a strange, in-between zone of simultaneously feeling a sense of dad pride yet also totally unsure in their roles as parents: worried they’re not doing enough, unsure of what makes a good parent and thus not always able to attain the level of contentment that the 2016 report made clear was vital. Are we good guys for doing way more than our dads, or scumbags for not being totally equal with our female co-parents? It’s an issue too big to ignore. I’m sure they don’t want a rosette or a ticker-tape parade. They want that sense of purpose and achievement, but I’m not sure we as a society have that in place. Scratch the surface of some of the fathers I’ve met who are the most active and engaged imaginable, and the levels of self-doubt are off the scale.

Of course, the last thing anyone needs is an old-fashioned gender war between mum and dad. Now or ever. Mothers have struggles, of which there are about 988 million – from mastitis to haemorrhoids to strangers wanting to talk to you about haemorrhoids – so to not support them with every one of those is an insanity. But in the context of my own experiences of being a father amidst attachment parenting and long-term breastfeeding – both epic, arduous undertakings for a mother – I definitely had my own set of insecurities garnered from being on the periphery. For me, being detached from attachment parenting, trying to do bedtimes while kids relentlessly screamed for their mum, objectively sucked. Worse, though, was the lingering worry of whether I’d ever get past this stage and actually form a bond with my own kids. I’m happy to say it got better, and my bond with my kids has soared. But many dads I’ve met along the way have both experienced this exact scenario – of feeling like an outsider in your own family – yet have it buried inside them with no natural way to purge it, like an ayahuasca retreat with a no-puking policy.

It all came to a head recently when I told a fellow dad that he was doing a really great job. He was managing to be a fun, accessible dad amidst a torrent of woe in his own personal life. In response, he looked this perfect fusion of happy and confused – totally unsure how to act or react. It was cute, sweet, sad and comic, all at the same time. So I’m just going to say it: if dads around you are doing more than just “daddy day care”, if they’re doing the dull stuff, taking the initiative, able to book a doctor’s appointment off their own back, proposing taking shared parental leave, know what size nappies to buy, organising invites to birthday parties, then I urge you to tell them they’re doing a good job. Suck it up, fake it if you have to. Even if they’re only doing a few of these things, praise them anyway. The validation they’ll gain from hearing this is huge. Don’t tell the brotherhood I snitched, but honestly men are so perfectly shallow that we really can exist on a bit of praise the way a squirrel can live on nuts. The benefits for society are huge: we need an army of dads (not a Dad’s Army), and the more men we can set on a path towards that hallowed sense of paternal purpose and contentment that kids so clearly need and crave, the better.

It’s maybe an eye-rolling media cliché to bemoan the lack of positive dad role models in society: to hope that the next Bond wears a baby sling or to moan how everything that starts with “dad” is basically quite lame (“dad bod”, “dad joke”, “dad dancing”, etc). All the same, after years of talking to fellow parents in playgrounds, playgroups or pubs, I really think there’s a desperate need for more of a feel-good factor in male parenting. I became a dad in large part because I had the loveliest, most kind dad conceivable. I felt like it was almost a dereliction of duty not to pass on that good dad energy. I saw how he remained engaged and nurturing throughout my life, not just when I was small and cute. I’m eight years in – I hope I’ve got what it takes to stay the course, like he did.

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