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Are fathers missing in action in today's families?

By Peter West - posted Monday, 10 November 2014


In an address last week, Australia's Social Services Minister, Kevin Andrews, stressed the need to support families. Judith Ireland at Fairfax Media wrote:

Mr Andrews will talk of the importance of early intervention and prevention to avoid family breakups which he says increases the risks of child neglect and self-harm, and alcohol abuse and unwanted sex among young people.

There are many issues here which beg for attention. But in this article let's focus on the role of fathers.

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Look at the media and you'll see men displayed as sportsmen (Usain Bolt or Cristiano Ronaldo or Sachin Tendulkar). Or showing off their 'jacked' bodies and six-packs . Guys like Mario Lopez, Matt Barr, Mike Chang, Usher. Wait- have you even heard of these people? No? You're showing your age!)

Or men are found out for various kinds of mischief (just check out the sports pages, or those awful celebrity magazines you read nervously as you're waiting for the dentist). We expect so much from men these days. We want men also to play a vital role as fathers. But fathers are often missing in action in today's families. Let's look at some of the patterns.

First, fathers see less of kids after separation and divorce. Of course divorce and separation are a problem time for all those affected. Men suffer in their own particular way: sleeplessness, headaches, and depression included, as Peter Jordan's report for the Family Court found.

In many or most examples, there are custody cases. And we've heard that there is a long backlog of custody cases in Australia and in many other places, including the USA.

Men accused of abuse are especially vulnerable as they wait for a court to hear about allegations. And it's really easy to make allegations.

There's evidence that males after separation or divorce are much more vulnerable than usual to severe depression and suicide. Yet we expect men to soldier on, keep working, and not show pain. We don't seem comfortable with men who are too emotional or needy. In typical American fashion these guys are labeled 'deadbeat dads' if they don't do everything required of them.

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The effects of separation and divorce can be severe for children, too. Kraemer suggests that boys suffer more than girls.

The care of boys is generally more difficult and therefore more likely to go wrong, adding to the deficits already existing before birth. Since most of the growth of the human brain takes place after birth, some early environmental stressors could lead to disadvantage for boys being "wired in". In any case, in boys the formation of secure attachment to a caregiver is more subject than in girls to parental unavailability, insensitivity, or depression.

Second, we men need to focus more on relationships. Historically, relationships weren't a man's main focus. Being a man meant that you worked. Work was something that men did. Men worked outside the home; women, inside. The whole domestic sphere included raising kids, looking after their education, keeping everyone on an even keel physically, spiritually and emotionally. This was seen as women's task. We know that there has been a huge revolution in gender roles since the 1960s. But men still seem focused on work, and less aware of their own feelings and those of others. How many males are good at working out what's going on: am I ill? Or feeling sad? Or maybe depressed? Or just bored? Are we smart enough emotionally to work out what our sons, daughters and partners are feeling? Too often, we're lagging in this area.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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