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'Hey, I'm going to be a dad!'

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 20 August 2015


Today young fathers are revising the script on how to be a dad. Before we look at the young dads we need to take a backward glance at how the job was once done.

The traditional role

Traditionally, fathers were breadwinners and disciplinarians. Fathers often taught their boys how to play football; and taught all their children how to swim. They ladled out words like "you've got to buy a block of land". When I did my research on men growing up in Penrith, New South Wales, the traditional role of the father was manifest. A human geographer said "this is the story of almost any town with a railway and a river some distance from a city". The division in roles started early: boys did chores outside; girls did them inside. One man I interviewed said "A man's life was all about work. And a bit of sex was his hobby". Strong fathers were one of the pillars of society.

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The role of women in this era before 1960 was summed up by a man I interviewed: "With that many children, do you ask me what she did? Housework!"

Today's fathers

Eagerness to take on the job of father

Today's dads look back on their own experience with their dad; and often it's done resentfully. Some grew up without a father around, or grew up most of their lives in an orphanage. Sometimes fathers are absent in spirit. Kevin* said :

He was distant. He never showed his love. He just went to work, brought the bacon home and that was it. He was there but he wasn't there.

The most emotional part of my book Fathers, Sons and Lovers was when I got men talking about their feelings for their father. Mike* said-

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When he was alive I thought, "You old bastard, you don't care about me". I'd tell him something I was proud of, and he'd just walk off and make a cup of tea. I never hugged him till the day he died.

The result? Surprisingly, today's dads are determined to take up the role, and do it better. More new dads are proud to be involved in the process of showering and splashing around with kids at the local pool. They say proudly "I'm a hands-on dad". Adam*, an expectant father, said

I'm a bit worried about the duties I will have. But really, I'm looking forward to having the new baby around.

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*Names have been changed to protect privacy.



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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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