David Bartlett’s choice to step from the position of Tasmanian Premier won’t be remembered as a defining moment of Australia politics. His public statement about the importance of being a father is likely to have greater relevance as a case study of the privilege and possibilities of new ways of fathering.
The relationship between parenting and politics is not particularly happy or sympathetic. Politics is a job that demands hard choices of both the elected representative and less publically, his - and much less often, her - family. It could be argued that the stresses and demands of political life should be expected but if we take it for granted that work trumps family in politics, we are perpetuating a way of looking at our social connections that is unsustainable, with implications that extend well beyond the political sphere. Regardless of the party machinations and negotiations that may or may not have played a role in Bartlett’s decision, the reasons he identified for his resignation as Premier suggest that times may be slowly changing.
Over the past twenty or so years we have heard, increasingly, of emerging new ways to being a Dad.
In the cultural ideal of the new fatherhood, there is an expectation that men will build intimate relationships with their children and play an increased role in their day to day care, essentially stepping up to the tasks that were once largely presumed to be a woman’s role. The value and necessity of balancing paid work and family is implicit in these new ways of relating to children.
There is still a widespread expectation that men will bring home the bacon but the connection between fathers and children has become a pre-occupation in social policy, political debate and families also.
New fatherhood is a cultural shift, so tracking reasons for its emergence is not an exact science. However, social commentators have pointed to the relevance of changes in the demographic profile of the ‘new’ family.
As a nation we are having children at older ages, and for women, the gap between leaving education to work and leaving work to raise children is lengthened or fails to eventuate. Since the early 1980s we have seen a rise in mothers’ work-force participation, particularly on a part-time basis. As women’s investment in their work deepens, people are more easily able question the traditional division of labour, and may find it necessary to re-negotiate.
We are also seeing broader family and welfare policy debates focused on fathers’ on-going involvement in children’s lives. In short, time is ripe for re-thinking how men might father.
We are aware of the benefits of positive and nurturing fathers and mothers for children. Two involved parents can share the often thankless and very necessary everyday work of caring for children. When loving fathers are present in their children’s life, they add to the material, emotional and social resources available to children and contribute to the kinds of behaviours and skills that pay off in our society: positive peer relationships, strong social connections, educational achievement and successful intimate relationships.
Men are not as involved as women in the domestic work that keeps children, fed, clothed and housed, and they spend less time with their children than do mothers. As a society, we still work under the assumption that fathers’ involvement with their children, while desirable, is the add-on to mothers’ care, rather than a fundamental element of family life - our everyday language of "babysitting the kids" are reminders of the marginalisation of fathering in our society if not in individual families.
Structurally, men continue to have stronger and more sustained ties to the labour market, and they earn more. The slow and piecemeal emergence of "family friendly" work options and "flexibility" has not translated into real choice for many men and women. With the exception of the lucky few, workers are expected to put work first even as the timetabling and nature of work encroaches on our families.
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