issue 175 - September 1987
Photo: Troth Wells
The absent father comes home
More and more fathers are taking an active interest in their children.
Instead of leaving everything to the mother they are present at the birth
and enter more into the intimacy of child-rearing. Is the experience
changing them? Dexter Tiranti looks at the example he is setting his
own children - and at what they are teaching him.
'Dad, can I watch The A Team?'
'No, I'm not having you lap up that violent American rubbish. The world's not about fighting, guns, flashy cars and street chases.'
'But it's interesting.'
'Too bad. Can't you amuse yourself any other way than watching TV?'
This kind of dialogue goes on regularly between me and my eight-year-old son. I try to control the values our children are exposed to on TV, rather like King Canute. Yet they accumulate insidiously, be they in praise of violence, crass materialism, junk food or rigid sex stereotyping,
When I was a boy myself I was given, at my own insistence, a gun for every birthday and Christmas. As I got older my toy cupboard looked like an arms dealer's warehouse: Colt 45, Luger, shotgun, submachine gun, Magnum .38. Yet today toy guns are banned from our household. This is because we are trying to create a better world now, I hastily reassure myself. Fathers were different when I was a child. There was no lip service paid to sexual equality. Everyone knew their place in the family, and Dad's was usually behind the newspaper.
Nevertheless one of the more uncomfortable sides of being a father, I've learnt, is exploring the nooks and crannies of my own hypocrisy. 'Do as I say, not as I do' is an uncomfortable tenet to live with... and I wonder at my own inconsistencies. As someone seriously concerned about the sexism in our society, the fatherhood model I provide for my son and daughter will be their biggest teacher. And these perceptive little people will soon notice if I'm not doing my share of the cooking, caring and concern.
For the greatest teacher is personal experience, and kids will imitate what they see and hear around them, not least Dad's example. So by hanging in there and not diving for cover, by being about the home whilst the children are still up, fathers can do their children (and partners) a great service. They might be helping themselves too. By spending time with my offspring, thoughtful nine-year-old Ann and turbulent eight-year-old Gabriel, I've learnt a lot about myself and them. And I've changed as a result. Of course there are trade offs. My paid work is not quite as full-time or as good as it should be. My tennis doesn't sparkle as it would, I delude myself, if there were more time for practice. And goodness knows I get tired, irritable and hassled by my children's demands.
But I've had my eyes opened too. Privacy is not so important, not after sitting on the lavatory and discussing Jesus Christ, the conquistadores, Gary Lineker, Margot Fonteyn or the various merits and drawbacks of penises and vaginas with little people determined not to leave you alone. Nor can I value material things too highly - after all, when a toddler has savaged the sofa with a saw, what can you say but 'never mind'? Not least I've learnt to live amid chaos, to spend less time on clearing up than on the serious business of playing or cooking with the children.
In return I've been given golden moments. My daughter Ann took to ballet dancing like a swan to the lake. The beauty of this 'frilly' world surprised me. And at her first public dance in a church hall, with my bottom aching from the small wooden seat and nostrils twitching from the dust heavy in the air, when she danced and smiled... for me, the moment was magical.
Opting into children is opting into laughter too. It doesn't have to be sophisticated. Twisting garden hoses that unexpectedly drench you, dreadfully silly jokes ('When you're driving, where do you stop for refreshment? At a T-junction.') are part of the credit side of the ledger to make up for interminably going through the times table or separating bickering siblings for the umpteenth time.
Goodness knows we've struggled to provide a range of non-sexist options for our children. Santa Claus, for instance, provided teddies and dolls, racing cars and spaceships without any sex discrimination - so Ann and Gabriel simply traded them on Boxing Day. For despite my daughter's able goalkeeping and my son's deft cake-mixing their interests are on the whole pretty conventional.
Disciplining is not easy, particularly where Gabriel is concerned. I probably resort to smacking and frogmarching him to his room more than I should and pay the price of guilt at my own violence. But I love him dearly and thrill to his sliding tackles on the football field. I've also learnt to play the advantage rule at home, to be diplomatically deaf where necessary. And when the bust-ups occur, as they do regularly, we make it up with kisses and sit together reading. It's all over.
Of course I'm far from perfect. When our two were babies I dreaded the treadmill of heavy nappy buckets and continual feeding, all the dirty bottoms and sleepless nights. I helped, but I didn't do my fair share. Now I've grown more and more resolved to spend time with them. Too often I've heard men say 'They grew up so quickly - I never really got to know them'; or, from the other side of the generational divide, 'He was always away, always somewhere else. I never really knew my father.' I promise myself it's not going to be like that with our children. Memories of them growing up are not going to be just regrets about lost moments.
With a bit of luck there won't be just memories either, but lasting friendships. Friendships which will be a reason for living in old age, as we defuse the cold war between generations and see the world through fresher, younger eyes. But I am not waiting for future returns on present emotional investment. Fathering has changed me, here and now. I've become a little less sharp, a little less self-centred, a little less goal-orientated, a little less materialistic and hopefully rather more sensitive to the needs and wishes of those about me. I've learnt a lot about patience and, not least, I've had the excuse to be a child again myself.
For my son Gabriel, I hope his father's input will have helped to make him more gentle and loving, able to form lasting relationships and be a good father in his turn. For my daughter Ann, perhaps my contribution to her upbringing will have taught her some irreverence for authority, self-confidence, helped her to fend for herself and feel every bit the equal of the males in her life.
In the meantime: 'Dad - Can I watch The A Team?' Things don't change overnight.
Dexter Tiranti is a co-editor of the NI.