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  • Confusion aside, dads embrace their caring side
  • By Muriel Reddy
  • The Age
  • 21/12/2003 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 75 articles in 2003 )
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New possibilities have brought the best and worst of times, writes Muriel Reddy.

He is older than he used to be and his role is not quite as easily defined as it once was. Over the years he has evolved from moral disciplinarian to breadwinner to gender role model. His latest and most challenging incarnation is as nurturer. Meet the "new" Australian dad - the active, nurturing and caretaking bloke of the 21st century.

There is a whole rethink of not just what it is to be a father today but what it is to be a man. The images include the "sensitive new age guy", the gay, the bisexual and the queer man, the "new lad" and the "metrosexual". It's a brave new world out there for men, and most especially for fathers.

Today's dad may, or may not, be the biological one. More men are living separately from their biological children (the number of children living with their mother in a one-parent family went from 437,300 in 1986 to 659,100 in 1996), fathering outside marriage (the number of children born outside marriage increased from 9 per cent of births in 1971 to 31 per cent in 2001), having parenting relationships with children who are not biologically theirs (in 1997 there were 363,800 children living in step and blended families), being custodial single fathers (in 1999, 1.8 per cent or 81,300 children lived with a lone father, a 37 per cent increase on the 1986 figure), and parenting children in gay male relationships.

Little wonder that Dr Michael Flood, author of a new report on fatherhood, describes these as "the best of times and the worst of times" for dad.

"Men now face conflicting and contradictory images of how to be a good father and how to be a proper man," he says. "There is a lot of confusion out there. When it comes to fathering, we are torn between the disciplinarian and the nurturing characteristics of fatherhood. When it comes to manhood, we are torn between the manly stoic models as opposed to the egalitarian and sensitive models."

Dr Flood, a sociologist with the Australia Institute, says the speed of change is almost unprecedented.

"Some fathers are flourishing in the shift in gender relations and taking up new opportunities for fathering. Others are in crisis. Men undergoing divorce are a particularly good example of that. Many of these men find it difficult to deal with the emotional turmoil and grief of divorce."

The good news for fathers is that they are on the mainstream political agenda. Indeed, the important shift in men's gender roles and the growing policy attention to men's issues is, according to Dr Flood, generating new possibilities for fathers.

Last week leading researchers and policy advisers met in Newcastle to discuss the spectrum of fatherhood and to identify gaps in the research. Part of the impetus for encouraging fathers to engage more with their children is research suggesting that the development of a child's brain in the first three years of life owes as much to interaction with both parents as it does to stimulation.

"Relationships are how you build your brain," says Richard Fletcher, a lecturer in the faculty of health at the University of Newcastle and convenor of the meeting.

A disturbing figure released by the Institute of Family Studies in Melbourne shows that one in three children under the age of 18 has little or no contact with his or her father.

"I have no doubt that the ambiguity around roles is a critical factor and may be part of the disengagement by fathers," says Bruce Smyth, a research fellow at the institute.

"Our findings so far suggest three Rs - repartnering, relocation and residual bad feelings. You could add to this relative economic disadvantage and rotten behaviour in the form of abuse." Mr Smyth says the incidence of disengagement is even higher among couples who have never married. "Less involvement usually means less attachment."

Surveys conducted by Dr Michael Bittman, associate professor of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, suggest a small but significant increase in the amount of time fathers are spending with their children compared with 25 years ago. In 1997, men spent an average of 9.6 hours a week with children as a primary activity compared with 4.2 hours in 1974.

"I think there is a much stronger bond between fathers and young children," Dr Bittman says. "One of the factors contributing to that is their presence at the birth of their children. The result has been a small switch in how men spend their leisure time. It is more home-centred than it was 25 years ago."

However, a 1998 national survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that of the men who took a career break when their child was born, 96 per cent took less than six weeks. Only 1 per cent took a break of six months.

"I think there is a big link between masculinity - men's concept of their own identity as men - and being a provider," says Dr Bittman.

"They talk the talk. They think the way to parent is to spend time with their children... they believe a good parent does child-centred activities.

"The nurturing aspect of parenting has entered into his consciousness but has not yet become a part of his behaviour."


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