Advertisements for fathers’ day usually focus on blokey things: tool sets, snippers, after shave and Grand Final Replays. Presumably they sell well. They all project an image of what men are like, what they do in the home and what their gifts are. They also show what fathers are in their families. They are physical, practical, strong and support the family through their work.
That image corresponds to reality in agricultural societies where most men are occupied in demanding physical work and where women care for the children, the house, and have no other work. Even there such an image often led men to underestimate the physical demands involved in washing, cleaning, preparing meals and caring for children. Increasingly in our society, however, women work outside the home, often earning higher salaries than men, and more men and women work with computers or in services that rely more on computer skills than on physical strength.
In such families it is natural for men and women to share household chores and the daily care for their children. In families where both parents are of the same gender and in single families, too, the division of tasks into those done by men and by women is irrelevant. We then need to think not of mother and father but of mothering and fathering – of providing for children the range of care, companionship and support that we associate with mothers and fathers. These will have a variety of patterns. This complexity makes Fathers’ Day an opportunity for couples to reflect on what works well for their children in their relationships and what needs to be strengthened.
That said, many men will still be expected to support their family in traditional ways. Their role will above all to be a good human being whom their children can look up to, perhaps imitate, and be a compass bearing for them as they grow into adulthood. This means spending time with their children, being a source of strength and predictability when they are in need, being firm and reasonable in their expectations of them, and listening to them.
These receptive qualities run counter to the images of masculinity often promoted to young men. These often emphasise toughness, disregard for feelings, being in control and refusal to acknowledge weakness. Relationships can be defined in terms of control and submission. These attitudes, particularly if young men inherit them from their own fathers, can impact on men’s ability to be good fathers for their children or to negotiate better forms of relationship with their partners. The brittleness of their attitudes and conduct can also engender a frustration that expresses itself in domestic violence.
Father’s Day raises many of the questions with which the Jesuit Social Services Men’s Project grapples in its exploration and encouragement of rich masculine identity and behaviour. If our society supports young men in forming rich and respectful relationships, they will grow into good partners and fathers in which strength and gentleness, leading and listening, are happily joined.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ
Feature photo by Juliane Liebermann