Goodbye to the distant authority figure, hello to hands-on dads
Father love is known in countless studies to help children grow happy and strong. Photo: Louie Douvis
When it finally became clear that my father was dying and had only weeks to go, I spent as much time as I could around him. We had reached a peaceful place long ago, so it was precious to sit in the hospital by his bed and talk, or just be there for quiet company.
On one of the last days when he was able to talk easily, he told me a story I had never heard before, about the first days of my life. When I was a newborn and home from the hospital, he had decided to take me in the pram for a walk, while my mother rested. He had walked with me up into the high street. This was Yorkshire, in 1953, and, as he began to pass people, he noticed something odd. They were muttering at him, or scowling, some pointing to him from across the street. It wasn't as he'd imagined, a proud young dad taking his new son out for a stroll.
In families where mothers would otherwise do all the emotional heavy lifting, an involved dad provides the missing key to everyone's mental health.
Then some street urchins began to prance behind him, calling out to him. At this point in telling the story, he faltered and was silent. I wondered if it was the morphine, or if he was pained at what he was remembering.
I asked: ''What were they saying, Dad?'' His voice slipped into the accent of the north country, as he recalled their words, and his eyes were teary. ''Your dad's your mum.'' He said it over again, fixing me with his eyes. He was always a shy man and at the time he had found it all too much - he slipped down a side street and headed home.
We sat in silence and I searched for some response. I said some things about how he was a great dad, always playful, gentle, making up games and fun to be around, much more than most men of his time. My body still remembers his huge hands lifting me or holding me or ruffling my hair. He seemed relieved to have got the story out.
But it haunted me for years. Dad knew I was an advocate of good fathering and of course he took it personally. He was telling me ''well, I tried''.
It wasn't just him. It was an age-old wound of industrial man. I had a vision of all the millions of men in the 20th century and before, yearning to be hands-on fathers, close to their children, but faced with a culture that scorned gentleness or involvement of men in what was clearly women's work. So, they kept their arms tight at their sides and hardened their faces, and their sons and daughters sometimes never knew the warmth they felt.
Perhaps that toughness had survival value, when destiny was a coal seam or a blistering iron smelter, hunger not far away, and, like as not, another war to take young sons to an early grave. But I don't think so. I think we lost something of great worth.
Father love is known in countless studies to help children grow happy and strong. It is the key to boys feeling motivated and believing in themselves, that being a good man is something to strive for. It gives daughters self-esteem and a sense of their intelligence and a value beyond mere sexual attraction. In families where mothers would otherwise do all the emotional heavy lifting, an involved dad provides the missing key to everyone's mental health. Women love a good father. They often wish they had had one themselves.
Two decades ago, researching my book Raising Boys, I found worldwide studies had quantified ''father time''. The average father in 1990 spent just eight minutes a day talking to or playing with his children - not counting watching TV together.
The brilliant news, revisiting those figures now, is that the sons of those men have done a remarkable thing. Recent research suggests they spend about three times as much time with their children. A generation of young dads is committed to being close, caring and connected.
Last week the University of Newcastle released a study into rough-and-tumble play, noting that it was crucial to brain development, especially in emotional self-regulation, teaching boys to be safe and know how to manage anger. Fathers who roughhoused with their children were more trusted and their children more relaxed and affectionate towards them.
The study's author, Dr Richard Fletcher, showed video footage of the earnest seriousness with which boys wrestle their dads, and the way those dads carefully manage the action so that no one gets hurt. Daughters like it, too, but they are much less combative, giggling and enjoying the excitement and the closeness. Everyone benefits.
Hands-on dads are now the norm - it's no big deal. I revisited Yorkshire a couple of years ago. Men were pushing strollers and prams everywhere you looked. My dad would have been proud of them, and of himself.
Steve Biddulph is a former psychologist and the author of The New Manhood.