It is over 20 years since I first began spending time with audiences of men in sheds, community halls, schools and in my own seminars.
It first started when I was working in suicide prevention in the wheat belt in Western Australia. What often followed a seminar around mental fitness and wellbeing, was concerned dads coming to ask me questions to help them be the dads they really wanted to be.
Over time, I began running Dads Only seminars and was really heartened when hundreds of dads would come either by themselves, with their brothers or their mates. So often the questions they asked were deep and they shared the confusion about raising children today, compared to how they were raised.
Around 10 years ago, I met Professor Bruce Robinson who had written a powerful book called Dads and Daughters. As a respiratory physician he had met so many dads on their deathbed, expressing their regrets about how they had fathered their kids. Thankfully this wonderful man created The Fathering Project, which has been instrumental in raising awareness around the importance of fathers in the 21st century, and providing wonderful resources to support and educate dads and father figures. Their programs are run Australia-wide and they also now host the Australian Father of the Year Awards.
There is some fascinating data from The Fathering Project from dads around Australia who have participated in their programs, that shows that connecting with other dads, and educating themselves about parenting can have a real impact on dads. They found:
- 98% of dads who participated in The Fathering Project programs reported feeling more connected to other dads.
- 82% of dads had more awareness of their impact on their child.
- 75% of dads became more engaged in conversation with their children.
When I was first running seminars for parents, 99% of the audience were women. Now we often get up to 40% dads. A number of men have told me the reasons they didn’t come initially were because they didn’t want to be told what they were doing wrong or to feel more inadequate than they already felt at times.
There is no question that the most significant cultural change that has happened in Australia, and in many parts of the western world, has been the shift around fathering.
Dads are stepping forward with big generous hearts, wanting to share more equally in the raising of the children.
I have noticed that there are five main concerns that dads have shared with me that may be helpful to shine a light on.
The first key concern is about how they were fathered.
Dads who had a harsh, punitive father who struggled to show his love and affection for his children, are worried that they will become their dad. I’ve spoken and met so many fathers who experienced this sort of childhood, and yet have become a very different dad. Some of them have told me they have chosen to father more like their mother mothered, with more tenderness and gentleness. Others have told me that they have watched videos, listened to podcasts and gradually shifted in the way they turn up for the kids.
I once had a tradie, in high-vis straight from work, approach me before I began a Dads Only seminar in Perth. He held onto my arm and explained how grateful he was for my Maggie Moment videos on YouTube. He explained that he’d had an ‘arsehole’ for a dad, who had been aggressive, nasty and abusive. He had three children and was married to the love of his life. He noticed there were times his dad’s words came out his mouth. He could see the look on his wife’s face and his children’s – it was the same look of fear he had when he was a kid. He said he hadn’t finished high school and struggled to read parenting books. One day a workmate told him about my videos. He started to watch them and gradually, over time, he explained that my words were coming out of his mouth, not his dad’s. He became more gentle, more thoughtful and more loving. His kids and his wife loved the different dad that he became. By the time he finished talking to me, we were both in tears.
My first reassuring message to dads who have had a difficult dad, is to realise that your dad was doing the best he could, with what he knew and within the social conditioning and expectations for dads at that time.
So let him off the hook if you can. You can become the dad you want to be, however you do need to be mindful of the words and actions that you bring into your home. If your dad comes out of your mouth – and you have frightened your children – pause, allow yourself to calm down, and then come back and repair the rupture. Explain that you are sorry those words came out your mouth, and that you will try harder so that you can be the dad you want to be.
The second key concern is around balancing work and fathering.
Dads talk about their struggles with being able to work hard enough to provide for their families, while also finding enough time to spend with their kids. There is no work-life balance for any parent, despite what we are often told. The most important window of being able to spend time with your children is in the first three years of life if you possibly can. One of the blessings of the pandemic, is that there are now many more parents who can work from home two days a week for example, which can help with being more involved with their children, especially when they are sick.
Obviously, as we now live in a time where mothers are also working to balance work and career with family time, this can create a lot of challenges for families. However, when we view co-parenting through the lens of team parenting, it means you can now share the financial responsibility in your home – and that may mean you can spend more time with your children. This does not make you a lesser man as previous generations of men may have believed.
Some workplaces are now moving towards father-friendly workplaces, where men have more flexibility in their working hours depending on the needs of the families – without any negative stigma.
My reassuring message to dads is that it’s not just the amount of hours you spend with your children that necessarily builds the strong loving attachment that every child needs. Micro-connections matter just as much. They are small frequent moments like:
- a weekly dad date,
- a loving message in the lunchbox,
- a bedtime ritual telling them how much you love them,
- a secret handshake,
- reading to them a couple of times a week,
- smiling at them,
- winking from a distance,
- telling dad jokes that make them groan or laugh
- sharing favourite music together
- doing a TikTok dance with them
- and having rituals like pancakes on Sundays or a movie night.
These small moments all build attachment and connectedness with your children – the more the better.
The third area of concern that I’ve heard often, is that dads really struggle when they muck up.
Have you watched the pool episode from the ABC series Bluey, where Bandit takes the girls to the pool but forgets their towels, their water bottles and snacks? There is a strong biological drive, supported by centuries of social conditioning, in women that means they tend to remember organisational stuff around babies, toddlers and children, more efficiently than men. I still remember my boys’ dad completely forgetting to collect our youngest son from Kindy once. I’ve met lots of dads who share their stuff-up moments and feel that’s a sign that they are a lousy dad. Sadly, this pattern of self-criticism has often been learned when little boys are shouted at and shamed much more harshly than little girls.
My reassuring message to dads who are struggling with this is that there is no perfect parent. Mothers muck up too. We all have a poo story that is pretty impressive, we have all struggled to get out the door in the morning and maybe not been our best selves in the process, and you may have forgotten book week – like I did once, or accidentally slammed your kids’ fingers in the car door (which I also did!). These are not signs you are a lousy parent.
The research is really strong that you only have to get it right about 30% of the time to be good enough, and good-enough parents can still raise happy healthy capable children.
Often dads find it a little harder because boys and men tend to give themselves a sense of self-worth when they do well. This is why our boys sometimes are more competitive, want to climb higher, want to hit a target, don’t want to attempt anything they think they can’t do well – especially in the company of others who can do it well. They give themselves self-worth, and when they fail it can trigger shame and self-disgust. It can be really helpful when dads share their muck-up moments with others without judgement and hopefully with a good dose of humour.
The fourth area of concern is in the first 12 months of life.
Many dads struggle with feeling useless, powerless and confused on how to help during this time. There is very little routine for many babies, and the chronic lack of sleep can turn everyone into a grumpy human. This can be especially difficult for dads whose partner is breastfeeding, because they don’t have breast milk readily available themselves. Many dads can and do take over night feeds with expressed milk or formula, and can really struggle with deep frustration with not being able to settle a fractious baby. Men are wired to be our fixers, our problem solvers. It can really trigger a dad who is unable to settle a baby in the middle of the night, despite his best efforts. This window can also be a time of incredible loneliness for many dads. That deep connection he may have had with his partner before the baby arrived, can seem to disappear suddenly. It can be so helpful chatting with other dads in the same boat, and also exploring wonderful pragmatic ways of storing breast milk in the freezer, working out which baby carrier works best for men. I love the DadPod podcast with Charlie Clausen and Osher Günsberg as it has some fabulous episodes for dads with babies.
The fifth main area of concern is around expressing love.
I have heard from many dads over the years that they can still struggle to express the love and affection they have for their children and often their partners, if they didn’t grow up seeing their own father express these emotions. If your own father never told you he loved you, it can be difficult, however not impossible. Many dads find it easier to express their love for their children when they are babies and toddlers, however much more difficult when they get to be primary school or high school age.
My dad never told me he loved me. However, he showed me. I remember one afternoon when I was updating him on everything that had happened from the time I left the farm that morning, until the time I got into the farm ute to go and check the sheep, he stopped the car, turned the engine off and gave me his full attention. That was the moment I knew my dad loved me.
If you are a dad who finds it hard, please write it down. Give kids love notes in the lunchbox, write something cheerful on a banana, get them a nice card and write it in there or write it on their mirror in the bathroom. Seriously, tell your kids you love them and that you will always watch out for them – and that they can always call for you when they need help, no matter what has happened.
There is no question that Bluey has helped many dads better understand how to play with their kids, especially their daughters. And the research is strong about the influence of having safe, loving fathers and father figures for both our boys and our girls.
It doesn’t matter if you are coparenting with a partner, or a solo dad some of the time or all of the time, or a stepdad or a bonus dad or a father figure – you matter in the lives of children.
Indeed, if you go to a playground on a weekend, sometimes you hardly ever see women. There are dads everywhere, some with babies strapped to their tummies, others with toddlers and older children. They are just parenting, capably and with purpose – and thankfully this is finally becoming a norm in our society. This generation of dads has given me hope for humanity.