Under pressure

Men evolved to go out, kill food and drag it home.

But that’s not nearly enough anymore.

Dr Jemimah Bailey of Trinity College Dublin recently finished her doctoral thesis on modern fatherhood. Her research confirms what we all know: there’s been a massive shift in what’s expected of fathers in the last couple of generations.

She says: “Whereas 30 or 40 years ago men’s primary purpose as fathers was to provide for their families financially, men are now expected to have a much more hands-on role with their children, to be involved in their practical care and in their emotional development.”

And that’s just the half of it. We must be tough yet caring, strong yet sensitive. We have to provide for our families, and still accept the reality that women are taking an increasingly dominant role here too. A survey from Prudential Financial in the US last year found that 53% of women make more money than their male counterparts.

For those of us who hanker after the rustic simplicity of killing wild boar, the myriad conflicting demands can be bewildering. Right now, I do most of the childcare in our house while my wife holds down a ‘real’ job. Catering to the needs of four semi-feral children, ranging in age from nine down to one, while also trying to earn a crust as a freelance writer is an object lesson in multi-tasking. This article is being written guerrilla-style, while also making pancakes and trying to keep the smallest one from base-jumping off the back of the couch. Women, of course, have been dealing with this kind of thing for decades. It’s a particular kind of equality when men report that they too are being pulled in several directions at once.

The interesting thing, however, is that this is not about men finally acceding to the demands of their exhausted partners. Jemimah Bailey says that from talking to the group of fathers who took part in her study, it was clear that the drive to take a greater role in the lives of their children came from the men themselves.

“Many of the men I spoke to talked about how they wanted to be a different kind of father to the one they had themselves. Over and over again they talked about ‘being there’ for their children, and indeed for their partners. And it was clear that they didn’t just mean being physically available to their kids, although that was important, but being emotionally available too.”

The problem, however, is that being there for your kids means not being there for something else, and that something else is invariably your job. While everyone seems to accept that being a more involved father is a good thing, no one seems to have cracked the incompatibility of modern fathering with maintaining a career.

Jane Downes, a career coach and author of The Career Book, says: “It is damaging men’s careers. I’m seeing their careers going on hold because their life outside the job is taking over.”

Even if you’re one of the lucky ones whose employer does embrace family friendly work practices, frequent absences to look after the kids will cause problems.

“The advice I give all my male clients is that you have to perform extremely well while you’re at work — make yourself irreplaceable, and that, hopefully, will bring more leeway.”

In the past, much of Downes’ work involved helping mothers back into the workforce after taking a prolonged childcare break. These days, she’s dealing with an increased number of fathers who are in the same boat.

“While they have young kids, they’re coasting at work — I’m seeing a lot of that — then they’re returning to their career path when they are a bit older, but by then some of them are in their late 40s, and it can be difficult to get back on the management ladder or wherever they want to go at that stage.”

Again, this is familiar territory for women, but what’s different for men is that the statutory maternity leave entitlements women can avail of are wholly absent for men.

David Caren of Dad.ie is author of The Irish Dad’s Survival Guide to Pregnancy and Beyond. He has three children, aged from seven down to three. “Any time off will be dependent on your employment contract or the level of understanding your employer has, especially if he or she is a parent,” he says. “I have heard from many first-time fathers who have had no reservation in proposing the notion of flexi-time to their employers and with positive results.”

But this is not a universal experience. Jane Downes says that in the private sector in particular, when men ask for time off for family reasons, it does not tend to go down well. The bottom line, she believes, is that you can’t have it all — something’s got to give.

“It sounds awful but the couple needs to decide whose career is most important right now. There has to be one person in the family that the buck stops with.”

Downes, a mother of one, says this is how it works in her family. Her husband has the regular salaried position, and she, as the self-employed partner, takes up the slack if, for example, the children are sick.

The other issue that makes the conflict different for men is that their sense of self-worth is deeply tied up with their work. In his seminal 1994 book, Man Enough, American psychiatrist Frank Pittman wrote: “The primary contest for grown men is not sports or penis size anymore, but is economic. Grown men are measured by the size of their net worth. Above all, it is a man’s work that makes him a man among men, that defines his worth in what we might persist in thinking of as the world of men.”

If you are not performing at work because of family commitments, there is a psychological toll to be paid.

“It’s almost the first thing that people say,” says psychologist Tony Moore of Relationships Ireland. “’Hi Tony, what do you do?’ Everyone is supposed to be politically correct about it, but men themselves are really thinking, ‘I really should be out doing something and bringing in money.’ If you’re not, it’s a very difficult to come to psychological terms with it.”

The recession, which is taking a disproportionate toll on male employment levels, compounds this issue. According to the CSO, the unemployment rate for men has increased ‘dramatically’ over the last two years to stand at 17.5% in 2011. The equivalent rate for women is 10.4%.

Moore also points out that blurring the traditional demarcation lines may have given us more involved fathers, but it’s also thrown up heated arguments over whose turn it is to do the dishes.

“90% of the couples I see are talking about this very issue. There’s a massive pressure on men to transfer quickly from going out to work to coming home and start looking after the children.” He cites a couple he deals with, where the man is out of the house 13 hours a day trying to keep a small business afloat. When he comes home the expectation that he immediately take over housework and childcare has caused serious marital problems.

“The woman said to me: ‘Putting bins out, emptying the dishwasher… Why should these small things wreck our marriage? ’ But the thing is they’re not one-off issues, they recur again and again.”

He says that part of the solution involves understanding that men and women are different. “It’s about accepting differences, it’s about being realistic about your expectations and it’s about compassion and understanding.”

David Caren, who works outside the home, plays down these problems. He says that yes, fathers are under more pressure than ever before, but so what. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do...for the most part we do our best to get on with it.”

And if the pressure gets too much? “For me personally, it’s running. Pop on the runners and out the door you go.”


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