Steve Biddulph believes it's time that fathers "came out" as proud and involved parents, not just breadwinners.

It's happening somewhere right this minute. A young father is taking his newborn baby into his arms for the very first time. He hasn't had much sleep for 36 hours, but you wouldn't know it right now - the new Dad is full of the quiet fire of hope and a beginning. Men say the same things about being at the birth of their child - "It was unforgettable; the best moment of my life". But watch their faces closely because, seconds after they say this, a shadow of sadness often passes. For fathers, it's downhill from the birth on. The father will increasingly take a background role; being pushed aside is what 20th-century fatherhood is all about.

Dads, you see, have become disposable. In some cases, they are no more than sperm donors. It's important that we remember that it hasn't always been like this. Fathers in history were very active and involved in parenting. Parenting manuals 100 years ago and earlier were addressed to fathers. If a child got into trouble, or went astray, it was the father who was blamed. Two hundred years ago, historians tell us, it was fathers who wrote the letters to sons and daughters at sea or travelling away from home. A study of Civil War correspondence from soldiers found that details of children's lives were the central topic of concern. And of course, in the long pre-history of the human race, all men were essentially teachers, endlessly coaching and developing their kids, as if their survival depended on it - which it did.

The absent father, the background father, the "deadbeat dad", is a 20th-century invention. Dads are not only treated as disposable today, but as interchangeable. If a marriage ends, then many expect the father to disappear. And plenty do. But their feelings don't disappear, as evidenced by the violent tragedies that recur around access and marriage break-ups. Trendy theory puts this down to men's need for power and control, but it's not so in my clinical experience - it's grief. We have raised men to be so poor at containing emotion that some literally explode - though most men heroically endure. After every public lecture I give on parenting, at least one man stands at the end with the same sad question - "What if you don't see your kids much? What then?" In our divorce courts we have, over and again, failed to acknowledge the intensity of the father-child bond. The disappearing dad of the '90s is just the last stage in a historic process of weakened fatherhood.

The Industrial Revolution dealt a death blow to the father-child connection. Working in the mills and mines for 60-hour weeks, industrial man had so little waking time with his family, and so little energy left, that he became a kind of shadow figure in the corner of the kitchen. The mother acted as interpreter between children and father, and when desperate used the father as a threat. Over five generations, the art of fathering was all but lost. Men who had not been close to their own fathers didn't know how to do it; women who had never been fathered did not see the good role that men could take. Women felt somehow abandoned, as did girl and boy children, but it was a longing for a food they had never tasted, and could not name.

Today, even when men stay married and are physically present in the home, we often don't know what to do. Many times a day I find myself unequipped as to how to interact or just be with my children. I feel that there must be some pool of masculine wisdom that I am missing. I watch and listen to other men with their children - sometimes gleaning good ideas, sometimes noticing they look as clueless as I feel. I think this is why so many men retreat to the world of work. No-one likes to feel like an idiot.

Fathering is socially undervalued. This is especially so in the so-called social sciences, where social workers, policy-makers and economists are schooled. It's not quite spelled out, but the implication is clear:

"Men, who needs them?" It parallels the growing feeling that motherhood is redundant, too, that long-day "quality" care is better, and the real meaning for all adults lies in the economic marketplace. Against this environment, a powerful and scholarly new book by David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America, may prove to be something of a watershed. The book deals not in ideology but in facts, which Blankenhorn marshals with considerable force, to show that on a wide range of indicators, the disappearance of fathers is a world- wide disaster, and the rehonouring of fatherhood may be a boon to women and children as well as men themselves. Fatherless America argues what common sense has always upheld - dads are essential for the well-being of children and society. Blankenhorn begins by scanning the landscape of the family and notes that it is rapidly emptying of men. Forty per cent of US children will go to bed tonight in a home with no father in it and half will spend extended periods without a man in the home. Blankenhorn argues that, in effect, this creates two Americas, that fatherlessness is the real "grand canyon" which divides that society.

That this, and not race, income or class or gender, decide the well-being and life chances of women and children.

The weakness in Fatherless America lies not in the diagnosis, but in the solution. Blankenhorn sees men as needing to be made to be better fathers. It's my experience and that of hundreds of men's groups, that men yearn to be so, and once empowered by recognition and support, positively thrive in this role. Perhaps it's time that fathers "came out" as proud and involved, not just breadwinners. It is clear that fatherhood matters very much, and we have to get better at it. Fathering is an honourable, and essential part of the fabric of human life.

And it's time we got it back.

It has been said that anyone can be a father, but being a Dad has to be earned. It takes determination to build on your strengths and overcome weakness. Here is a brief scan of the basics.

  • MAKE TIME. If you work a 55- or 60-hour week, you just won't cut it as a dad. Fathers need to get home in time to play, laugh, teach, and tickle their children. Look after your health - having a dad die of stress is not helpful to kids. Often fathers find that the answer is to live on a modest income and be around their families more.
  • START EARLY. Get involved in baby care - this is the key time for relationship building. Caring for a baby primes you hormonally and changes your life priorities. Spend some time giving around-the-clock care to your child, so you know you can "do it all!" Women can help this by escaping for the weekend with girlfriends from time to time.
  • BE WARMER. Hugging, holding, and with boys (and girls who want to) playing rough-and-tumble games, while at the same time teaching care and safety and respect for bodies. Don't hit, though with young children you may have to hold and restrain from time to time! Tell your kids how great they are.
  • LIGHTEN UP. Learn to enjoy your kids - being with them out of guilt or obligation is second-rate and quality time is a myth. Find the overlap - things you all enjoy to do. Take achievement pressure off your kids - but insist that they contribute in the home. Limit them to one or at most two sports or activities - you want to raise them, not just manage (and pay for) others doing so. Avoid competitiveness in any activity beyond what is good fun.
  • HEAVY DOWN. Some fathers today are lightweight "good-time" dads who leave all the hard stuff to their partners. Get involved in the decisions, supervise homework, kids' housework and discipline. Develop discipline that is calm but definite. Insist on respect, and make it mutual. Don't just be one of the kids. Do listen to them and take their feelings into account. Talk with your partner about the big picture - 'How are we going as a family? What changes are needed?'
  • DON'T DO IT ALONE. You have to have help - other men, other women, who take part alongside where uncles and aunts used to be. Join a group of friends or a church or organisation or sport that maximises adults and children having a good time together, for its own sake, and honours and cares about the character development and celebration of children.
  • BE A PROUD DAD! Nothing much else you do will have such long-term consequences.

STEVE BIDDULPH is a psychologist and author of best-sellers including The Secret of Happy Children, The Making of Love, and Manhood. [All dads should read these! - Ed.] This article was first published in a longer form in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 2, 1995 and is reprinted with the author's permission.

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