Generations ago, the roles of mother and father were clearly defined – men were breadwinners, while women took care of the children. How times have changed!
Our lives are very different from our parents’ lives and their parents before them. Our world moves at a faster pace and the expectations on modern families are far greater than they were 20 years ago. Women are working harder in the workplace and at home than they ever have before and men are expected to take on many of the traditional women’s roles.
To say that our roles have been rocked is an understatement. For some, finding their feet in this new society has been easy; for others it’s a constant source of friction and heartache.
So what is it that defines the role a father should play in his children’s and family’s life? Are there particular duties that are better for men to perform than women? Should a father feel entitled to do less work than a mom in terms of the day-to-day reality of bringing up children?
“We are living in a betwixt and between age in Western culture, where roles and identities are being redefined and renegotiated,” explains Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Leonard Carr. “In the past, until the rise of feminism and the challenges to traditional cultural assumptions and gender roles, ideas about marriage and the role and status of husband and wife were clear and treated as if almost immutable, “ he says.
“Today, people are in some ways free to define their own roles and choices. While this creates opportunity, it also creates certain confusion, which in turn leads to either power struggles as people try to negotiate their new roles, or people being disempowered by the pretence of equality when the equality is selective.”
An example of this, says Leonard, is a man regarding his partner as equal, but still expecting her to shop and make dinner when both work the same length of day.
What stresses has modern society placed on us as mothers – both the working and stay-at-home moms?
“The modern mother is often in a bind in that what people call ‘equality’ amounts to men ‘allowing’ or even expecting their partners to work, but then still be responsible for all the tasks they would have if they did not work – and then to still be dynamite in the bedroom at the end of the day,” says Leonard.
“When women are expected to fulfil both the role of mothering and income-generating, or if they were accomplished and fulfilled by work before having children, they live in a state of being constantly torn.”
Full-time parenting can be lonely, frustrating, thankless and boring, despite its joys and magical moments, he explains. On the other hand, while work may be fulfilling and provide affirmation and a sense of worth, it can also leave the mother feeling guilty for not being at home with her child.
“If you look at language, men are described as helping, as in, ‘my husband is wonderful – he helps with the children.’ The implication of this is that the husband plays a supplementary role.
“We see this play out in divorce, where mothers often behave as if they own the children and have the discretionary right to allow the father access at their bidding.
“Men, on the other hand, take part in child rearing often on their own terms and will justify, for example, not getting up at night because they are breadwinners or need recreation such as golf because of how hard they work. The mother has no outlet or escape whatsoever,” Leonard explains.
“Whatever your situation at home, the roles that make up your family life need to be ‘explicitly negotiated’, with all tasks and responsibilities put on the table and divided fairly between you,” suggests Leonard.
“There are no ‘shoulds’. If people choose traditional roles and both are happy, so be it. If they choose non-traditional roles, then they have to be clear that both have an equal voice in the negotiation.”
At the same time it’s important to realise that the roles you play in your children’s lives are not just about the ‘doing’ and the duties around parenting. It’s about the relationship with the children too. The actual act of splitting up tasks and doling out duties shouldn’t be turned into an epic battle – see this exercise as a positive way of staying focussed on your lives as a couple and as new parents and looking at how best to negotiate the new challenges.
“When people have children, the marriage changes dramatically,” says Leonard. “It is often a big challenge for men to accept that their partner is torn between many competing demands.”
Men can help their partners by not adding another competing demand. For example, if dad takes the children after work while mom relaxes in the bath or rests for half an hour, or helps to get them ready for bed and settled, he’ll find a “much more available, appreciative and even romantic wife waiting for him at the end of it.”
Fathers should also know that taking children to school or bathing them is often the most special, fulfilling time and should not be treated as a chore, but rather an opportunity to be close, suggests Leonard.
Working mom vs stay-at-home mom
If a father is the sole breadwinner – or main source of income – then can he expect to do less than a man whose wife also works outside the house?
“This depends on how they negotiate their role,” says Leonard. “The most important issue is that they both feel the division of labour is fair and they have exercised equal choice in making the decision, so it does not become a point of resentment between them.
“Men often have the belief that a stay-at-home mom has unlimited free time and choice over how she uses it. But the opposite is true. The dad, if he wants to be a participative, supportive partner, needs to know what challenges and demands his partner is experiencing and what he could do to be a real, effective support to her” suggests Leonard.
Working moms may also feel their partners should do as much, or nearly as much, child rearing as they do. However, Leonard points out that the issue is much broader and less clear-cut than it seems.
Whether a working mom or full-time mom, she needs some kind of support system and help. The working mom’s needs might be for more practical, hands-on help from her partner where the stay-at-home mom may need more support and understanding than actualy, physical help. The trick is for husband and wife to communicate their needs and expectations until both are happy with their roles and the expectations of their partner.
“The discussion should be about values and expectations, not about tasks. There should be no accusations or recriminations. It can be about trying to explain to your partner what you are experiencing and how he could make you feel more loved and supported,” advises Leonard.
A father has an important role in contributing to the emotional well-being of his family, and he can do this by making his partner feel loved, supported and valued, says Leonard.
“This will strengthen the marriage (or partnership) and teach the children to honour and respect their mother, which will make it less stressful for her to discipline the children, thus allowing her to be a more emotionally available mother.
“Mutual love and support in a marriage or partnership creates security for the children and is the foundation of a solid family,” he adds.
“We see parenting as a relationship – not a job”
Elizabeth Herschel and husband Andrew have their own set of household “rules”, working on the premise that parenting and partnerships are not jobs, but focussing on relationships and the fact that every person is unique.
“Children need physical care and assistance, emotional interaction and comforting, as well as play and stimulation. It can be a big mistake to assume that dad must provide the cash and the ball skills while mom takes care of the daily care and nurturing,” say Elizabeth.
“Individual parents have their own personalities, levels of patience, and energy, regardless of whether they are the mom or the dad.”
Elizabeth and Andrew have divided household tasks according to what works and not based on what “norms” have told them to do. “Some dads are fantastic at cooking, or at dealing with tantrums, or at rough and tumble play, while others are not. But every dad has some special skills or favourite roles, while others will feel like a chore.
“If there is something you both feel is a chore take turns on particular days – today you do the hair washing since I did it last time.
“If you look at parenting as a relationship, then the time and interaction spent directly affects the quality of that relationship. So if you use the ‘job’ perspective, you could think one parent is ‘winning’ by not having to do much in terms of childcare; but from the relationship perspective, that parent is ‘losing out’ on the chance to build a deeper, richer relationship with the child.
“Looking at parenting from the ‘job’ perspective, it is only fair that a stay-at-home mom should do most of the childcare and not expect a breadwinning dad to do a full half-share (though, then, to be fair, he must also pay her!).
“But, from a relationship perspective, how does it benefit either dad or child to have only token interactions? Much more, then, he needs to ‘catch up’ with his kids when he can,” they say.
Elizabeth is a more patient person than Andrew, so she routinely performs almost all of the “duties” – but this is because that’s how it works for them and not because it is how things are “done”. She says, “I’ve seen other families where dads do almost everything for the kids, plus breadwin and, because of the personalities, that is fine too!”
Being a hands-on dad
Clinical psychologist Leonard Carr offers a few simple tips on how to be a successful father in a happy family.
- See parenting as a career and treat it as such
- Be present for your children
- Get to know who they are and allow them to get to know you. This means experiencing each other from the earliest age in as many situations as possible
- If you participate in the small things, such as bath time and bedtime, they will want you to be involved in the big things later on, such as what career to choose or whom to marry.
Leonard Carr, clinical psychologist. Leonard consults in private practice, to government and local and international business. He appears on television and radio and writes a weekly column, Shrink Rap, for The Times. Email Leonard@leonardcarr.com or visit www.leonardcarr.com