It takes balls to be a dad. Literally, of course, in the anatomical sense, but increasingly it demands a certain inner resolve, too.
Rob Sturrock, author of Man Raises Boy, argues that we need to cultivate a new approach to manhood that involves challenging age-old stereotypes of the dad as stoical breadwinner. What this involves isn’t always for the faint-hearted. As Rob explains, dads today need to have the guts to “be the pioneer and be willing your neck out at work.”
The Father Hood: What opportunities do you think are now emerging that weren’t available to fathers of previous generations?
Rob Sturrock: The big opportunity is for dads to be more active carers of their kids, but also to change the community stereotypes around fatherhood.
There are obviously a lot of great dads out there doing great things for their kids every day. But there are still lingering cultural perceptions. The first is that the best thing a dad can do is to be at work, earning money and providing financial stability for the family. The second is that, even if dad is at home taking care of the kids, then he’s probably not going to do as good a job as mum.
They’re really tired tropes now and one of the big opportunities for dads is to break those assumptions and create a brand new approach to fatherhood. They can create a new image, which is that dads can be wonderful carers and do it just as well as mums while also juggling their careers. That might mean having more involved conversations about balancing work and family – something men haven’t had to really deal with previously. But the opportunities are really exciting and probably outweigh the challenges that we may face.
TFH: It’s an interesting challenge because I think in previous generations the scoreboard for a dad was basically: go out and earn money. If you provided for your family then you were a good dad. Suddenly, it’s more complex than that. How do you think men should go about managing that kind of juggling act of wanting to be present at home, but also to be a good employee and bring money in. What advice would you have about how to tackle that challenge?
RS: It’s a really difficult one and, as a dad of about four years, I’m still working out the best way to approach it, too. But for me, it starts from the point of view that, as a dad, you can certainly do anything for your kids and your family. But that doesn’t mean you can do everything.
There has to be some give and take. Something has to give in terms of your work and career. In the past, men have not had to grapple with the challenge of “can we have it all?” We’ve thought intrinsically that we can have it all. We can have a loving partner, happy kids and a great career. But that came at the cost of doing more direct caring for kids and I think that’s the real rub.
Now dads are trying to do things differently and take on more caring. But that’s really hard. Cause you’re trying to challenge stereotypical assumptions, which sounds okay in theory, but in practice can be tough. It can be awkward when you’re one of the only dads at work that is leaving to do the day-care pickup or go to the school event or take a day off because your kid is home sick.
So the first tip I’d give for dads is, if you’re trying to do more caring, that’s fantastic, but it could prove a bit of a bumpy ride at first. It’s going to be worth it, but you’ve really got to stick at it and have faith that the decisions you’ve made to spend more time with your kids will, in the long run, outweigh any turbulence you may experience in the short term.
Be the pioneer. Be willing to stick your neck out at work. Take that parental leave. Go to the daycare event. Don’t feel afraid to do it. Cause if you do, you’ll break open that gateway for other men behind you in your workplace who are desperate to do the same thing. If you’re looking around for someone to lead the charge, take the reins yourself.
TFH: Yes, it can take some courage as a father to, say, be the person willing to pack up their desk at 4pm and walk out of work before the rest of your colleagues in order to pick up the kids. It does take some guts. But the pay-off is that no-one on their death bed, wishes they’d spent more time in the office.
RS: Everyone’s got to find the right balance for them. There’s no single right model and we’re certainly not trying to be judgemental on others dads. If it’s best for that family for the dad to be a full-time worker and earn the majority of the income, then that’s a totally reasonable way to be a dad. What we’re trying to do in a discussion like this is to encourage guys to think outside the box a bit. To see that they’ve got more options than they might otherwise believe and to not feel trapped into having to be the breadwinner. There’s lots of great ways to be a dad. Don’t feel you’ve just got to do what your boss is doing or your colleagues are doing or what your dad did before you.
That’s the tricky thing for our generation of dads, because we ourselves inherited quite a narrow, straight-laced vision of masculinity. It can be really hard to unpack those assumptions. But it’s definitely going to be worth it.
TFH: When you’re talking about those stereotypes that we’ve seen role modelled in previous generations, what are you seeing in terms of how that shifting vision of positive masculinity could look like?
RS: The big one is the sense that, if you’re a dad that wants to spend more time at home caring for your kids, then that’s somehow a dereliction of your duty as a man. That you’re somehow less of a man and are a bit weird or a bit weak. That’s all nonsense.
For centuries before the industrial revolution, men were at home with their family working side by side and taking care of their kids and working the land. It was only when the industrial revolution came along that dads started going off into the factories and the cities that they started to be more absent.
Secondly, in our father’s generation a lot of value was placed on stoicism. There was the idea that you don’t really talk about problems, you just shoulder the burden and get on with life. As a man you didn’t complain or show any emotional frailties. You found a self-sufficiency and resilience within yourself and anything else was a demonstration of weakness. When it came to your kids, you’d spend more time with kids when you’re on the doorstep of retirement. That was the way to be a man.
The big challenge for our generation of men is to say, “Look, that doesn’t work anymore” (if it ever worked at all!). We need to be much more inclusive and accepting. There’s countless ways to be a man and to feel like a man and to act like a man. And we need to show our sons that too.
We’re seeing that boys, teenagers and young men are far less likely to ask for help than girls if they’re having doubts in life or mental health problems. We need to be able to say to boys, there’s plenty of ways to grow up and be a man. We need to show them really positive ways to do that and say, if you want to talk or ask for help that is perfectly normal. In fact, everyone needs that.
TFH: So what do dads today really need to do in terms of truly stepping into this broader opportunity?
RS: We want men to be asking to take time out of work and to care for their kids. We want men everywhere to take the lead in these conversations and to be unpacking what we think masculinity means these days. Plus if we’re in an awkward situation where there’s bullying or harassment or sexist remarks then, rather than looking down at our shoes, it’s up to us to call them out and challenge them in a constructive way. It has to come from us, right? It’s got to be led by men ourselves.
TFH: One thing I love is that bravery and courage are traits that we’d all want to be known for. And it sounds like we’ve got to show that courage in this new type of fatherhood.
RS: Yeah, absolutely. I think the courage point is a really good one. Just like we have inherited a very narrow version of masculinity, we’ve also inherited a very narrow definition of courage. It’s really limited to heroism in war or feats of strength on the sports field. But holding up your vulnerabilities to your friends or your partner, or deciding to do things a bit differently with your family, well they’re all courageous things to do because they’re going against the stream. So we need really applaud when guys do that.
But it’s this tricky balance. We want to celebrate dads that are doing things differently but we don’t want to champion them above and beyond for doing what are, ultimately, the ordinary tasks of parenting. I’ve just done three months of paternity leave and got lots of, “Wow, that’s fantastic! Good for you. What a great dad you are!” But the reality is I did one third of the time my wife did and she gets none of those plaudits.
So it’s a really fine balance because, if we don’t find champions for this new way of doing things, then people won’t feel they can do things differently. But we also don’t want to put people up on a pedestal for doing what should be the ordinary things of life.
Hopefully in 10 years or so we’ll just be talking about parents and there’s no such thing as primary and secondary carer leave. It’ll just be parents taking leave and looking after their kids.
Listen to the full episode of The Father Hood’s new podcast in partnership with Parents at Work: here.