‘Being Dad’ – a Fathers Day reflection for 2011

This is the full length version of the article originally published in the Aug/Sept edition of Kids on the Coast.

Being Dad

by Jeff Licence

It’s Fathers day again, promising us Dads an array of socks, chocs, jocks, aftershave, gardening tools, car wash, razors and other essentials in a mans life. But once the presents have been opened, the milky cornflakes wiped off the doona and the sun set on the day, what does it mean to be a good father these days and how do busy fathers live full, balanced and creative lives in the fast paced 21st century?

As just one Dad living through the roller coaster of modern fathering, I thought I’d share some of my own experiences, as well as the wisdom of some good Dads I know, in celebration of this thing called fatherhood.

My own journey as a father started 8 years ago. My wife greeted me at the door one day with a mischievous grin, held up a double blue lined pregnancy test and we were gone.

We were building a house at the time and there’s nothing like a babies due date for a man to really throw his back into his work. Consequently, 2 weeks before we were due to move in and about 3 months before the baby was due, I did throw my back out and found myself an immobile wreck. All I could do was watch my heavily pregnant wife pack and stare at the mess around our new house.

Thankfully, an upright posture was mine again in time for the birth. There is nothing that makes a man feel more redundant and awed by a woman, than seeing her in labour and witnessing their sheer animal determination that screams, “This baby will be MINE!!”

After 28 hours of heart shattering and unproductive labour, my wife Nadia was taken in for an emergency caesarian and our beautiful son Asher entered the world to the sound of his mother singing…

“Oooh child, things are going to get easier, Oooh child, things will get brighter,

Oooh child, we’ll walk together in a beautiful sun, Oooh child, things will be brighter.”

There is no preparation for fatherhood. Sure, having a dog and looking after nieces and nephews was good practice, but the sheer 24/7, sleep deprived, stained and messy magnitude of it all has to be experienced to be believed. A wise father a few years ahead of me said, “Once you get through the first 6 weeks, you’ll be ok.” It took us all of that time and more to get used to this suckling little creature dominating all aspects of life and yet, it couldn’t have been more right.

I remember my first trip to the shops with 3 week old Asher. I carried him proudly, feeling like he was the first and most beautiful baby in the world. It was then I started noticing all the prams and other babies traveling the aisles with me. It was like joining a new team and it felt special to be wearing the same vomit stained jersey. I could now give that small, knowing, “Yes, aren’t they cute” look to passing mothers, and the more understated, “Oh my God, what have we got our selves into…I haven’t slept in weeks…. but isn’t it amazing!”  look to passing Dads.

A few months later, I had another revelation about the depth of this new team I had joined. I was standing at the beach with Asher in the shallows, letting him enjoy the splash and surge of the water, when I noticed several other men around me, patiently watching over their kids. This was a group of men I’d never noticed before – tired, bedraggled, loving Dads watching over their flock. It made me think for the first time of the long line of fathers before me who had stood in these deep parental waters and it felt special to be part of that number. And it made me think of my own Dad.

My fathers story is sadly short. He died of cancer at age 48, father of 5, when I was 12. My memories of him, some real and some reflections from stories and photos, are of a strong, smiling, practical man who built our house, fixed our cars, loved us and our mother and worked as an engineer.

When Dad got sick, it was like the air was sucked from the room. He started feeling sick on New Years day 1980 and died on Remembrance day that same year. As a 12 year old, his loss was well beyond my emotional comprehension and no one was ever able fill that man sized void.

I wonder now, how my Dad had time to do all that was asked of him; go to work, be a good husband and father, volunteer at a million working bees, as well as build our house on weekends over 15 years. I wonder how he found balance in his life and if he looked after the things that he felt passionate about. I’d love to sit down and ask him.

Instead, I asked some friends; men and fathers I admire for their ability to balance the juggling act that is 21st Century fathering. They all share a great love for their children and families and a healthy respect for themselves.

Alan and his partner have recognised the need to take time for themselves, as well as to make time for family. This helps them maintain their individual identity, feeds and recharges their relationship and keeps their creative fires alive. And of course, communication is key.

“We discuss how to be a good parents, to set boundaries, to give our children freedom through discipline, parent with a fair, yet firm hand to navigate around the Cape of Good Parental Hope.

Our children have a natural talent for making us fully appreciate life’s little joys. Sometimes I am fit to burst with tears of perfect joy when I hear one of my children belly laugh. Other times I am so utterly exhausted, that I explode uncontrollably at the kids to BE QUIET and feel terrible afterwards. I immediately apologise and it seems children are the best people in the world at moving on quickly from such an outburst.

I am at times turned into a “Rebel without a cause” from the seemingly endless responsibility that being a Dad brings, though I’ve got much better at timing these outpourings of wilder energy. We remain focussed on our own passions and talk about how important they are, but are happy to put the family first in the end. Fathering has helped me to be a better person.”

As Alan says, parenting is one of the best ways to grow as a human being, if you can rise to the challenges, roll with the punches and release the frustrations. However, when we are sleep deprived, covered in our kids snot and up to our eyeballs in dirty dishes, keeping a clear perspective can be tricky. Sometimes the objective view of a friend, parent or counselor can help us see through the parental fog.

Stephen Hoskin is a Men’s Counselor based on the Gold Coast. He has worked with men and young men for over ten years and understands there are many changes affecting modern fathering.

“The changes in the role of fatherhood have overall been very positive, mainly due to the greater involvement and emotional connection we are able to have with our kids. With these gains have come greater expectations and the need to learn parenting skills that may or may not have been role modelled for us by our own fathers.

We still need to be authoritative with our kids. What has changed is that the authority and respect needs to be earned through how we relate, rather than just being a given. We also need to be communicating with our wives/partners on an equal basis so that even if we have different parenting styles, we can be on the same page. These aspects of modern fatherhood are, I think, much trickier than in previous generations and the rewards, such as deeper relationships, are potentially much higher if we can discover the skills that are needed.

Steve suggests these as some positive dad behaviours:

  • Being consistent with boundaries and rules.
  •  Be aware to maintain and repair emotional connection and remember, it is the behaviour and not the child that we are responding to.
  • Being able to have, show, name and own our strong emotions without directing them at our kids – how we respond is critical to maintaining healthy relationships.
  • Being an ‘emotional coach’ for our kids, helping them find words for their own emotions and responses. Asking open questions can help them identify what they are feeling –  What, When, How, Why, Where questions.
  • Be really curious about our children’s viewpoint and avoid giving advice or trying to solve their problems for them – particularly from pre teen years onwards.

My friend Pete’s kids are nearly all teenagers, and his parenting style has evolved as his kids have grown and become more responsible.

“When an issue arises with one of my kids, or when I feel it’s a good time, I take them (one on one) down to the bridge over the creek near our house and sit. The idea is to pause life for a moment and create a forum to allow any issues to fall out. I don’t try and solve the problem, just get them talking about it, relate my own life experience at their age (they love that!) and talk about their options.

I reckon true fathering is allowing them the space and time to figure out the issue themselves with my support. Having these kinds of discussions in a quiet, natural place is important too – nature is a good environment for a grounded conversation.”

By being there, but not solving his kids problems for them, Pete’s calling on his kids to step up and be responsible for the issues that affect them and the family. Teaching our kids how to solve problems for themselves is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

“To be an effective father you’ve got to commit to the role. Sure you can cruise along and try and be a friend to your child, avoiding the ups and downs in the relationship, but really, they’ve probably already got loads of friends – they need a father.”

Pete’s talking about being a role model and boundary setter, who creates the edges of behaviour and expectations for kids, so that they know what to push up against and where they feel safe within. It’s not always the most popular position in the house, but it’s a vital pillar in the child’s emotional and social foundations. It also shows your kids you respect yourself enough to have boundaries.

Respecting yourself enough to keep your own passions alive is another challenge for many busy Mums and Dads. Sometimes the T.V or computers become the default relaxation mode, as it’s a passive, entertaining way to disappear. So how do we maintain our passions, when just running the kids bath and getting them into bed can seem like an epic task at the end of the day?

Men’s counselor, Steve Hoskins suggest to ask yourself:

“What do you love doing that recharges your batteries? What might you have stopped doing due to the busyness of life? How can you create space to do more of those things that give you a little recharge? One dad I worked with said he used to drive home via the beach and go for a walk to consciously let go of the day’s work, so that when he walked through the front door, he was able to be more present with his family.”

Many families today are blended families, where children come and go between the homes of ex partners, adding a whole other layer of complexity to the parenting role. My friend Eric has 2 children of his own and 2 step children from his new marriage and describes the juggling act as “very interesting!”.

“Fathering to me means being there for my children as much as possible, being present in their lives, especially as we have them week on week off. I am very involved in their sport and take them all surfing as much as they want in the time we have them. Feeding my soul with surfing has always been pretty illusive for me until the last year or two. Now I can surf and exercise after the kids have left for the school bus and more in the week that we don’t have them. This setup allows my wife and I alone time when we don’t have the kids, which we cherish.”

For myself, finding balance in my role as a father and husband, while attempting to make a living through my creativity has been a challenging adventure. After many years of teaching young kids about media, I now work as a video producer, write articles and teach children, parents, and teachers about media. Getting here has involved luck, hard work and mostly the courage to take the leap of faith into doing what I love.

It’s taken some adjusting for all the family and especially for my wife who has to put up with me working from home, but the benefits have been immeasurable. I now have more time to be with my family and to honour my own creative passions. I’m earning less but the quality of my life has doubled.

My own children are now aged 4 and 7 and the more time I spend with them, the more I learn. The other day I asked them, “Where does the energy come from that makes things alive in the world?”

Mia (4) said, “We are on the planet and it’s spinning around like you’re in a race and that’s why your hearts beeping when you’re running.”

Asher (7) thought for a minute, then said, “The energy for the world comes from ….the Sun….God….love ……your heart!”

I could only smile and agree and think how lucky I am to be a Dad sharing his life with these amazing little beings.

End

Bio – Jeff Licence is a writer, filmmaker, early childhood teacher and media education consultant.

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