A new generation of dads - helping dads define & embody their new identities



“What sort of a Dad are you?”


When Simon Pegg was asked this on Desert Island Discs a few years ago, I hadn’t been listening that closely – but now the conversation had my attention. His reply was, “Sometimes I’m a good dad and sometimes I’m a crap dad.” So far, so what. But then he went on to make an observation that has resonated with me ever since and impacted the coaching work I do with men who are either hoping to be or are already Dads.


His observation was that this generation of Dads are particularly self-consciously struggling because they are trying to radically change the role of being Dad, and doing so without any guidance from their own father’s behaviour. What did he mean by this?


Well, my interpretation is that the role of Dad has for many, many generations been what I would describe as two dimensional – let’s call them 2D Dads. Whilst they financially supported the family, they were, for the most part, absent from their children’s lives – both physically and emotionally.


Physically, they were at work during the week, and ‘hid’ in their study, or the pub, or in my Dad’s case, the garden, during the weekend. There was little expectation from society or their wives that they needed to be present, and so they weren’t. And emotionally, they were also absent. I remember my own father receiving the news on the phone, one supper time, that his mother had died. He thanked the caller, sat back down to his meal, and continued eating. I never saw him upset or sad or grieve in any way. Men were strong. Men were brave. Men certainly didn’t cry just because their mother had died.


And the result was that generations of boys grew up believing that this 2D Dad was the right way to be a father. That it was Dad’s role to demonstrate strength, hard work and, of course, authority. Because the one emotion 2D Dad was allowed and expected to demonstrate was anger, or maybe in milder men, disappointment. I am not saying that these 2D Dads did not love their children, and I’m sure plenty of them demonstrated this in certain ways, just not usually verbally or proactively.


But today’s Dads want to be 3D Dads – actively engaged in their children’s lives, meeting their emotional needs, and engaged in their development. There has been a revolution in society’s expectations of the role of Dad. Social scientists have demonstrated the impact on sons and daughters of the positive role model that Dad can be. Wives and partners are rightly demanding an equal sharing of the physical and emotional parenting load. And so, most importantly, Dads have now been given the permission they always wanted, but didn’t feel allowed, to take up fully the role of Parent.


The challenge, as Simon Pegg observed, is that without the role model or lived experience of 3D fatherhood, this generation of Dads are having to figure it out as they do the job. And when you’re changing the wheels on a moving car, sometimes that car is going to swerve and jolt around the road. I see this all the time with my coaching clients – whether fathers-to-be, new dads or dads with teenage and older kids – they are still defining the Dad they want to be. They’re still fighting against the messages they received as a kid about what it means to be a man.


Sometimes they get it right and are able to be completely emotionally present to their children, whether being fully involved in the birth and early demands of coping with a tiny baby, or supporting their child though anxiety or fear as they develop their own identities. I’ve seen Dads not only taking their child to school on their first day, but openly crying at the school gates with the other parents. Hell, I’ve been that Dad!


Sometimes they get it wrong and they lapse back into 2D Dad; perhaps avoiding an emotional conversation, or telling their hurt son that there’s no need to cry because there are other Dads watching. I’ve been there too, and it pains me to remember it, and it frustrates me that in that moment, it wasn’t the other Dads I was thinking about, it was my own Dad and his expectations of how a father should behave.


So, what can these Dads do to help themselves fight this good and worthwhile fight? When Steve, one of my clients, came to see me shortly after the birth of his second child, he spoke of struggling with ‘my identity as Dad’ and the resentment this was causing with his partner. The first question I posed was, “What is the goal you are seeking from your parenting?” Once he had explored this and challenged himself on what was inherited and what was his own, I then explained that to change the outcomes we desire, we have to change our behaviours and actions. For Steve, his goal was for his children to be able to live their lives authentically, and so we worked through which behaviours he needed to demonstrate and what actions he needed to take to allow that possible outcome to occur? But change also requires us to acknowledge and explore the feelings and thoughts that influence our behaviours. Why in certain situations do I feel embarrassment or anxiety? Why do I find myself criticising or putting my child down when another situation arises? It’s only when we’re conscious of the causes of our negative patterns of behaviour that we can make them positive.


Secondly, Dads need to learn from Mums, who have always culturally reached out to each other for support. No longer does Dad need to be an island – there are increasing numbers of Dads’ spaces, be they physical groups that meet and share or digital sources of support and information – I highly recommend searching up Daddilife.com as a great starting point, and for me the book, Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph was a game-changer in the way I saw my role as Dad..


One of my happiest related memories was going to a neighbour’s house for a BBQ, walking into the garden and approaching all the men gathered around the grill. My expectation was that the conversation would be football, music or booze-related but instead it was about how to best have ‘the talk’ with our sons. I had an incredible sense of pride in just how far this generation of Dads has come. And the work could not be more important; for ourselves, our families, and their families to come.

 

About the author:

Andrew Waddell is the founder of The MidLife Coach, specialising in helping midlife men overcome their 'stuckness' and re-find their purpose and direction in life. After 20 years working for and managing advertising agencies, he requalified as a transformational coach and achieved a Masters in Systemic-Psychodynamic Consultancy. He is a passionate supporter of Suicide Prevention Awareness and a Men's Mental Health advocate.

www.midlife-coach.co.uk

www.linkedin.com/company/midlifecoach

www.facebook.com/andrewthemidlifecoach

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