A twenty-first century father

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

A few days before the global pandemic hit hard, I had an engaging conversation with Michael Ray - solo dad, writer, and advocate for equality and change.


Among the main things we discussed, the theme of male identity came up.


Since my conversation with Michael, I’ve had other conversations with many fathers; and the entanglement between paid work, self-worth and identity keeps coming up.

A twenty-first century father. Photo credit: Szilvia Basso

The following is an edited excerpt from my chat with Michael. I trust all parents will find it informative and inspiring in this day and age.


Suni Sánchez: In my work I always strive to include all parents - both mums and dads - but I still notice a big gap between the roles that we play as mothers and fathers.


I am wondering if you will happy to explore, and unpack, with me, some of what's going on there.


So, in specific:


- How does motherhood and fatherhood differ in terms of how we view and experience our parent roles?


- And why that might be potential problem in this day and age?

Michael Ray: I think a lot of it is social constructs around expectations that are placed on us, by others.

I grew up in a very traditional household. Mum and dad had a typical marriage in that dad was the breadwinner. Mum ran the house.


Mum didn't even have a driver’s licence until dad had a stroke later on in life because dad did everything for mum outside of the home.

When people say to me: “it’s great that you're embracing the role of mum and dad” I reply: “No, I have embraced the role of a parent

But you know, if Charlie’s mum and I hadn't separated, I probably would have slept-walked into the typical gendered role of me being the breadwinner.

And assuming that being a good dad meant providing and protecting; and that I would judge my success as a father on my ability to provide for my family. Whereas now, I realised that's not the best thing that dads can actually do.

There are numerous studies on income levels and children's outcomes, as far as emotional, social, even physical well being go.

Research shows that income level - apart from academic performance - has very little correlation with children's emotional, social or physical outcomes.

Time spent with parents, connection, and the bond between the parents and the child has a larger impact.

I say to fathers: “If you were to sacrifice some of your income for more time spent with your children, your children will be better off…but you need to be prepared to delve down deep and look at yourself and go:


‘how much of my work is simply providing for my children?, and how much do I find identity, satisfaction, and fulfilment from it?


Because there's nothing wrong with that. But don't kid yourself that you're doing it for the kids. And don't kid yourself saying, 'I've got work!'"

SS: That's such an important point. Separating the two things:


1. It being okay to be fulfilled in life, in whatever we are doing for our work, and


2. being aware that I'm doing this work for me too, as well as for my children,


The separation is a major shift in mindset, rather than using our child as an excuse for not being conscious.

And as you were saying, a lot of it is social constructs, and so the cycle continues.

MR: The really interesting thing, and unique position that I'm in Suni is, because I'm surrounded by mums, and I interact with mums - sometimes like I’m a fly on the wall - I have a completely different perspective.


A lot of the mum-guilt and mum-shame, is the exact same for dads; off killing themselves and feeling terrible and dissatisfied with working when they'd rather be home with little Johnny who’s got sport, or a school play; but I'm here at work, feeling like I'm letting him down, locked into this breadwinner role.

And a lot of the times mums feel like, you know, I'd actually like some outside stimulation, or I want to use my career I studied all those years, and I would like some of this, and they feel bad because 'my children they come first'

The term ‘maternal instinct’ should be thrown in the rubbish bin of history, because the only thing that it's good for is putting more pressure on women.


Parenting is a learned skill.

SS: Parenting is a learned skill! Yes! That's my line!

MR: What if we just said: “You know, we’re equal.

Some of us are good parents because of our parents. Some of us are good parents, despite our parents.

SS: For me is about the principles behind a healthy relationship with a child.

The difference between one parenting book, to another parenting book, one child to another child, one parent to the other parent…it can be huge.


But if we can look at it, as you were saying, 'we're equal' - that could be a principle. We are both deserving of respect, both child and parent.


Then we don't get too bogged down about whether a baby is sleeping eight hours at night or not.


It becomes about being a parent not doing parenting.

MR: If your child sleeps through the night, it doesn't make you a superior parent, you’re just bloody lucky!


(Laughter)


When I was seriously ill after a car accident, I realised my future wasn't guaranteed. So it really made me consider what's important, and prioritise my time.

When I speak to men, I ask them:


What sort of dad do you want to be remembered as?


What do you want your children to tell their children about you?


And just just be that dad.

To me, good parenting is the ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.


Don't get so busy in the day-to-day stuff that you lose sight of how special it is to be a dad. It's all about that connection.

Also trusting that your child is exactly who they are meant to be for that particular time, and watching them develop and then going to yourself, you know, I've got to work with this type of temperament, and this is what they thrive on. This is what they don't thrive on.

I hate those articles on 'how to embolden a shy child'.

If your child is shy, work with it. We don't try and fix extroverted adults!

SS: An important question to ask is, why is it that some of our children’s behaviour trigger us?

We can zoom in on that and see it from our perspective rather than blaming our kids for their developmentally-appropriate behaviour, rather than children getting into trouble for it.

That doesn't mean we cannot offer the support to, say, learn how to socialise successfully without having to try “to fix” an introverted child. We can still give them tools.


But if not aware of it ‘supporting our children’ can become wanting to control or change them.

MR: There's a difference between a coping strategy and acceptance.


SS: Exactly!


MR: And it breaks my heart, now after doing developmental psychology, that some parents hold their kids to a standard they've got no right to hold them to, as far as empathy and their sense of self.


They're simply not developmentally ready, or able, to grasp certain concepts at certain ages.

I was a swim teacher for many years, and I had parents bring their kids in and they’d say: “Right, he’s two years old, and I want him to be able to swim.”


And I’d say: “Great. If you bring your child back when he's five, I guarantee you within six months, he'll be as good as swimmer, as someone who's been with me since two. In the meantime, get in the pool with them a few a times a week for fun.”