Pupil free days are the most inconvenient things for working parents. Without the benefit of local grandparents or kind hearted friends, parents can be stuck with any number of kids and be forced to make a call to a demanding superior who accepts their decision to stay home in an obviously disingenuous tone.
I had the pleasure of this experience a few Fridays back and spent the day with my nine year old. We slept in, had bacon and eggs at a local café and shopped for a friends birthday present. It was great, despite the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach.
As we sat in the car chatting, she said to me, “Dad, did you know anyone can be a father, yet it takes someone special to be a dad.”
Apparently it is a line from the film, Daddy Day Care, yet I suspect its origins might lie quite distant from a cheesy Hollywood script writer. It was a beautiful thing to say and stemmed from the fact that Father’s Day was looming.
As my ipod clicked over to a new song, it became the soundtrack of our conversation. Weddings, Parties and Anything sounded glorious with their classic song Father’s Day. The beautiful lyric that speaks of every Saturday feeling like Father’s Day to a separated dad missing his son through the week, would pull on the heart strings of most men in that position.
It felt as if there was some sort of conspiracy forcing me to reflect on the role of a dad: what we are meant to be, hope to be and try to be. I realised that it was more than just being a dad. In essence it was more about being a man.
Sitting down afterwards, it occurred to me that the mere fact reflection occurs around this issue is the issue itself. The confusion and doubt many men feel about their roles and identity stems from a changing landscape that has evolved over the last fifty to sixty years.
It seems the goal posts have somewhat shifted and the sense of disorientation felt by men has never been higher.
As a counterpoint, I tried to think about the great women in my life and what changes have occurred as they have grown. In the case of my wife, sister and mother I could see a consistent pattern.
Women agitated, and rightly so, against injustice, discrimination and restriction. They wanted the same rights and opportunities as their male counterparts. There was something of a positivity about the changes that took place. They gained things.
Better opportunities in the workplace, maternity leave that didn’t mean a couple of days leave granted by a resentful male employer who didn’t want to employ her in the first place because, ‘he knew this would happen’, and a stronger voice in public life, media and the arts.
Women agitate well and the inroads that were made in these areas were decisive and immensely effective in promoting the just cause of women everywhere.
What it is to be a woman is now well defined. Strong, intelligent, empowered and blessed with the capability to sit opposite a male without a sense of intimidation, service or inferiority that should be a feature of any modern, wealthy and western society.
The male version seems somewhat ill defined. I’m not sure that we know exactly what we are supposed to be. I once saw advertising guru Simon Reynolds, most famous for the safe sex inspired grim reaper campaign of the late eighties, in conference with a room full of women discussing the modern man. He suggested that men were lost due to their attempt to be a ‘sensitive cave man’.
I knew exactly what he meant. As inappropriate as it is to drag a woman off to the cave for lovemaking, there are still times when women enjoy men who take the lead and call upon more traditional social mores. Many of my tasks and responsibilities are still based on gender roles of generations past. Killing rodents, rubbish removal, sports viewing, outdoor maintenance and technology apparently all fall under my reign.
Balancing these with my passionate love of cooking, music, reading and writing challenged me from a very young age.
Being in Education for near on twenty years, I have seen this mirrored by the structures and pedagogy put in place in academic institutions. Boys play is frowned upon as rough, wrong and destructive; political correctness has eliminated many of the physical structures on which they previously expressed themselves in play for fear of injury.
Young men have increasingly become more connected with the arts and culture; more boys than ever play musical instruments, dance and perform drama. Less and less merit is given to their love and passion for sport, cars, surfing etc. These activities are grouped under one of the most sexist and appalling labels ever placed on men, ‘boys and their toys.’
The core academic curriculum requires them to work in more traditionally feminine spheres and construct diary entrys, journal, paint, draw and reflect. Whilst a small percentage of boys will excel in this area girls have always had the luxury of the option to take on more traditionally male pursuits such as Design and Technology, Woodwork and Software Design, rather than be forced to prove their worth in these endeavours.
Academic results don’t tell us that there is something wrong with males, who are consistently outperformed by girls, they tell us that there is something wrong with our curriculum.
From a young age we tell men that their behaviour is inappropriate and tantamount to buffoonery. Just watch television commercials and note how many feature a foolish man, husband or father failing to look after kids appropriately or lacking the brains to resist the lure of the hardware store.
I can only imagine the vitriol directed at male advertising executives if they were to pursue the failings of women in the same manner. I realise right now that they once did, and women stopped it!
As men grow older, they grapple with these issues through school and struggle to find a happy medium. Confused by girls and their increasingly different outlook on life compared to their own fathers. The young man that I now most commonly see is a man-scaping, moisturising, skinny-legged jean wearing hipster who is doing dismally at school and not sure if he is allowed to enjoy the footy anymore.
Men kill themselves at an alarming rate, still commit, by far, the majority of violent crimes and suffer ever increasing rates of anxiety, alcoholism and depression that is reaching levels of deep concern.
Just as the dream of truly bi-partisan Government where the issue itself is at the centre of the debate rather than parochial viewpoints, the image of men and women working together to help men understand themselves again is appealing.
I know each time anything like this issue comes up around the dining table with friends and family, women take on a very defensive position and remind us all of the fight they undertook in order to reach a better understanding of their own femininity.
As a sensible, educated man I don’t begrudge any of that. What I do know, is that men need to understand themselves far better than they currently do.
My little girl should expect that of her father and one day, hopefully, her son.