Fatherhood: we’re doing better than previous generations

As a special punishment, Father’s Day has this year been extended to Father’s Week, and possibly even Father’s Month. The wonder of dads is being explored in a special BBC4 season. The nature of fatherhood, and how it has changed down the decades, is being solemnly discussed in the media.


 It is probably all very commendable, this outbreak of pro-dad gloopiness, but in one area it seems to have got slightly out of hand. Bravely addressing the ancient generalisation which had it that fathers of the first half of the 20th century were abusive and uncaring towards children, the TV documentary A Century of Fatherhood has come up with a generalisation of its own.


“Fathers have had a much closer and more loving relationship with their children than you might think from popular literature, newspaper columns or television,” the BBC4 controller Richard Klein has said, welcoming a “heartwarming” series.


It is a brave stand to make, the suggestion that men are not as monstrous as they have sometimes been portrayed, but unfortunately, in this context, it is wrong. The generation of men who fought in the Second World War and their immediate successors had many great virtues. They were brave, tough and uncomplaining. They had a sense of social duty which is enviable today. The hedonism, ego and general silliness of later decades were alien to them. But they were not good at fatherhood.


There is a risk here of generalising in the manner of a TV documentary. Doubtless, some fathers in the 1950s and 1960s were lovingly engaged in domestic life and openly affectionate towards their families. For most, though, the very idea of fatherhood as a topic worthy of study and discussion would be mystifying. Children were duty. When a man grew up, he got married and became a father. From there on, his obligation was to see that his brats were fed, clothed and educated until they were ready to join the adult world. The details of how they were raised were left to their mothers.


It was perhaps inevitable that those whose youth was lost to war would see peacetime responsibility as a dull and tame thing. Beside the sharp realities of serving one’s country, the business of being a husband and father was a bore. The closeness of men fighting and dying for each other and for a great cause was likely to make domestic life seem dreary and inglorious.


Many of that generation of men, at least in the middle classes, recovered from the war by pursuing their own particular passions and enthusiasms – sport, business, a career, drinking, lazing about. It was their turn now; the women were there to serve on the domestic front. To the world at large, they were perfectly good fathers. They attended Speech Days at their children’s boarding-schools. They paid the bills, provided a vague, distant threat of discipline when needed.


Affection, or at least openly expressed affection, was never part of the deal, and nor was physical contact. The only time I touched my father (unless one counts punching him on the nose with a pair of boxing-gloves he gave my brother and me when we were small) was holding his hand on his death-bed. There was nothing abnormal about this. His was not a cosy generation.


Fathers of subsequent decades have had their failings, usually associated with selfishness, indulgence and a fear of being unpopular with their own children but, from the 1960s onwards, the idea that raising sons and daughters is a dull task to be endured began to fade. In this area at least, there has been true and impressive progress over the past five decades. Today’s fathers are interested and engaged in the lives of their children in a way that would have been inconceivable – indeed, ludicrous and unmanly – not so long ago. The Father’s Day experience, the need to have BBC fatherhood seasons, may occasionally be rather too cloying for some tastes, but it is a fault on the right side.


What previous generations have seen as a chore, most modern fathers embrace as one of life’s great challenges, joys and privileges. Where earlier dads have failed – or, rather, have remained aloof – they are succeeding.

Independent, Tuesday, 29 June 2010