I recently read an article by David Lammy, a Labour MP, entitled "We all need more help to become a better man". I may not agree with his political ideology, but I can and do agree with what he says in this very thoughful article. It is very true that men in general are reluctant to discuss issues of masculinity. It is also true that today there are any number of female role models - but very few worthwhile male ones in the public eye. Yes, I know there are the footballers and rock-stars - but are they really the best role models we can find for young boys and men?
Many men of my generation grew up with father's who had been through the war, just as they grew up with father's traumatised by the 'Great' War and I suspect that affected their ideas of masculinity and parenting to a very large extent. It certainly did in my case. My father suffered endless nightmares and drank heavily to drown them out. He'd served in the RN, seen men die in battles, seen men drown trapped below decks, burned in cordite fires - and finally fought in the Cheong War in the Burmese Arakan peninsula campaign. He had good reason for his nightmares - but he was hardly equipped to raise my brother and I - or to provide us with a good role model of fatherhood.
My 'father substitute' was my maternal grandfather, but like my father, he'd seen the slaughter, the lunacy and the inhumanity of war at first hand. He'd served in the Royal Inniskillen Fusiliers and went over the top on the first day of the Somme. After six months of recuperation from his wounds, and now deemed unfit to continue as an infantryman, he was reposted to the Royal Garrison Artillery and spent the rest of the war delivering 7.2 inch howitzer shells onto the German trenches while they returned the favour. He too had his demons that sometimes disturbed our sleep, and he too had problems with being a 'father' model.
So when it came to my turn to be a husband and father - what did I know about it? Well, I certainly didn't want to emulate either the 'don't argue with me - do as you're told' approach of my grandfather, or my father's way of always managing to detract from any achievement. He had a special line in always managing to make anything I did sound like failure, and I certainly didn't want to go down that route with my own children. So I tried to be the perfect father/husband a la romantic novels. Fail. Big time.
My eldest was 14 when my marriage finally broke down, my son just 11 and my youngest just turning 8. It was, without any doubt at all, the hardest moment in my life. In fact, in the months leading up to it I had found myself considering stepping onto the track as the Canterbury East to Victoria train approached my station. I've never been quite sure whether I simply lacked the courage, or whether, having as a fire fighter, dealt with the aftermath and seen the trauma such actions cause, I couldn't bring myself to inflict it on my family, the train driver or the other folk on the platform. Either way, at 43 years of age, I had to find my own feet again, find a new home, and build a new life - one I was determined would include as much time with my children I could manage.
David Lammy makes the point that his father 'walked out' of his life at the age of 12, and that struck a cord with me, because I'd more or less done the same to my kids. OK, I didn't really have much choice. Remaining in London on the salary I was then earning wasn't an option. I simply could not afford to pay the maintenance necessary to keep my family afloat and housed (the house we owned was in very negative equity to put it mildly) pay my bank loans (taken out to bridge the equity gap) and rent a room. A cardboard box beneath Waterloo Bridge was hardly an option my employers would be happy about, so I accepted that I would have to change career and location. That took me to Gloucestershire. Now reality really bit. I could afford a drive to London (ironic - going by car was cheaper than the train fare!) once a month, and spend around six hours with my children. Yes, that was the reality, and that is the reality for many 'absent' fathers who make the effort to stay in touch.
It isn't funny, and it isn't nice - but who, besides you and your children, gives a damn?
To my mind, many 'modern' fathers face this problem. We are completely unprepared for the responsibilities and we often have no real role model around which to shape our ideas of what a father does or how one behaves. Some, obviously, are lucky and do have great fathers, others, like me, have had to look beyond our own families to find a role model, with varying degrees of success. Now add in the complication of the demands of modern employment.
As I said earlier, my career was with the fire service. When I joined in South Africa, the job was a 'live in' situation with us being 'on call' 24/5 and having two days off in seven. With your family (if you were married) living at the fire station you had plenty of time with them, but the downside was also that they saw and heard plenty of things you might have wished they didn't. When we moved to a shorter working week, my wife and I were the first to take advantage of being able to 'live off' the station. But, with a shift based on an 84 hour week, I didn't see nearly as much of the children as I had. When we moved to London that was compounded by the commuting conditions one encounters in London - while my employment was 9 to 5, there was a one hour (if I was lucky) journey at each end of that, plus to time to get to the stations and wait for the train. So I was leaving home at the time the children were just getting up and getting home again about an hour before they went to bed.
We had the weekends, of course, but it's funny how those fill up with grocery shopping, DIY around the house, the garden, sorting out things for your own parents ...
Yes, Mr Lammy, I could certainly have used some good role models, and some decent guidance as I grew up in how a real man responds to things. Yes, I have also seen all the 'New Man', the 'Metrosexual', the New Age Man and all the rest. I don't think that making 'Paternity Leave' payments larger, or the arrangements for parental shared leave easier will cure this, primarily because the root of the problem lies in how our own fathers behaved and how they taught us to respond. Faced with a problem, my father dived into a bottle, I didn't, but I certainly found my own ways to try to skate around it, or to not deal with something. Neither approach was a good one.
What we really need is a new approach to raising boys in our society - not a 'social engineering' one, but a common sense approach. One that provides boys with good role models, not damaged and broken ones, not ones that are self glorifying and self absorbed. At present I suspect that the majority of boys in our society find their role models among their peers, which is why we are seeing gang cultures and 'laddish' behaviours. We need to educate parents - and perhaps politicians and social engineers - in the fact that boys do need as much nurture, guidance and care as the girls. But I rather suspect I'm not going to see it change in my lifetime or even in the next generations.
We have to start somewhere though, and at least it is now being talked about.