The Changing Face of Fatherhood

By Dr Balvinder Khaira

When I sat down to write this piece I realised just how broad this topic is. Fatherhood is such an individual experience. It is an experience and role that not only for men but anyone who identifies with the position. Given the breadth of the topic, I chose to write from my experience of fatherhood.

I grew up with the tradition of storytelling in my family. I never met my grandfather, but my father would tell me stories of him that would exemplify sacrifice and courage. I think those kinds of ideas encapsulate the traditional role of the father in my culture. It was a role defined by values such as providing, protecting and sacrifice. My father remembered his own father as a hero and model of fatherhood. However, the world changed quickly between my grandfather and father. My father lived during a paradigm shift from a traditional culture into modernity. He now had the choice to become more involved with child-rearing and my mother also was able to work and contribute financially. It is essential here to acknowledge that the efforts of women in liberating the role of motherhood had an equally strong effect on men’s traditional roles. Men were now also able to choose to step beyond the confinements of the traditional father and now had the privilege of choice to deepen their involvement with their family and children.

I read a study recently that was looking at brain imaging of new mothers and found their emotional centres grew after childbirth. Interestingly, gay men who identified as the primary carer for their child had almost identical changes as birthmothers. It shows that humans as such have enormous abilities and we grow and adapt according to our roles.

Some social commentators postulate that after modernity came postmodernity, a movement characterised by scepticism towards society’s grand narratives of gender, sexuality and fixed roles. The concept of the postmodern father is much more fluid, as postmodernity comes with the invitation to advocate for all permutations of the family unit.

When my son was born I had to contemplate what fatherhood meant to me. There wasn’t a fixed traditional role that I could reference. The postmodern identity of fatherhood is much less tangible. I realised that fatherhood is what I make of it. I could reference and integrate the traditional archetypal values of the father such as safety, protection, guidance and support. However, I was equally as free to incorporate many other qualities that I saw suitable. For example, I chose to work part-time until my son was three years old; this was the freedom that modern fatherhood offered me, the privilege to be intimately involved with my child’s formative years.

Some people say we are entering a cultural paradigm shift once again, this time from a postmodern into the post-postmodern. It seems a bit wordy. In my experience of this, it is one of integrating the previous and current permutations of the role – from the traditional to the modern era. It is to acknowledge the liberation that modernity provided to fatherhood, while simultaneously not denigrating the traditional role. Coming back to my grandfather, he seemed to have intuitively predated this movement: although he was traditional he still was a man of great pragmatism and what he did was motivated by kindness and love.

All these changes to our understanding of what fatherhood means can cause quite a bit of confusion to new dads. The current definition is wide open – if there even is one. And maybe that’s not a bad thing because it means it is what you make of it. If you are a new dad I’d encourage you to speak to someone, aim to build a strong support network and actively look for that support. Some of the links at the bottom of this article may be a good start.

Whatever the role looks like in your family is just one aspect for new fathers. Other factors will shape your role which you may not immediately associate with it. Things like sleep deprivation, changes in partner intimacy and shifting family dynamics, shifts in social circles and a host of other changes. Parenting is a personal experience and we live in a world where this role has much potential and freedom.

I think this is very exciting and such a privilege that we can decide for ourselves how we would like to contribute to shaping the next generation.

Further reading