A father’s reflection on masculinity, fatherhood and family violence
By Phil Barker
On Father’s Day this weekend, my daughter will pick me up in her car, drive me to the local pub, buy me a beer and burger, tell me how awesome I am and drive me home.
That’s an upside of having a child in her early 20s. A downside is her traditional handwritten card, in which she cheerfully, and with agonising accuracy, satirises my year in fashion, grooming and details the many embarrassing and weird “Dad” moments.
There is simply nothing that could make me happier.
In a world where we are all searching for happiness, connection and love, the ability to access deep personal joy, simply through sitting down with my child to eat and talk, is a sweet privilege that I do not take for granted.
I’ll take it any way I can. We both cherish the time spent together.
But for so very many women and children, Father’s Day must be a deeply sad reminder of what’s missing and broken in their lives.
Typical Father’s Day imagery shows an army of tanned, laughing dads, joyful as their delightful giggling children present a shiny new power tool and messy breakfast in bed.
How deep must those images cut the legions of children who live with family violence? How sadly meaningless and alien must those happy snaps be, when the only thing they feel toward their father is absolute terror?
Father’s Day celebrates fatherhood. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a ‘good man’, and a good father.
Fatherhood – good and bad – has been high on the agenda lately.
At the Canberra Writers Festival last weekend, I had the extraordinary experience of participating in two sessions – one on fatherhood called Dear Dad, and the other, Behind Closed Doors, about the gendered nature of family violence.
I moderated the Dear Dad session, a conversation with three men – beloved Australian actor and author, William McInnes (Blue Heelers, SeaChange), prolific writer John Birmingham (He Died With A Felafel in His Hand) and comic and author Hung Le – who have written books which deal with the deaths of their fathers.
Their hilarious and heartbreaking stories, told through gales of laughter and rolling tears, showed how deeply we crave the approval, love and care of our fathers. Fathering has a profound effect on us.
At the Brisbane Writers Festival next weekend, I’ll be doing two more panels, one called Like Father, Like Son and the other on how toxic masculinity can be overcome, including changing the way we parent.
Why so many conversations about masculinity and fatherhood? Because of these numbers.
According to OurWatch, more than half of women who experience family violence have children in their care. In Australia, the police are called to a family violence incident every two minutes. On average, one woman a week is killed by her partner or former partner. One in four women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in six women will experience violence by a cohabiting partner in her life. That’s 1.6 million women.
The numbers reveal the reality of Father’s Day for so many of women and children, living in cold fear of the moment he walks through the door.
Some men will use their children (and pets – other things they “own”) to control their partners. Sixty-eight percent of abused women with children say the children saw violence.
This makes the children victims too, even if they aren’t physically harmed. Children in abusive environments are often in a state of hyper-vigilance, waiting, looking for the moment the violence escalates. They become experts in the tiny messages his face and body language send. And, if it’s looking dangerous, they are also experts in an array of defensive mechanisms, deflection, protection, managing their own personal threat, somehow. If it’s all too horrible, the child simply switches off their mind and takes themselves away from what’s happening – dissociation.
A child in a constant state of fear is denied so many of the joys of childhood. Learning, playing, thriving, all pursuits children should be able to take for granted are stunted, according to the NSW Government. In that state it is difficult to think of anything…beyond survival. In that state, a healthy mental and emotional development can be smothered by fear. It’s a core human need to know we are unconditionally loved. For legions of abused children, that is taken away by the one who is supposed to provide it. Dad.
The true damage of family violence to children, and the scale of the problem is only starting to be understood.
Father’s Day is the chance to continue the conversation on how the performance of manhood can stand in the way of great fatherhood and its contribution to the gendered nature of family violence.
If you’re busy being the tough, strong, stoic provider and leader, while neglecting the key parenting skills of communication, empathy, compassion and care, you’re probably missing out on the giggling, the playing and being silly with your kids, the very things they need to flourish, because that’s not vey manly at all, is it?
For men who use family violence, Father’s Day is a chance to reflect upon the damage their patterns of abuse have on their children. Reflection can help them rebuild their parenting toward a more considerate, gentle and child-focused direction.
Caring Dads, a 17-week programme from fathers who have used violence, helps men understand and change their behaviours. It also helps men to learn to look at their parenting, particularly when co-parenting
“Building a healthy relationship with an ex-partner, even if there are interventions in place, is critical for the healthy development and safety of children” said Michael Brandenburg, acting Manager of Policy and Research at No to Violence.
“Men who have used violence can change. Trust can be rebuilt. There’s a responsibility created by the needs of children.”
Often, a man’s love for his children can be instrumental in helping him change, to look at his past behaviour, acknowledge and take responsibility for it without being swamped by shame. But taking responsibility starts with acknowledging that good parenting and using violence towards your partner are mutually exclusive: if you don’t respect your partner you can’t be a good dad.
Father’s Day is the day we celebrate great dads. It should also be the day we celebrate the possibility of helping men change the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that drive their decision to use violence, for the sake of their partners and children.
It should be the day we reflect on the importance of fatherhood (which just means being a good parent) and how we, as men, can do it better.
The less violence there is, the more joy is possible.
Father’s Day should be the day we say, loud and proud, yes to love and no to violence.
Let’s show our kids that being a man is not a set of rigid rules but encompasses the full spectrum of our shared humanity.
Philip Barker is an Advocate for No To Violence and author of The Revolution of Man.
If you need help addressing your use of family violence, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491. Lines open 24/7.