It was Fathers’ Day on Sunday, and whilst the kids didn’t particularly lament the lack of their Dad (in fact none of them noticed – Youngest Son only remembered because I asked him if he’d wished his Dad a Happy Father’s Day), it did make me reflect upon E’s role as a ‘father figure’.
In the early days of the break up, I was quite taken aback when someone (completely unprompted and uninvited) lectured me about how important it was for my children, “especially the boys”, to see their Dad and how vital it was for all kids to have a father figure. This person’s assumption seemed to be that I was stopping my kids seeing their Dad and also that, in splitting up with him, I’d selfishly created a situation where my children would be deprived of a father-figure. I didn’t reply to this tirade, I just nodded politely (and sent poor Oldest Daughter a steaming text about how ignorant people can be), but I still don’t really know where to start with this. It’s great to have a father figure, if the person in question is a decent, honest, role model but not every person makes a good role model just because they’re a father (it’s an extreme example, but I’m pretty sure Fred West’s kids wouldn’t posit him as a role model). Additionally, E chose to have multiple affairs and make the relationship impossible to stay in, he then chose to move 40 miles away. Those things are not my responsibility. It wasn’t me that made my children join the one in three UK kids that live in a fatherless home – it was E.
I’m very conscious of how little my children see of E, but there’s not much I can do about it. The girls simply don’t want to see him (I have tried to persuade them to change their minds, mainly because I don’t want them to be in a position where, if something happens to him, they feel guilty or feel that they should have seen him more). The boys see him whenever he is free, but that seems to be less and less often these days. E always did work on weekends when exams were approaching, but now that he only sees the boys on Saturday (living 40 miles away and working full time makes seeing them after school, or during the week, pretty much impossible), his working weekends mean that there are whole months when he only sees them once or twice (and then only for a few hours). On top of that, he seems to be enjoying an increasing number of weekends where he prioritises P over his children – for example at Easter he went to Bristol for the whole Bank Holiday, meaning that even though I’d arranged everything so that their usual Saturday was free (in fact, I’d only booked something for the Sunday so three days were free for him), he was unable to see them. Most recently, of course, he announced that he and P were going to Singapore ‘for a few weeks’ – none of us have any idea when he’ll see the boys next. I’m assuming July, but who knows?
To be fair, in terms of his role as a father figure to his children E has always been exemplary in funding the things that his kids need and he’s always worked hard and paid his way – I think that’s to be admired. I also don’t doubt that he loves them (although I do wish he could try to show it a bit more). But in many other ways, I sincerely hope his children don’t ever emulate him – his behaviour just hasn’t been worthy of a role model. I particularly don’t want my children to think it’s acceptable to lie and cheat and deceive. I don’t want them to be so concerned with being admired that they treat other people badly. I don’t want them to get themselves into so much debt that they’ll never be free of it. I hope they never think its ok to behave towards their future partners the way he behaved towards me. In fact one of the things I’ve said to them is that I don’t expect them to stay in love with someone forever, but I do expect them to be honest and to end a relationship if they’re not happy in it. For me, and hopefully them, honesty is a basic.
Thinking about this also made me wonder how important the gender of the role model is and what role woman are supposed to play? Every time I try and codify a specific gender role, I run up against the fact that that behaviour should apply to every gender on the gender spectrum. For example, if my role as a ‘mother figure’ is to nurture, care for and love my children, I’d argue that that’s what parents in general should do. Whilst it’s great to have positive father figures (who, if you read the tabloid press, are apparently the ones solely responsible for family discipline – it seems that mothers don’t do this, hence the single-mother discussion had every time knife crime is discussed), what are mother figures exactly? I’ve honestly never read anything about what a mother figure is supposed to be (other than outdated, patronising, faintly nauseous, stuff about a woman’s place being in the home). Maybe this is because the work women generally do is so often derided and undervalued, meaning that it’s not held up as something to aspire to? Work wise, mothers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they give up work to bring up children, they’re viewed as doing boring menial work (unless, of course, they’re ‘yummy mummies’ in which case their perfect bodies and faces are held up as physical examples for other woman to compare themselves to and find themselves lacking). If they go to work after they’ve had children they’re frequently doing jobs that fit in with their childcare arrangements, and are therefore relatively junior, low paid and undervalued. If they head back into professional work they’re considered selfish for pursuing a career – and frequently greeted with derision and suspicion if they ever have to take any time off to look after their children (I give you Kelly Brook’s recent outburst on Loose Woman). Of course, men are also facing an identity crisis in terms of their role and how they’re supposed to behave these days and the pressure to ‘man up’ is just as offensive as the way it’s considered an insult to do something ‘like a girl’, but I think, when it comes to children and childcare and their role being devalued it’s still a tad more difficult for women.
The thing is, whilst I accept that there are gender differences and that role models matter, I’m of the view that the most important thing for children to learn is how to be a decent person and I think they can do that regardless of the gender of the people they look up to. At the moment the main role model my kids have is me. I want to show my children to be honest and true to themselves and to respect themselves and others. I want them to be kind. I want them to have the tenacity to pursue their dreams no matter how much hard work it involves and how many set-backs and disappointments they receive and, on a practical level, I want them to be able to cook, clean, iron and manage their money responsibly. I think that’s ok? I’m not sure E could add much to that? Whilst it would be lovely to have a decent father figure at home for the kids to look up to, I just don’t think a specifically male role model is essential for kids to grow up knowing right from wrong and aspiring to be decent human beings.
However, if a male role is model is required, the last eighteen months have made me appreciate how many decent men my children are surrounded by and made me see that the last person they need to look to for an example is E. They have my uncles and cousins and they have E’s Dad and E’s sister’s partner, all of whom are decent, honest men. But the one person who has provided an unfailingly steady influence for the whole of their lives has been my Dad. I’m lucky enough to be close to my parents and, as a result, they’ve been around a lot as the kids have been growing up. With no conscious effort my parents’ values have filtered through to my children, partly through me, but mainly through their example. My Dad might have given my sister and I a hard time over money over the years, but that’s because he’s got exactly the kind of sense around money that I want my kids to have. Whilst he’s never said a word about E to the kids, his quietly appalled reaction to what he did will stay with them forever. The fact that he’s always stood by and supported my Mum through thick and thin is probably the best example they could ever have of how to be in a relationship. He’s always been there if we need practical help (although this may be because he doesn’t want me going near a drill…) and he’s always got our backs no matter what. He has never once been unfaithful to my Mum and he has always put my Mum, my sister and I first in everything that he’s done. When we were on our family holiday in Center Parcs a couple of weeks ago, with the exception of my niece’s lovely boyfriend, he was the only adult male in our party and, as I looked at our group of ten assorted grandchildren and one great grandchild, I was grateful that, in the absence of their own father, my sons have a decent man to emulate and my daughters have an example of how a good man behaves.