Being a father

If you have the opportunity to read Tom Bickerby’s weekly column in Times 2 about living with a baby with Down’s Syndrome, then do. It is moving, not because it is over-emotional or deliberately intends to tug on the heartstrings, but because in documenting the practicalities, and in confronting the difficult feelings that can come with having a child with this chromosomal condition, it reveals to us the love this father has for his son.

The columns – which usually appear on a Monday – are suffused with a growing love and care, and their honesty makes them beautiful. Equally beautiful was William Leith’s article in the Times magazine last Saturday about the birth of his son, and the agonies and emotions of watching him facing breathing difficulties for the first three days of his life. Leith describes being overwhelmed by a sense of love, and crying with relief when he is told that his son will survive.

That men can speak openly about their emotions is a huge and necessary advance for our society, but we should not be too complacent yet that we have achieved an openness and ease about our gender, overcoming centuries of embedded expectation. Leith cries, but at first he apologises automatically for his tears; only later does he question this, coming up with this explanation:

‘For centuries, we’ve had to rein in our emotions. We’ve had to cut ourselves off from our feelings, because we’ve had to be strong, because we’ve had to work and fight and compete. And it’s become second nature. Later, I would read, and talk to, writers such as Steve Biddulph and Warren Farrell, who have a deep understanding of men and their emotions and know that men live lives based on pretence, which is a sort of lie, and which makes them ‘ us ‘ lead unhappy half-lives, unconnected to how we really want to feel.’

Is this not terrible? Farrell says that, throughout history, men were heroes. But the word ‘hero’ actually means ‘servant’. Men were society’s servants. If you were poor, you laboured, often in terrible conditions. If you were a gentleman, you wore a sword, to protect the woman you were with. You had to be ready to fight. As Farrell says, to earn love, you had to cut yourself off from love.

We don’t live in that world any more. But it still exerts an incredible gravitational pull. All that fighting and conquering and killing – we don’t need that any more. All those centuries of holding back the tears – that’s not going to help us any more. But it’s hard to resist. That wry smile, that strong silence, that readiness to go back to work at the drop of a hat; talk to any group of males, and that’s the default position. Sure, it causes breakdowns and alcoholism and deep unhappiness. Sure, it’s all a pretence. But it’s time we looked at ourselves.

I am going to read Warren Farrell to understand more what we can do to help move us on gently as a society towards a situation where men and women can be more genuinely themselves, as it is only by doing so that we have any chance of a fairer, more balanced world. But William Leith is right – we need to start by looking at ourselves.

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