Annie’s dad is a doctor — an anaesthetist to be exact — but the 15-year-old mentions that without a hint of pride. “I’m in bed every night when he comes home from work, we’ve got to be quiet on Saturdays because he needs to catch up on sleep, so I really only get to see him on Sundays,” she says.
Her life, she knows, is privileged: overseas holidays, skiing trips and the latest smart phone. But, despite her father’s capacity to save lives and festoon the family with riches, Annie believes that she’s missed out. “We just don’t spend much time together,” she says. Julie, 16, agrees. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “We have everything including a huge house. But that doesn’t mean I get to see my dad.”
Over the past 18 months I have sought the advice of 1,300 girls, aged 10 to 17, and 400 fathers — as well as dozens of school principals, teen psychologists and parenting experts — in a bid to explore the contemporary father-daughter relationship.
Despite the generalisations inherent in such a task, many themes loomed large — and one of them was the belated realisation by so many fathers that being the provider has meant falling behind as a parent.
“On some days I seem to be either invisible or pretty dispensable,” one father told me.
“I’m 2IC (second-in-command) to Mum,” another said. “I’m there for when Mum is not on the scene.”
Or this: “I really feel like I mucked it up with her and it’s my fault.”
Girls say the same. “Dad sees his role as more of the provider and Mum as the parent,” one says.
Research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows that more than one-third of children believe their father works too much.
“Children’s voices are rarely heard in debates about work and family, yet they can be discerning observers of how their father’s job impacts the family,” researchers found.
One question I put to the 1,300 girls while researching my book was how often they spent 10 minutes in one-on-one conversation with their dads.
Here are some responses:
- “Once or twice a year.”
- “Hardly ever. I haven’t talked to him fully, except when I’m in the car with him.”
- “In the car because, you know, I have to.”
- “Once a month? I can’t even remember the last time.”
Fathers’ responses mirrored those given by the girls:
- “This month while on holidays.”
- “Good question. It’s been a while now. Thinking about it, most if not all of our conversations seem to be built around an issue, a problem, a life lesson, a positive reinforcement etc.”
- “A month ago, while teaching her to drive.”
- “A solid 10 minutes? Wow, is that still possible?”
The message delivered by our girls should signal a warning to us all.
So many girls believe their father takes a step back from them with the onset of puberty, is not present enough, isn’t able to communicate with them, and parents their brothers differently. Many answers bordered on heartbreaking.
But green shoots constantly appeared too, as fathers explained their struggle to become an equal player in their teen daughters’ lives. And that’s been replicated in recent weeks with huge audiences of fathers turning up at parent nights to seek those engagement skills.
School principals are seeing a new paradigm emerge too, where fathers are asking for more involvement during school hours.
“We’re seeing fathers who are organising their workdays so they can be at school functions, whereas previously it was ‘the father can’t make those times’,” one principal says. Another says: “I’m seeing in my school community that you don’t have to be female to be feminist.”
Or this: “It’s from a low base, but I am trying to structurally find a way to include more fathers. They want to get involved and they are not looking for board positions or to be the King Pooh-Bah. They just want to do stuff.”
Other principals have seen a generational change in fathers who are more comfortable showing emotion, and that is translating to more engagement with their daughters across the school years.
That could deliver benefits to both fathers and daughters, but also to the schools they attend.
One principal put it this way: “Dads to me seem to be much more grounded and to roll with the punches. My sense is that if we saw dads more involved then perhaps we would get less of the preciousness around how girls are treated, and perhaps we wouldn’t get as much of that dramatisation of the small.”
So what is stopping equal involvement with mothers? Why aren’t the same number of men and women turning up at the tuckshop, for example?
Myriad reasons exist, but in some cases men are still happily handing the parenting of their children over to their partners. In other cases, mothers don’t want to give up the role they see largely as their own.
Workplaces in many instances are less flexible in allowing fathers to skive off to school events, while overzealous school protection policies and even a communal suspicion of men make it hard on many to take that step forward.
Indeed, some fathers I spoke to described a “glass ceiling” at home and at school just as restrictive as that which their partners struggled with in corporate Australia. Dads found it hard to find an “in” and felt they were not supported in the process of getting involved — by partners, schools or workplaces.
Educationalist and former principal Dr Tim Hawkes sums up the view of many peers in saying schools need to become “more parent-friendly”.
But my research shows fathers also need to continue to change, and to stop taking a step back as their daughters climb through adolescence.
Dr Hawkes agrees. “Dads need to be more careful that they do not spend so much time trying to be someone outside the home that they forget to be someone within it,” he says.
*Girls’ names have been changed to protect privacy.