Dads Get Guilt Too - Lots

21/09/2012 09:37 | Updated 22 May 2015
Dad juggling work and fatherhoodAlamy

Until I became a father I was pretty sure parental guilt was meant to be a mum thing, reserved for those 'have it all' women who juggled stellar careers and super kids and as often as not let one (or sometimes both) crash to the floor.

Well, if it's any comfort let me assure you that, like wearing the papoose and wiping the bums, modern dads are really getting stuck in with the guilt thing too. I feel guilty much of the time, and it can make me really quite miserable.

I feel guilty about time spent late at work that I could spend with my kids. I feel terrible on those (mercifully rare) occasions when I miss bedtime and come home to find them tucked up asleep. When I take time to myself - to exercise, say - I spend the hour thinking that I should be spending it teaching my son to ride his bike.

Guilt has a way of nudging perspective aside, as I'm sure many of you are all too aware. In rational moments, I know that I'm a pretty available sort of dad, spending more time with my kids during the week than my dad spent with me (and I've turned out alright...ish).

But at darker times, when I've had one of those weeks which seems to be all about work and not at all about kids, I'm convinced my appalling paternal neglect will lead them into lives of crime or lifetimes of depression.

Media reports of research into fatherhood and its effects are not helping, frankly. Philip Larkin famously said that "they f**k you up, your mum and dad" but up until recently most of us thought it was really down to mum. To produce well rounded, self-sufficient individuals paternal attention was useful, but maternal devotion was key.

But recent research seems to be elevating the role of men. That's a good thing, of course. As a thoroughly modern dad and I want to have an influence on my children's lives, beyond taxi-ing them to gym club and configuring the wifi.

But with influence comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes the creeping shadow of guilt.

Here's one example of how it works. A study published this month found that young men who suffer a lot of stress can father daughters more prone to psychiatric disorders. So - I started to ponder - was I stressed before Poppy was conceived? Was I anxious as a youth?

And does her habit of battering beloved Jelly Cat's head against the banisters when she's tired indicate incipient mental instability?

At least that's not something I can do anything about, or at least not any more. But other research is more immediately guilt-inducing.

One study conducted by researchers at the University of Newcastle found that children whose fathers spent more time with them had a higher IQ and were more socially mobile in adulthood than those who received little attention.

And it wasn't enough that dads lived with their children. They had to be actively involved in their lives.

Similarly, a study published last year found that the less time children perceived they spent with fathers, the more likely they were to exhibit bullying behaviour, which was defined as being cruel to others, being disobedient at school, hanging around kids who get in trouble, having a very strong temper and not being sorry for misbehaving.

Counter intuitively, perhaps, perceived time spent with mums didn't have any effect. Time spent with dads was key.

Previous research has also found that time with dads has a major influence on how well and how early kids learn to read, and how ready they are for school. The more science looks into these subjects, the more important the role of dads becomes.

And boy, isn't that a recipe for guilt. I've always sensed that time with my kids is important because all parties seem to get so much out of it, but now science tells me that time spent away from them could be damaging them in all sorts of terrible ways.

In my febrile imagination that means a couple of hours exercise a week is a couple of points off my son's IQ, while a long week of late nights at my desk is a week closer to my daughter's first brush with the law.

OK, that's something of an exaggeration, but like many of my dad friends, I'm experiencing a level of paternal guilt that I never expected.

So missing my children's bedtime can leave me miserable. I blame myself for my six-year-old's inability to ride his bike (I should be out with him more - I'm undermining his confidence - his friends can ride their bikes!). An angry word from my tantrum-prone two-year-old makes me fret that the foundations of our relationship are crumbling, particularly if I haven't seen her much that week.

When I was a boy, quality time with dad was a weekend thing, and during the week my dad worked and read his paper. But that's not enough for the have-it-all generation of dads.

We need more time at work to pay skyrocketing bills, we need time to ourselves because its good for us, and we need more time with our kids because experts say it's good for them. When something inevitably has to give, it makes this dad as guilt-ridden as any working mum.


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