There is a famous story of a little girl who played house as all little girls do. She had a role for the mommy doll and for the kiddy dolls but when it came to daddy doll the only thing she could think to do with him was to chuck him under the bed and say that he was off to work and would return in the evening! Most children would agree with this version of dad’s role. Even where mothers are working, their interaction and bonding with the child is nearly always much greater. Even the most involved and loving father has found himself stalemated by his child’s dependence on mommy. For most children, it’s the mother who provides comfort in times of stress, the mother whose word is gospel and the mother who is the friend. So where does that leave the father?
Part of the problem lies in the traditional image of a father, particularly in India. He is perceived to be the provider, the disciplinarian and most of all, he is THE BOSS! What he says goes – or at least it used to go in earlier times. Increasingly as women are better educated, more professionally qualified and more vocal about their rights, the traditional roles are also becoming blurred. The father now has a ‘complete man image’ to live up to which includes concepts such as sensitivity, visible caring and active participation in parenting. And somewhere in all this transition neither parent is sure about the exact parameters of dad’s role in the lives of their children.
What does a dad do? Traditionally he was the provider and disciplinarian of the house. He spent the whole day working hard and providing for the family. The house, the food, the comforts were all expressions of his love for his family and were often expected to be sufficient and the only proof of his caring qualities. Thousands of children grew up loving and respecting their father but from a distance. Many were a little afraid of him and could not dare to argue or talk back to him. Even as adults the distance between father and child was maintained particularly in the case of sons. The result, though in conformity with Indian tradition and making for family discipline, often meant the isolation of the father in the family unit. The mother was the go between, protecting the children from her husband’s wrath and her husband from the imperfection of his children. If this meant lying to him or keeping secrets – well, that was the accepted way for families to function.
Over time, more came to be expected from dad as mom began to share a few of his traditional functions. With no disapproving glances from far-away grandparents, the urbanized nuclear family began to depend more upon the father to be a friend and role model to his children. Today, a father is expected to be an active parent participating in everything from the delivery room onwards. He is the loving parent whose caring is translated into verbal and physical affection. He changes diapers, feeds the child, babysits, helps with the homework and is involved in the lives of his children. He is the friend from whom the family need not be afraid anymore.
He plays with his children on weekends and holidays, teaches them biking and swimming and reads stories to them. Above all though, he is the masculine role model in their lives – both for his sons and daughters. His sons learn to be strong and masculine from him. For daughters too, he is a model for independence and assertiveness as well as the yardstick against which all the future men in her life will be measured. As such he has a very, very important role to play and one that carries a lot of responsibility.
With changing social mores, many dads are confused both about their importance in their children’s lives and about the things they are supposed to do. Even today, there are still lots of children who grow up with busy or absentee fathers. Still others grow up with fathers who are not very paternally inclined by temperament. Most such children thrive anyway and many do better because of a need to prove themselves to their father. Despite this however, the emotional nurturing and loving presence that a caring father brings cannot be underestimated. As in the act of reproduction itself, it takes a father and a mother to complete the loving family circle.