A dad's life


FAMILY LIFE:With fathers performing ever more of the at-home duties, what do modern dads bring to the parenting equation? Dads from all walks of life decode their most important job and tell ALANNA GALLAGHERhow they make it work

GERMAN FATHER NILS PICKERT made international headlines recently when he was photographed with his dress-wearing five-year-old while sporting a skirt walking down his small town’s main street. The child, who was being called names by classmates, was emboldened by his parent’s solidarity and even asked if he could wear his dresses into school.

Pickert said he wore the skirt “to help broaden” his son’s shoulders. It worked. The Pickerts may be the talk of the town but his five-year-old is no longer being mocked.

The story sparked much debate on what fathers should and shouldn’t be doing for their children. Ray O’Neill, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist with counselling clinic Machna, was impressed by Pickert’s behaviour and would love to see more of it.

“It was such a manly thing to do and in actions not words. Whether you’re into Man United, rugby or ballet, a father should be supporting his children to be them.”

The role of the Irish father has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. They’re now involved and not afraid to show their kids their soft side.

So what is the modern dad particle? It is elusive and can’t be defined, says O’Neill. He suggests that “being a dad is more important than being a man. Being a dad is about acceptance, love, encouragement. It’s about taking pride in your children.”

Having a father enriches a child’s life, he adds. “A lot of people have a father but have never had a dad. They seek out a dad in their emotional and sexual relationships.” He defines the role of the father as: “A dad allows a child to be themselves and provides affirmation, recognition and love.”

‘It’s important to be involved in the children’s lives’

Father-of-four Colm Walsh describes himself as a flexible dad. “Because I’m self employed I can create time during the week around working. So I can be involved in school activities and after-school activities such as swimming and karate and collecting them from parties and play dates. I know all about their social lives. I get to see what the kids are doing, see what is going on and who their school friends are. I also get to meet other parents. As a result it takes the pressure off at the weekend and I find creates a better rhythm to the whole family. It doesn’t have to be such a work hard, play hard routine.”

He has evolved his business around his family rather than the other way around. Do the kids appreciate it? “I think they do. Some of their friends’ dads leave early and come back late. Others work abroad and they Skype each other. I appreciate the luxury of being able to potter around. I think it’s important for a dad to be visible and involved in their lives. I’m like the stabilisers on their bikes. I’m in the background. I step in when required. It’s a protective role.”

Colm Walsh runs Yoga Dublin which has studios in Ranelagh, Dundrum and Rathfarnham. He is father to Aoibhínn (9), Sadhbh (8), Connie (6) and Ruairi (3).

‘My responsibility is to love them’

Barry Dempsey looks after the family’s paramedic business: “cuts, grazes, plasters, a pain in the head, does it need an X-ray? That is my job.”

He also realises that if he views his role as a father to get better things for his children, he is missing the point. “While my role does provide stability, it really is to show them ways to react when something uncertain or unexpected happens, at school, with friends, or something major – to give them a role model of how to respond to the unexpected.

“The highlight of my day is putting the key in the door and hearing the kids drop everything to run and greet me. I know one day I’ll be lucky to get a grunt from the sofa.” Growing up, both his parents had very defined roles. “Compared to my father’s generation, I’m clearer on spending time with them and am involved in their activities. For my wife Aileen and I, our roles are defined but we can substitute for each other. Aileen can do both roles.

“I can do mine and bit of hers if she’s not there.” A very wise man once told Barry that it was not his responsibility to provide better things for them, like education, a bigger house and so on. “My responsibility is to love them,” he says.

Barry Dempsey is chief executive of the Irish Heart Foundation. He is father to Ella (7), Jonathan (2) and Edward (5)

‘I want them to be able to come to me to seek advice’

Father of two Lance Bowers is a South African national who’s been living in Ireland for 13 years.

Separated from his wife, Joshua’s mother, he met another woman with whom he has his second son Eli. They are no longer together but he co-parents both boys with their respective mothers.

He credits the parenting courses organised by One Family with helping him learn the ropes. “Where possible it is central to a child’s development that he has two parents. A child can understand that his parents are not together.”

I love my sons, he says. “Having them is the best achievement in my life. They keep me striving on. I want to give them all the things the eyes can see, to encourage them to dream and to pursue education to broaden their minds. The most important thing is that they know in their hearts that their father loves them. I want them to be able to come to me to seek advice, to be a shoulder to cry on.”

Lance Bowers is father to Joshua (6), and Eli (6 months)

‘You have to rely on your instincts and trust them’

Father-of-three Eamon McGrane looks after his children during the day and works as a writer at night. His wife, Edel, works full-time. “There are no classes on being a father. You go to ante-natal classes but no-one tells you what to do after the child is born. You have to rely on your instincts and trust them.” Eamon’s mother died when he was nine. “My dad brought me up and gave me quite a bit of room to grow. I’d like to think I do the same.” With childcare there is always work in the inbox, he admits. “The outbox doesn’t get filled so quickly. I’m a patient, if sometimes frustrated, father. The trick is to get through the day repeating the same thing six times without losing your cool. I’ve heard mothers say that, but it also applies to men. I’m sure David Coleman and Supernanny would be horrified.

“In America fathers writing online feel looked down on because they don’t have a full-time job. I don’t get any sense of that here. There are lots of fathers dropping off and picking up at the school gates. I feel fathers get a better deal and more sympathy from stay-at-home mothers than working mothers do. I was in the supermarket recently and the three children were running riot. An auld dear said: ‘You’re a great man.’ A woman thinks: ‘That other woman can’t control her kids.’” He admits that he’d be lost without modern grandparents. “Edel’s parents are really involved and their involvement is invaluable.”

Eamon McGrane is father to Cal (7), Ava (3) and Theo (5)

‘It’s about enjoying the small moments’

Father of one Marcin Calka is originally from Poland but now lives in Grangemore outside Loughrea in Co Galway. While travelling in India with his wife Renata after he was made redundant from his job, he had a near death experience.

“Before the accident I was worried about how we could manage financially. My parents divorced when I was three. Because I didn’t have a father, I took my time making a decision to start a family.

“Growing up in Poland, my family was poor so I had concerns about bringing a family into poverty. I had no idea how fatherhood should be. I’m learning as I go.”

Piotr, his son, is now six months old. “I spend as much time with him as possible. I cannot imagine life without him. I hope that he will confide in me and that I will be able to help him solve his problems.” In a way his near-death experience was a blessing. “It was a last call for fatherhood,” says Marcin, who is 30.

“Now I enjoy every small moment. Each is like extra time. I no longer stress about money and have set up a woodworking business. Life is good.”

Marcin Calka is father to Piotr (6 months). RebornArt.ie makes rocking boats, carved horses and some small pieces of furniture

‘It’s a dad’s job to encourage’

“It is a dad’s job to encourage independence and toughness and to spot what they’re good at,” says father-of-three Brian McGee. “It is drawing out Ruby’s musical talent and encouraging Eoin at sport. Dads are their go-to guy in relation to their challenges.”

This summer he and the kids took on a big project. “We designed and built a tree house. I wanted to show them how to take an idea from start to finish. Together, Eoin, Ruby and I measured each plank and carried it over to the tree. It took several weekends to complete. Like holidays, you’re creating memories, creating their identities and forging a connection. The tree house project was quite deliberate. I wanted them to see the connection between an idea and reality. I wanted to inspire them and to make it happen.”

It’s wrong to call fatherhood a job, he says. “It’s a lifestyle. I get a lot of fun out of it. We had a tragedy two years ago. We lost a little girl called Lily. When you think about the children’s lives, Tara and I are their lives. Routines and rituals make life good for them.”

Brian McGee is head of market development the Craft Council of Ireland. He has three children; Eoin (7), Ruby (3) and Jamie.

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