Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mothers make awesome fathers and vice versa.

Today in The Age newspaper I read an article about fathers that I instantly wanted to correct. Re-write in fact. This feeling is not new when it comes to The Age actually.

It annoys me when someone tries to demonstrate that a family isn’t complete without a mother and a father. More specifically, a man and a woman. Almost always this opinion is based on the false assumption that all mothers (women) have one type of personality and all fathers (men) have another complimentary personality type. Sigh.

Are all of your male friends identical in personality? What about all the women you know? Do you find they are all exactly the same? Unless you are reading this from a clandestine medical facility where lobotomies are compulsory, your friends, without exception, will exhibit personalities that are totally unique. Even twins will be different. Not only that, there is not one personality trait, not one that is exclusively confined to one sex. If you think there is you are probably quite delusional. Just like when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sincerely declared that there were no gays in Iran.

Barney Bardsley (yes, a woman called “Barney”) writes about her father and late husband and how they played the role of father to their children. She provides many examples of good “fathering” which she considers to be exclusive to the male sex. Her ultimate aim is to demonstrate that a child lacking a father cannot replicate the influence of a man with a female role model.

Well I disagree.

I have mentioned in another blog post how I feel about my father. I’m not a fan. What I did not mention was how my mother stepped in when needed and filled both parenting roles with great skill. She knew that a good parent has many hats, each utilized as the situation demanded. It didn’t matter what her personality comfort zone was. She knew that being a good parent meant reading the situation correctly and recognising when to be hard (usually considered to be a male trait) and when to be soft (apparently a female trait).

You see, no-one is confined to a single personality. I don’t mean that in a mental-illness-multiple-personality kind of way. I mean that people are able to modify their behaviour and step outside their comfortable habits. Become new people. Become better people. People do this all over the world, all the time. Changed circumstances can trigger significant personality overhaul. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes under duress. Sometimes the change lasts forever. Most refer to this change as personal growth. I like to think of it as adaption. I also like to think of it as a fundamental human trait.

Guess what.

Adaptability is not a gender biased personality trait.

Let me share with you some of what Barney Bardsley wrote.

A skilful man creates different relationships with all the children he fathers. That was certainly the case with my dad. I have two older brothers, and as we grew up David forged lines of interest and communication specific to each of us: cribbage and real ale with one son, cricket and fine French wines with the other. And me? As the only daughter, our connection took a different route. I was born on my father’s birthday, 9 October. ‘’The best birthday present I ever had,'’ he would repeat every year, to my mother’s irritation and my perpetual delight. This shared anniversary allowed us a collusion. And in a noisy family, my father’s contrasting calm offered a soothing antidote for a shy and nervous child. From the start, I was a classic daddy’s girl.

Men do not have a monopoly on the ability to recognize differing personalities and customize their approach. Any good parent, male or female, sees what is unique in each child and develops encouraging, special relationships accordingly. I find it Perplexing that Bardsley tries to claim this is a male-only trait. Equally baffling is the implication that fathers bring a contrasting calm to a mother’s supposedly high-strung personality. Granted, Bardsley could be referring to her own family and no other, but this entire article is intended to demonstrate what men contribute to families. So I can’t help but wonder what she means by it.

What is a father for? What is his role, his special contribution? There are as many answers to that, of course, as there are fathers. Certainly, in the traditional family set-up I grew up in, David was an old-fashioned dad; out to work and out of the way. Mum glowed with the bright, white heat of motherhood: over-attached, emotionally charged and furiously hard-working, providing a tireless stream of clean clothes, cooked meals, discipline and intelligence. Dad was her counterpoint, her foil. His cool, often comic refereeing from the sidelines acted as oil on her sometimes turbulent waters.

What Bardsley claims here is that the true contribution her father made to her family was to be different to her mother. Complimenting her personality. Why is it that only a man can fill that role? A strong, loving relationship between two adults has all of the above and more. Or it wouldn’t last. Two women can contrast and compliment each other equally well. As could a relationship between two men.

You see, complimenting and contrasting each other is a fundamental attribute of a good relationship regardless of the configuration. I can see what Bardsley is getting at. She fears that a family with two mothers means a family with two women just like her mother. But she is obviously wrong. Women simply aren’t that two dimensional. You couldn’t get two exactly the same even if you compared twins. Not only that, but like my mother, if they are good parents, they will recognize when a situation requires a particular approach and adapt. Regardless of where their personal comfort zone is. Regardless of their sex. Thats what brilliant parents do. Plus there is no point in doubling up roles. It’s inefficient and pointless these days when most of us have so little time. Good, same sex parents will by default take on separate, contrasting roles in order to meet the multiple, complex needs of their children in the best possible way. So will opposite sex parents. Because It just makes good sense stupid.

Bardsley clearly loved her father a great deal and felt that his contribution as a parent was unique and special. I wont begrudge her that. Im sure he was every bit as magnificent as she remembers. But her father’s calm mood, sensitivity, thoughtful approach to fathering and mother-contrasting personality are not exclusive male traits. Not by a long shot. A woman could have filled Bardsley’s father’s role with equal contrast, intelligence and love. A man could have filled her mother’s role too. Are you all starting to see my point?

[Father’s] internal presence is firmly established and it’s vibrant and alive. These fathers helped turn us into the people we are now: self-reliant, wayward, quietly determined, with a strong streak of the ridiculous, which has come straight down the paternal line. What we share, my daughter and I, is a deep down sense of self, one that comes from having known, right at the start of our lives, the unconditional love of a good and a loyal man. A proper dad.

Barney Bardsley’s article is a beautiful anecdote about what makes a good parent. An overall concept with which I agree. Where this article has failed was its assertion that certain aspects of good parenting are the exclusive domain of men. My mother was a fantastic father (I send her gifts on father’s day) and so are thousands of other women. Many thousands of men make fantastic mothers too. Take away all references to sex and this article becomes a strong argument for having two loving parents. You can still call them mum and dad if you like, but don’t fall into the trap of defining their sex. The sex and sexuality of the two adults who raised you has nothing at all to do with good parenting. Truly good parents shine regardless of their gender or who their partner is. And we love them all dearly.



Feasibility is an engineering based blog designed to reach other STEM people. Non-STEM people are also welcome! I try to give good advice and well-reasoned opinions but please don’t hesitate to disagree with me. This blog exists because I realised that I live in a metaphorical bubble and that simply wont do. Nup.


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