Fathers being there

Ulrich Meier

We will never know whether Jörg Asmussen really did not take up his management post at the German government-owned KfW development bank in Frankfurt because of a difference of opinion about working some of the time from the different city where he lived with his family to stay close to them. In any event, he personally provoked conflicting comments as did the concern expressed by him that he wanted to spend more time as a father with his family.

Andrea Rexer found it embarrassing that there appeared to be less appreciation in a state-owned business, of all places, of the need to make work and family life more compatible than there was at Microsoft in Germany, where the obligation to show up at the office had been abolished completely: “Staff work where and when they want, the main thing is that the work gets done.”« (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 18.12.2015). Georg Meck, in contrast, sneered in his column at the “incredible full-on Daddies and Mummies” who were “beavering away with exclusive priority at their family idyll”. He suspected “that their colleagues do not find it so amusing when they have to stand in for them” (FAZ, 20.12.2015).

This sets out the two basic themes which concerned all the nine fathers (aged 31 to 62) interviewed by me for this article regarding the issue of reconciling work and family: how can the understanding of the concerns of family men in the workplace and in the social environment be improved? And what can they do themselves to enhance the quantity and quality of their presence in the family as fathers?

Desirable fathers – fathers’ desires

My small survey of fathers whom I know personally is not, of course, representative but merely throws a sidelight on the way that fatherhood is currently lived and the kind of resistance and opportunities that are experienced.

I will start with the question of the role model of the father: the majority of my respondents to a greater or lesser extent lacked in their own father a sympathetic and approachable presence in the family. One wrote: “We did not and do not have a deep emotional relationship.” Another described the way in which he experienced his father as follows: “As passive and not much present. Not much of a role model. Not much relationship. Where is he?”

In the previous generation, the question of reconciling family and work would largely have been answered with a shrug of the shoulders, after all, the family was seen primarily as the space in which mothers had the say and in which fathers were accorded a more or less positive guest role. The time-consuming life at work of men served to fulfil the exclusively paternal task: to be the breadwinner.

Of the few fathers who as sons experienced a successful relationship with their father, one wrote: “In my experience my father was very much present and did things with me.” Another expressed it like this: “He is a sensitive, cultivated person. The way in which he dealt with me and my brother remains exemplary for me.” But these fathers were wholly or, because of their better working hours, comparatively more at home than other fathers of their generation.

In the responses to the question how these men ideally wanted to live their father role with their children, the theme of presence is a top priority throughout.

These are some of their statements: “Parental leave is great. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my daughter. There was also time for myself. I can highly recommend taking parental leave if at all possible.” “My reduced working hours mean that I can spend a lot of time with my boy – also from the late afternoon onwards on days on which I work. I enjoy this ample time as a father and also get annoyed sometimes at not being able to enjoy my other interests in the same way. But in the back of my mind I have the thought that I want to make full use of this relatively short time because ‘soon’ he will go his own way to a greater extent.” Another father answered the question how he sees himself as an ideal father with: “Non-prescriptive, warm, present, listening, caring, jokey, reading stories.” In response to the question which of those things worked best, he responded: “Being present. Because I can make the time for that in the way that suits me best.”

One of the fathers, who set himself the goal above all to be “regularly present, approachable and rested” for his children, continued to fantasise: “I would love to appear for my family from time to time from my ivory tower and cause astonishment with surprises – the father role is also a role – and not be consumed by everyday things.”

From leisure-time father to partner in upbringing

In my observation it is possible to see how in the last 15 years a purely leisure-time image of the father, which comes to expression largely in “doing things with the children”, has been supplemented by the goal to be “present” as a father in everyday life. This is no longer about specific typical fatherly qualities based on the old role model which come to expression in specific behavioural patterns, but about a kind of undirected presence which fathers today are wanting to achieve.

They clearly no longer want to be an adjunct to the main caregiver of the mother but, as one of the men said: “I think it starts with us fathers being taken seriously as equal partners in bringing up the children.” There are – at least partly – also discussions about this among fathers. Some are more constructive than others.

On this subject, too, some quotes – the first ones on a more sceptical note: “Everyone probably thinks about the other person: perhaps you’re doing too little with your family – or not what’s important.” “Always when the encounter remains superficial play becomes pressurised and paralysed, also from my side. Only in more intensive encounters does the reluctance disappear also to admit difficulties.”

Others experience the debate as support for their own endeavours: “It helps to hear about others and notice that everyone has to find ways in their own special situation.” “What can repeatedly be seen is how important it is for fathers to be able to use the little time they have with their children intensively – and to do so.”

One of the men raised the point that with the father image opening up in this way to include a culture of being present, the insecurity of women and men regarding the role of the father might increase: “As a whole, it seems necessary that both the individual and society need to develop a sustainable concept of masculinity in order to be able to be fatherly. The shattering of the old role models means that today there is great insecurity, more among men than women.”

Another described an experience when he was enquiring about child maintenance from the authorities in which both the female case officer and his partner showed themselves baffled by his decision not to increase his part-time working hours. He commented in conclusion: “Well, they need a bit more time to get used to the idea that men want to be present as fathers.”

Family is not a hobby

The striving of fathers to have an everyday presence in the family raises the question once again as to how the separately perceived earning of money “outside” the home on the one hand and the family work of looking after the children on the other should be considered, valued and organised in society as a whole.

One father took quite a radical view of this question: “Family is not a hobby which some allow themselves to have and then see how they get on, it is a locale in society which threatens to wither away and which must be protected.”

The growing initiative of recent years to guarantee childcare in nurseries and day-care facilities might be seen by many parents as a clear help. But the way in which such help is organised might also be seen critically: “The increasingly greater and more brutal intervention of society at the earliest age in the whole sphere in which children live degrades the family, which should be the centre of children’s lives, into a place where they come to sleep and at weekends and holidays.”

In any event, what has so far been offered as assistance by the societal environment of families can be further developed and individualised. The suggestions sent to me aim for greater flexibility in working life and continued political initiatives.

Here a selection: “Clearly more time and money for fathers who want to look after their children to a greater extent, not just at the beginning but also later on.” “If women were paid the same as men there would no doubt be a greater number of househusbands.” “Parents should have the right to work part time – not just in the classic sense (reduced hours) but also in accordance with new models – at work for eight months, at home for four months, just as an example.” “Parents generally work too much – voluntarily or not – and a basic income for adults and children could help here to allow greater self-determination.”

I want to conclude this section with the following comment: “That children pose the risk of poverty in a rich country is a scandal.”

Is it conceivable that Jörg Asmussen working for day each week in the city where his family lives might have had a positive effect on his work for the KfW Bank? Why not? The men I asked also noted a number of things on the question of the possible positive interaction between family and work: “Work as a parent takes strength but it also gives pleasure and energy which would undoubtedly benefit my work as well.” And, last but not least: “Earning money creates stress! But work is fulfilling.”

Warm thanks to Mathijs van Alstein, Dominik Berner, Andreas Büttner, Rainer Golgert, Martin Kröner, Martin Kühnert, Christoph Meier, Tarik Özkök and Mischa Weggen for taking part!

About the author: Ulrich Meier is a state-approved early years teacher and priest in the Christian Community. He has worked as a director of the Seminary in Hamburg since the autumn of 2006.