The world has changed. Fatherhood has changed with it – dramatically. As a father of three, who also researches and speaks on social change, I want to highlight just a few of the changes since my grandfather became a Dad for the first time. And allow me to suggest that things might not have changed that much after all.

My grandfather, Reg Codrington Sr, was posted to Cape Town during the Second World War as a member of the British Merchant Navy. There he met and married my grandmother, Ethel Ball. As was common then, she fell pregnant fairly soon after they were married. As a British serviceman serving abroad, he had an important privilege: any children born to him while in uniform anywhere in the world would be considered British by birth. So, he and my grandmother stayed in Cape Town.

When my grandmother went into labour, my grandfather was so determined to ensure his child would be British that he first quickly got dressed in his military uniform before taking her to the hospital. He wanted to be literally “in uniform” when my aunt was born, so there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was British. This was more important than my grandmother’s birth pains.

These days, of course, expectant fathers make sure the bags are permanently packed and ready to go. Some even practice driving the route to the hospital. But, given modern technology and our penchant for choosing C-sections, most fathers these days book the birth date and time of their children in their diaries months in advance.

How times have changed.

The typical scene in my grandfather’s generation was of the expectant father waiting in the pub with his mates for the news from the hospital – or the home – that he was a father. Cigars were then lit and he had to buy the next round of drinks. In my father’s generation, in the 1960s and 70s, the men generally stayed at the hospital, but had to sit outside the delivery room. Neither my grandfather nor father knew whether they were having a son or a daughter. Remember when nurseries were painted neutral colours and you had a boy’s and girl’s name ready just in case?

Today, fathers are not just in the delivery room, they are often taking photos and videos and twittering away on Facebook while their wife – or girlfriend – is giving birth. And thanks to modern painkilling drugs, it’s even possible for some fathers to avoid being sworn at by their contraction-enraged wives.

It’s not just the experience of becoming a father that has changed over the past few decades. Fatherhood itself has changed dramatically.

Take discipline for example. There was a time when children called their fathers “sir” and didn’t ask any insolent questions, let alone talk back to them. Or, if they did, a short, sharp clip across the back of the head was an acceptable response. When I was growing up, and asked my father, “Why?”, often the only response I got was “Because I said so!”. Today’s children won’t let their fathers get away with that. They want to know why, and if there isn’t a good reason, then they won’t do it. I’ll be honest: as irritating as that can be, I do sometimes think my kids have got a point. Why, indeed?

Back in 1955, the 13 May edition of the Good Housekeeping magazine ran a feature article called “The Good Wife’s Guide”. It was a serious attempt to help women look after their husbands better. Here are some of the gems of advice from that article:

  • Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready on time for his return from work.
  • Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Encourage the children to be quiet.
  • Make him comfortable. Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or lie him down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him.
  • Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice.
  • Prepare the children, wash their hands and faces and change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part.

It seems unbelievable that this article was serious. Yet, my earliest childhood memories indicate that my father had something like this in mind for our family. That’s not an option these days, with dual income families and working parents. Today’s fathers are expected to contribute to both the running of the house and hands on caring for their children. There is a lot of joy to be had in rolling around on the floor with your children a few moments after arriving home from work. But it does take its toll, and today’s fathers are often exhausted by the many roles they must fulfill.

Fathers have always had to struggle to find the balance between their work and their home commitments. Whether it was due to war, the difficulties of working at long distances without good international travel or communications, or the apartheid government’s policy of homelands that separated men from their families, fathers in days gone by often had to live and work far from home. There was often very little contact with their children and wives. Today’s fathers might have the option to work from home, but with cellphones locked to their ears and laptops blocking their children’s access to their laps, being at home and being available for their families are two very different things.

On the wall next to my desk is a little hand painted sign, presented by my loving children at a Father’s Day a few years ago. Its message reminds me of the sacred duty, the scary privilege and the supreme joy of being someone’s father: “Anyone can be a father. It takes someone special to be a Dad.”

Each generation of fathers has had to deal with the issues of the era in which they lived, and each was influenced in different ways by the society around them. But every father everywhere has something in common. Each of us wants the best for our children. This is the challenge that fathers – Dads – of every generation have had to face: how to be a good father, husband, employee, boss, friend, son and man – all at the same time, and how to give our children the best possible start in life and be the best example for them. The challenge may be great. But the reward is priceless. You get to be someone’s Dad! That makes it all worthwhile.

Dr Graeme Codrington is the co-author of “Future-Proof Your Child: Parenting the Wired Generation” (Penguin, 2008). He is a business strategy consultant, international keynote presenter, husband to Jane for nearly 20 years and father of three young daughters, Amy, Hannah and Rebecca. He lives in London and has a home in Johannesburg. He can be contacted on [email protected]

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