Photo by Sally Anscombe

Reclaiming masculinity

How dads can be dads in an unstable age

Artillery Row

TikTok influencer Andrew Tate is a threat to school-boys, teaching them misogyny over the internet. That’s the claim of many in society, with some schools even dedicating lessons and assemblies to trying to counter his message. Supposedly he is reaching out to disaffected boys, teaching them how to manipulate and control women. Aren’t fathers supposed to teach boys how to behave around girls?

The problem is that modern fathers aren’t exactly known for their masculinity — often being the butt of jokes in adverts, known more for their “dad bod” than being “Top G”. That sort of domestic masculinity was on full display in Netflix’s recent British thriller Treason. Charlie Cox’s deputy head of MI6 has barely been promoted to the top job, after his boss is poisoned by a foxy Russian spook, before he’s promising his children that this won’t stop him from getting home on time or going on their regular movie nights. You’d think he might have some more pressing concerns.

The new morality often accidentally encouraged fatherlessness

In the real world, fatherhood is under threat. Marriage is on the decline, with the most recent statistics showing a 6.4 per cent decrease, causing marriage rates to fall to their lowest level since 1862. Although there was a slight increase in 2021, the overall rate of births continues to fall (whilst the number of abortions increases to its highest ever level). Just over half of people over sixteen are married or in a civil partnership, but that’s increasingly concentrated amongst the elderly. A massive 18.5 per cent of all marriages are amongst the over 70s, whilst only 3.7 per cent of married people are aged under 30. The number of those cohabiting instead continues to creep up, from 11.3 per cent in 2010 to 13.1 per cent in 2020. 

The shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society has played a major part. Without the factories and with a shift to service industries or those more focused on customer service, women entered the workforce. That not only challenged the prior masculine image of the sole breadwinner but also shifted the labour market, making single earner households a tougher financial prospect.

There was also a moral revolution, with the decline of the organised religion which mandated and managed marriage. The new morality was highly empathetic — but that often accidentally encouraged fatherlessness, with the welfare state replacing them. When I recently visited a Northern charity, I asked one of the workers how many of the children who came there had both parents at home. They estimated it was no more than five per cent and probably closer to zero.

There are also specifically British problems. The property boom, driven by a lack of supply and an increase in demand from mass migration, makes buying a family home harder. Rent has soared, and it can eat up half your wage just to get a flat shared with others. Kindergarten can easily cost £1,000 a month, making every additional child a greater expense. Although it doesn’t make it impossible, it does mean sacrificing much of the consumer lifestyle which is the great joy of modern cities. 

That’s all before you get near the perceived need for a “good” (often paying) school or the near-requirement of a university degree. This can lead to parents not just paying extra for tutors or after-school activities to pad out a CV, but also having to shuttle the kids around to get them there on time. Greater parental investment means smaller families, as they just don’t have the resources for more. 

It shows strength in a man to show up for his children

Fathers are therefore finding themselves in a much more domestic position than their own fathers or grandfathers. Inevitably that has invited questions as to whether this diminishes their masculinity. “I’ll be back to work in a couple of days” was how the American right-wing media personality Matt Walsh responded to his wife’s giving birth to twins, rejecting any idea that he might take a few weeks of paternity leave. Clearly a man’s role is to get back to work, as soon as possible. “Sorry but raising kids isn’t masculine whichever way you want to slice it” tweeted an anonymous account, kicking off a debate which led to one million views of his tweet (thanks for adding that feature, Elon) and hundreds of, largely negative, replies.

These views harken back to older understandings of masculinity, but they’re impractical in the modern age. Unless you have relatives living nearby or can afford to pay for hired help, your wife or partner will usually need you after the birth, and you risk missing out on a period of your child’s life which you will never get back. Rushing back to work when you can get paid time off doesn’t even make practical sense. As for the masculinity of raising children, whilst there is much domestic drudgery involved, this is also true for most fathers in their daily lives anyway. Changing nappies may not seem very masculine, but then neither is loading the dishwasher. Or working on spreadsheets for that matter. 

In a post-industrial world, where family ties have been badly eroded, continuing to insist on a strict division between home and work, housewife and worker, is economically unsustainable for most. Cleaving to an industrial view of masculinity will only emasculate man when they are unable to live up to it. Instead men can look further back, for other examples. Take the Oeconomicus, a dialogue by Socrates that is related to us by Xenophon. In it, Socrates discusses proper household management, which includes a description of how husband and wife can share the “common interest” of their children, by taking “counsel together” and being “partners in their children”.

Fathers not only provide for their children, they set boundaries and an example for them. It isn’t unmasculine to make sure you take the time to be there for them or to endure the petty domestic demands required. On the contrary, it shows strength in a man to show up for his children, whether financially, morally or just to play. The internet and shift to remote work due to the coronavirus pandemic has also shifted structures, allowing fathers to spend more time at home or to build their daily life into remunerated work. 

Examples of this new masculinity can be seen emerging on social media, with someone like Jack Bangerter. A sporty Mormon dad, his work as a drone camera operator for his wife’s wedding video business allows him time to spend on his daughter, home workouts, sun-soaked Hawaiian beach trips that might incite jealousy in Twitter vitalists, golfing with his brothers, and camping or hunting in the pristine outdoors of Utah. Another example would be Nathan, a former Royal Marine better known as Hybrid Dad, who turned his physical trainer job into a digital consultancy, gaining the freedom to balance his training with his family. Embracing the masculine that exists rather than bemoaning that which doesn’t is how fathers can adapt and thrive — what could be more masculine than that?

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