Friday, 18 February 2011

A Century of Fatherhood s1e01 The Good Father - BBC TV programme.

Watch or download:

(This is a great programme from the BBC. I havent been able to summarize the interviews with the old men and women who talk about their fathers when they were children, because it would take up too much space, but they really make the programme something special. If you havent watched a programme from this blog before, I encourage you to watch this one. This is the BBC at its best.)

'Becoming a father is one of the most important events in a mans life. And the relationship he has with his child will shape both of their lives for years to come.

Untill relatively recently, very few historical or academic studies have explored this crucial relationship, and its impact on family life. And for too long, negative stereotypes of the father have persisted.

But now in this three-part series, we bring together personal testimony and expert opinion to help us set the record straight.

Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, this series will examine the social changes that affected dads in the hundred years that followed.

We will show that despite the tragedy of two world wars, the privations of economic hardship, and the upheaval of the sexual revolution, most dads have always striven to do the best for their children, as provider, protector, teacher, and playmate.

In this first programme, we journey back in time as far as living memory will allow, and hear from the children of Edwardian fathers, and from dads that raised families in the interwar years.

There are many negative images of fathers from this period, but these are largely exaggerated or inaccurate.

These are tales of struggle and sacrifice. Of tenderness, redemption, and above all, the enduring love that bonds father and child.

This is the extraordinary story of 'A Century of Fatherhood'.

One of the most enduring stereotypes we have of the father from the past, is of the distant, uncaring patriarch, who expected his children to be seen and not heard. But this image is for the most part a myth. A creation of literature, propaganda, and historical studies, that have focused almost exclusively on the mother.

One of the first academics to challenge the negative stereotypes of the father from the past was professor Joanna Bourke, of Birkbeck College, University of London.

Bourke: "We have this idea that fathers in the past were these rather stern patriarchal figures who bossed everyone around. Bossed the children around, did corporal punishment, bossed the wife around. And rather tyrannical type figures. Those images, I really do think need to be broken down."

"When I started to look at fathers in the past, one of the things that immediately jumped out at me was, "hang on, this sort of negative image of fathers simply cant be true, I have a great dad". Infact, all the people I know have fantastically warm, loving fathers. My dad, for example, had to juggle lots of things, he was a medical missionary, worked very very hard, but he was always a hands-on dad. He was always loving and affectionate, and I think that was one of the reasons why I thought, well, is the stereotype true?"

At the beginning of the 20th century, the social landscape of Britain was very different from what it is today. With around 80% of the population considered to be working class. Focusing her research on this section of British society, Professor Bourke set out to uncover the truth. Her findings, drawn from oral histories and autobiographies was suprising.

Professor Bourke: "When I looked back in the archives and actually looked at ordinary dads, of the 250 working class autobiographies that I used in my work, for every 1 who said their dad did not do childcare, 14 explicitly stated that he did."

This was an era when fathers often worked long hours in dangerous conditions to earn what was called 'the family wage'. And mothers were expected to stay at home with the children. It was a division of labor that would remain intact in peacetime Britain for the next 40 years. But although he was away from the family home, the fathers main responsibility was to his children.

Dr Julie-Marie Strange (University of Manchester): "In Edwardian Britain, we think very much of fathers being absent from family life, and they're absent because they're in work, being providers. However historians have tended to think that fathers arn't intimate in family life in any way, but in childhood memories of their dads, children actually constitute father's absence as evidence of his presence in family life, because father's away, working for his children. For his family.

"We see lots of images of men leaving in their hundreds, the mills, the factories, the mines. Often very dirty, often very weary, and we tend to leave them at the factory gates, but if you read childhood memories, children anticipate father's return home with real excitement. They know fathers been away all day, working for them.

Men cant resist their children. They love that tactile involvement with children, and are delighted to be welcomed home with such excitement."

This image of the gentle Edwardian working class father is at odds with contemporary reformist propaganda, which often portrayed dad as a brutal drunk. Whilst its true that some men liked a drink, and a few drank to excess, the idea that many drunken fathers regularly abused their wives and children is a myth.

Dr Julie-Marie Strange: "These negative stereotypes are perpetuated by very particular groups in society. So, not suprisingly, one of the key groups that perpetuates this stereotype is the 'Temperance reformers'."

By the early nineteen hundreds, the Temperance movement which advocated teetotalism, was flourishing in Britain, and so social reform groups like 'The Band of Hope' were spreading the word against the perils of alcohol, and its effects upon the working class family. As a direct result, 3 million signed the pledge in support of abstinence. Yet the myth of the brutal drunken father persisted.

Dr Julie-Marie Strange: "One of the reasons, I think, they are so keen to promote this negative image of working class fathers, is that it justifies their own position within working class communities. For Temperance societies, to justify their existence, they have to have a folk-devil to target, and it is the working-class man."

Perhaps the single most significant event to affect fathers in the first part of the 20th century, was the First World War. As war fever spread across the country in August 1914, hundreds of thousands of men took up arms in the name of duty and patriotism. But as the threat from Germany grew stronger, it wasnt only the young and the reckless that took the King's shilling.

Richard Van Emden (Author and Historian): "In 1914, you get this enormous rush to the colours. In the first instance young men, unemployed, disaffected, keen on a sense of adventure. What you get then is a second rush of older men, of fathers, who wanted to make sure everything is ok at home, wanted to make sure the government was going to pay proper allowances to their families when they went to fight. Now these men were motivated, of course, by a sense of patriotism and of duty, but it was more parochial than that, they had read the newspapers, they had seen evidence that Germany threatend not France and Belgium, but threatend England itself, and it was their job to stop the Germans oversea's before they come and stood on their own front door."

At the beginning of the war, the army postal service was handling some 650,000 letters per week. By 1916 that figure had increased to 11 million. Many of these letters and postcards have survived to this day, and have provided historians with a rich source of material evidence, which show that although far away, fathers still took a great interest in the daily lives of their children.

Richard Van Emden: "On the morning that these fathers would have left home, they would have kissed their wives goodbye, hugged their children, got their kit, walked to the gate, and then they were going to go. And they knew what they were going back into. They'd been wounded once, or perhaps they were back on leave. They knew the nature of the Western Front. They understood what happened to an infantry battalion when it went over the top. And that moment when they leave their family for the last time, can you imagine, what that moment must have been like. For these men, they had every prospect of never seeing their family again. The children that they had read bedtime stories to, taken to the playground, taken to church, and all of a sudden an arbitrary shell, a bullet, was going to end all that."

It is estimated that a quarter of a million British fathers were killed in The First World War.

During the interwar years, a new spirit of optimism began to spread across the country. After a government promise to provide homes fit for hero's, 'The Housing Act' of 1919 led to the development of new council housing on modern cottage estates.

This was the golden age for the new suburban father. One where he could enjoy simple pleasures with his children, in a clean and safe environment.

Birth rates which had been falling in the early part of the century temporarily increased after The First World War. Yet for most men, child birth remained a mysterious and frightening event. An experience from which they were often excluded.

In the first decades of the 20th century, welfare agencies and health visitors were on hand to offer instruction on the basics of parenting. But their services were provided almost exclusively to the mother.

Dr Julie-Marie Strange: "You have milk depots, training classes, health and welfare visitors who come to the working class home, all aimed at the mother, teaching the mother to be a better parent. Fathers are completely, actively, and deliberately excluded from this movement."

But all that was to change with the creation of a new movement in parenting, which would last into the 1940's, called 'Father Craft'.

Adrienne Burgess (Director of Research, The Fatherhood Institute): "The Father Craft movement has untill recently been completely lost to history. It started in London in 1920. It was some male doctors that started it, they thought it was very important to draw fathers in to the care of infants and young children.

"The movement quickly spread. Soon there were centres in Bristol, in Birmingham, in Glasgow, in Liverpool. It sprang from developments in child psychology which had begun to recognise the important role played by fathers. This was a turning point in the history of modern fatherhood. The first time that fathers role's were really recognised by members of the health profession."

Its always been the hope of every new father that their child succeed's in life, and even better's their own achievements. In the interwar years, as new babies grew into young children, many fathers willingly took on one of their most important roles, that of educator.

This was particularly true in working class communities which often had a strong autodidactic tradition. One which encouraged home education and self learning. Rather than the cliche of spending hours in the pub, many fathers would prefer to be at home schooling their children.

Adrienne Burgess: "There's been this widespreed assumption that working class fathers havent been interested in their childrens education. Infact, historical records have debunked this myth. Its perfectly clear that woking class fathers, especially more highly skilled workers, such as miners, were very interested in their childrens education. There was a strong tradition of self education. Miners Institute's, librarys, working mens educational groups, and it was these fathers greatest joy to pass on their learning to their children. And for some of them it was their greatest dream that their sons would be able to escape this hard life in the pits, risking their lives every day, by being able to go on to finer things."

Whilst its true that some men did use corporal punishment against their children, the image of the brutal disciplinarian, popular in contemporary films and novel's is largley inaccurate.

Most fathers disliked punishing their children, and their involvement in discipline was often seen as a last resort.

Professor Joanna Bourke: "If we look for example at the role of discipline within the home, what becomes very very clear, is that, it really was and remained the mothers job to discipline the children. The mother was responsible for the day-to-day disciplining, controlling, ensuring that everything went according to plan."

Evidence of dads reluctance to discipline their children is supported by the observations of many social commentators, and in particular a district nurse turned author, called 'Margaret Loane', who wrote about her experiences in working class households in London.

Dr Julie-Marie Strange: "Margaret Loane says that a lot of mothers discipline is actually undermined by indulgent fathers, who are so pleased to see their children, they dont want to be the one who has to use their special time with their children, to be disciplining them."

"Margaret Loane also comments that one of the reasons mothers use 'Wait Till Your Father Gets Home' as a threat, is because children desperately dont want to disappoint their dads. And so actually, the 'wait untill your father gets home' threat is quite an empty threat.

Its very useful because children dont want father to know. Not because they're frightened he's going to beat them, but because they dont want to disappoint him."

(A Century of Fatherhood s1e02 'Fathers at War', will be posted on Tuesday 22nd february)

No comments:

Post a Comment