This week, my son has been ill with a cold, which has progressed into a cough. It has been a difficult period as it has been his first real experience of illness and he is learning what it means to be unwell. Equally, I am learning what it means to be a parent to an unwell child. I thought it would be helpful to write down these reflections below and link them to concepts of caring masculinity to outline how fathers can embody caring behaviours.
I draw upon memories of my own father when I look after my son and it strikes me that this learned behaviour is not something all fathers can access. Additionally, some fathers may have negative experiences that contribute to uncertainty and fear when interacting with their own children. This fear may stem from a desire to avoid the errors of their own upbringing and establish new patterns of behaviour. This is why I caveat my reflections by stating that I was fortunate to have a father who would sit up with me when I was unwell and comfort me by stroking my back. It is a simple act of physical affection that has stayed with me and remains ingrained as a positive memory. My reflections on this week relate to ideas of how ‘caring masculinity’ behaviours (physical and emotional) can shape people and promote an equal partnership in parenting (where two parents are present). To conceptualise caring masculinity, I will briefly explain why, like my own father, I believe it is crucial for a caring father to show physical caring behaviours to achieve emotional care.
I am a daily carer for my son through routine physical tasks, which combined with separate intentional affection, contribute to an overall emotional connection. My routine tasks include getting him up in the morning, changing his nappy, getting him dressed, making his breakfast, feeding him, later doing his bath and getting him ready for bed. These tasks are performed sometimes wordlessly as I am generally a quiet person. My silence is not indicative of emotional distance, but rather a natural state of calm I feel comfortable with. I believe it is important not to force behaviours with your children that are inconsistent with your personality. Sometimes I sing to him, sometimes I tell him stories or ask him questions (not for answers at he is 8 months old), but often we are simply together. I describe this silence to highlight the importance, in my mind, of the physical affection that a father can show that transcends the emotional connection that is also built through singing and talking.
Togetherness, through a routine, provides many opportunities for additional physical affection. I regularly kiss my son on the forehead as a simple sign of love. I also peck him on the neck as a playful sign of affection and I also nuzzle his tummy to make him laugh. I also like to tickle his feet to make him giggle and play with his feet to make clapping noises. I believe these examples have developed into a parallel routine of intimacy because of the task based intimacy I took responsibility for from the day he was born (nappies & changing). So, what does all this have to do with him being ill?
Physical intimacy and illness are two sides of the same coin. I have felt my physical intimacy increase this week from my usual baseline as I attempt to comfort my son. I am not sure if I would have felt the natural sense of connection and comfort if I had not already built this baseline with him over the preceding months. When I have been rocking him to sleep this week, there have been times when I thought he would never fall asleep, but I knew we had done it many times before and that our emotional connection was secure. It took longer, and sometimes I had to get calpol, but he did settle. It is during moments like those I have experienced this week that I realise the impact parenthood is having on me.
I used to think I was emotionally open and empathetic to others, but now I realise I was only an apprentice compared to the journey I am now on. I believe that my physical caring behaviours have contributed to a new sense of caring masculinity inside me that extends far beyond my family boundaries. I can already draw upon the strong, protective feelings that stir within when I hear my son cry or cough or sniffle. I have banked these emotions as a significant breakthrough in my own construction of masculinity. I hope that what I have learned will benefit others in the future, especially in my interactions with colleagues.
In summary, I return to the feelings of safety and comfort I felt as a boy in the middle of the night when my dad stroked my back when I was ill. Knowing that he was there for me when my mum was at work meant that I never felt alone when I was ill, and always knew I was supported and loved. It was the foundation of my own behaviours as an adult and influenced the person I am today. I hope I can impart that same sense of care and love in my own construction of masculinity, and not be afraid to extend this construction into my identity at work. With the caveat that physical affection must be mutual and never imposed, I believe that those positive emotions of physical care and love can also make a positive impact on working relationships too. I am overcoming my reticence at hugging my peers (something I have always participated in, but often awkwardly), as I know that we are all emotional beings and when we are ill, or sad, or stressed, or scared, we all need the love of our fellow human beings, whoever they are, to comfort us.