by Tom Beardshaw – fatherhood coach
To answer this question, we have to ask… “compared to when?” For the vast majority of human history, for a father who was closely bonded with his partner and children, his desire to feed and protect them would have placed tremendous pressures on him almost not matter where in the world he lived or his status in society. In relation to most of our species, with our contemporary industrialised food production and physical protection from the rule of law, modern fathers (and mothers) have it easy.
The question becomes a little more meaningful when we turn our attention to more recent times. The growing wealth of the Western World since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution has led to increasing exploration of what ‘the good life’ could mean, and over the past fifty years we have seen a growing problem of excess stress experienced by those working.
It is generally true to say that more fathers than mothers experience work stress and work-family conflict, but this is simply because more fathers work. Only 20% of UK couple families now have a full time working father and a mother who does not work – the 50’s ‘ideal’ is now very much in the minority. Of the rest, 60% of couple families also have a full time working father but half of those also have a full time working mother and the other half have mothers who work part time. In total, 80% of fathers in couple families are working full time.
In many ways, this increased number of working mothers means that the pressure on men to earn should be eased by no longer having to be the sole source of family income. UK fathers earn on average about two thirds of family incomes, although individual families can obviously vary considerably. But as prices in places like the UK have risen alongside family income, this may not have reduced stress coming from the workplace – owning a home in the UK is almost impossible to manage on a single income.
There is also another source of stress for the modern father. The expectations on him in his role at home as a father of his children have also increased as women have increasingly chosen a role in the workplace. While this change in expectations are driven by women’s changing roles, they are taken very seriously by men themselves – in general we want to be more involved with our children’s lives than our father’s generation. The level of that involvement varies considerably by the demands of our partners’ work and the depth of our aspirations and commitment to be active in our children’s lives.Economic circumstances, employers and our own choices and aspirations all contribute to the levels of stress that we experience.
It’s important to remember the value that stress hormones such as Adrenaline, Cortisol and Norepinephrin give to us. Rooted in our brain’s systems for fight, flight and arousal, we literally couldn’t function without them. Too little stress and we would become lazy and inactive… not much use for our children. Too much, and we can burn out.
Any modern parent, mother or father, does well to recognise the contribution that their own decisions and aspirations make to their experience of stress, and keep talking to each other about the issue. When one parent is feeling too much stress, it is a risk for the family, and the other parent should recognise this and think about what they can do to alleviate things.