From Facebook to ‘dad blogs’, men are increasingly turning to public forms to share their experiences of the highs and lows of parenting, says Rob Kemp
For all its failings, Facebook deserves some credit for building better bonds between fathers and their children.
Recent initiatives including dads’ clubs, father-baby swimming sessions and even baby massage groups for men have sought to encourage males to be more at ease with their parenting role and more engaged with their children. But a less contrived form of bonding – whereby dads record their day-to-day relationship with their kids – has been spawned via social media.
Posts from dads highlighting Christmas Day excitement, new Lego constructing achievements or just walks in the park may seem like innocuous little snapshots, but some argue that they reveal a generational shift in attitudes to fatherhood.
“The posting of images and comments is a way of expressing the love and pride you feel towards your child,” argues Russell Hurn, chartered psychologist specialising in fatherhood. “Positive things you want to share reinforce your perception of your relationship and can strengthen the parental bond.”
Tom Beardshaw, a social media specialist who coaches business leaders on fatherhood issues ( @tombeardshaw ) agrees. “Men’s relationships with their children are becoming more visible with fathers increasingly talking about their experiences – historically, the only people we have spoken to about our families are our partners, so it can be seen as encouraging that this public conversation about fatherhood is emerging.”
The vast numbers of pics and posts suggests a serious shift in the attitudes of dads towards their little pride and joy. Go back a generation or two and it would have been at best a tatty snapshot in a wallet, the odd family portrait on the office desk or a fading pic pinned to the cab of the car or lorry.
“My dad didn’t take photos and had no pics to share,” says Will, father of Jack (age seven) and Ben (three) from Brighton. “He was pretty much the reverse of me – I’m a ’60 pics a day’ man. I don’t think men took photos of their kids back then. Certainly not ‘working class’ men like my dad anyway.”
As the roles of mums and dads become more interchangeable and fathers continue to play a more hands-on role in child rearing, so their attitudes towards public displays of affection are changing too.
“My Instagram account is effectively a record of my children’s lives,” explains Dan, from London – father of Iris (three) and Albert (10 months). “It’s used to keep far-flung grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends we’d see more of if we didn’t have kids up to date – it’s been described as extremely soppy, by female rather than male friends, but I’m not bothered.”
For some, the benefit of posting images online goes beyond ‘bonding’ ambitions. “When my two kids were born I was a stay-at-home dad for four years,” explains Lee, father of Alexander (nine) and Jackie (seven). “I took tons of pictures – then came the split. Lee’s ex’s computer broke and all those images were lost. “The only pictures I could find from that period were the handful that I’d sent by email; I downloaded them and put them on Facebook so I’d never lose them again.”
According to Dr Nigel Sherriff, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Brighton’s Centre for Health Research and a chartered psychologist, the process of social networking for fathers not only affirms their emotional attachment to their child but helps them become better dads too.
“Comments, ‘likes’, and so on help to shape and develop their own personal identity as a father and their collective social identity as belonging to a much larger network or peer group of fathers,” Sherriff argues. “Research does suggest that the use of social media such as Facebook may help parents to build and maintain social capital.”
Perhaps the most exhaustive exponents of this internet-based bonding process are the growing number of dad bloggers.
“I initially set up The Dad Network blogto create a space to share my thoughts and feelings as a result of our recent miscarriage,” explains Al Ferguson, 26, father to Ted, five months, Isla, two, and Louis, 10. “It felt like there was no support for dads going through that kind of thing. The pub was hardly the place to bring up my deepest feelings of loss and despair.”
Ferguson’s writing struck nerve, the network has grown and more and more fathers are sharing their own take on being a dad online. “Writing things down always forces you to process things in deeper ways. Through writing about Ted, I have been able to really explore my feelings towards him and the time we have together.”
Whilst social media is great at creating connections with loose ties, Tom Beardshaw insists that at the heart of a father-child bond is still the face-to-face relationship. “I’m not sure that social media is much of a replacement. It’s useful for sharing images of family togetherness, which can be fantastic for close family and friends, I hope that the public conversations about and between fathers continues to grow – but social media audiences are varied, and some people can get annoyed by it.”
That’s an issue Al Ferguson is wary of. “Sharing anything, especially personal things, on the internet is always going to be walking a tight rope,” he says. “Everyone has an opinion and being able to hide behind a keyboard means that anyone and everyone can share it.”
Chris, father of Daisy (10) and Lottie (six) suggests that the trick for dads is to find that fine line between sharing and over-sharing. “Sometimes I do think “nobody wants to know” and worry about being seen as an overtly pushy or boastful parent. I don’t think it necessarily brings us closer together – but it is a great way of preserving memories for them when they get older so it will probably do so more in future years.”