Fintan O’Toole: The newly visible dads, and an ordinary and wonderful kind of love

Fatherhood is a kind of makey-up thing, but it has come into its own in lockdown

During the lockdown, almost everyone was watching Normal People. There was a great deal to see in it about the complexity of human relationships. But what was nowhere to be seen was fatherhood. Marianne's abusive father is dead, and even his negative effects on her are less clear in the TV series than in the original novel. Connell's father is a non-person – neither he nor his mother seem to have any interest in him, or even in his absence. That seems to be, so far as we can judge, a good thing. Whatever else the series tells us about life in Ireland, it seems to suggest that fathers are at best optional extras, at worst a source of damage to their wives and children.

Normal People is a story, of course, not a sociological treatise, and as a story it is highly credible. But the absence struck me in particular because, while the series was playing, I realised that I’d never seen so many fathers about the place in my life. In the confined circumference of the lockdown world in my Dublin suburb, there were daddies everywhere.

They were queuing with kids for ice-cream outside our local shop. Pushing prams with babies inside and toddlers clinging to the starboard bow. Standing in goal in the local playing field and making dramatic efforts to save shots from sons and daughters while making sure that they trickled over the line: “Ah, well done! Great shot!” Puffing around red-faced after loping kids they were supposedly encouraging to get running. Cuddling toddlers who had fallen over. Wiping smears of snot and dribbles of ice cream off faces. Shouting at kids not to get too far ahead on their bikes and make sure to stop at the kerb.

The daddies were so noticeable because you usually don't see them doing these things at these times of the day

And enjoying it – like normal people. All these public displays of fatherhood seemed easy, natural, the way it should be. Presumably, these men would have been in offices, or on the road or in factories or in meetings. In these strange weeks, they were free to be with their kids during the day.


The same is true for mothers, of course. Women do all these things all the time, backwards in high heels. They juggle all the same demands and usually more. But what is habitual is scarcely visible. The daddies were so noticeable because you usually don’t see them doing these things at these times of the day. But beyond that, there is a larger absence. Ordinary, decent fatherhood is not greatly represented or written about or perhaps even talked about.

Is this especially so in Ireland? Certainly if Irish literature and drama are anything to by. We have a great crop of bad dads: the tyrannical Old Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World; the monstrous Dada in Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark; the terrifying ogre in Marina Carr’s On Raftery’s Hill; the brooding, bitter and abusive patriarch who recurs in John McGahern’s novels, most memorably Moran in Amongst Women; the neglectful wastrel in Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls; the psychopathic Charlo in Roddy Doyle’s Family; the useless, sentimental drunk in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; the satanic rapist Old Nick in Emma Donoghue’s Room.

There are toxic and/or useless fathers in other countries' classics, but it is hard to think of another play that ends with the same note of joyful good riddance to one of them as Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock does, when Juno replies to her daughter's lament that her child will have no father: it will "have what's far better – it'll have two mothers". Or another pillar of the canon, James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the author's alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, announces that "Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?" Stephen dumps his own father and chooses a new one, Leopold Bloom.

There has, of course, always been plenty of material in real life for these tyrants, abusers, drunks and wastrels. There is no shortage of street angels and house devils, of men who are charming and jovial in company and monstrous bullies behind the front door. We know that the lockdown has been a terrifying period for women and children shut in with cruel and violent men.

Fathers want to be with their children, to take care of them. But there is a cruel irony at work. It is called patriarchy

We know, too, that the burden of housework and of caring for children still falls disproportionately on mothers. There is no comparable Irish research, but a new British study of 3,500 families with two opposite-gender parents found that mothers were doing more childcare and more housework than fathers during the lockdown: 2.3 hours a day more childcare than fathers and 1.7 more hours of housework.

However, even if they are doing conspicuously less than their female partners, fathers were found to have increased the time they spend on housework and childcare, doing nearly twice as many hours as they did in 2014-15.

What this suggests is that fatherhood is changing – but not rapidly enough. There is overwhelming evidence in western societies that men feel just as stressed about the balance between paid work and parenthood as women do. Fathers want to be with their children, to take care of them, to enjoy their company, to be at the centre of their lives. But there is a cruel irony at work. It is called patriarchy.

The joke on men in general is that patriarchy means the “rule of the father”. Feminism has, rightly, attacked it for the damage it does to women. But the rule of the father is also terrible for real fathers. The privileges of male domination come at a terrible price: being Big Daddy is a distortion of the desires and needs of fathers – to have a loving, caring relationship with their children. The social and economic structures that are still built on patriarchy make that much harder than it should be.

The underlying problem is that Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus is not wrong: paternity is a kind fiction. Shakespeare’s line in The Merchant of Venice – “It is a wise father that knows his own child” – contains a truth that held for most of human evolution. Not all motherhood is biological, but most mothers know damn well that they have given birth to their own children. There is a visceral, bodily connection, even if at times the emotional connection is more difficult than it is generally supposed to be.

The truth is that you become a father, not by contributing sperm to an egg, but merely by defining yourself as a dad

Fatherhood, on the other hand, has to be invented every time. Lots of women do not acknowledge the paternity of their children, and lots of children grow up very happily without fathers in their lives. This makes paternity a very delicate thing. A man has to make it up. And, in a way, make it up out of something ridiculous. There is (at least in theory) some profound link between a moment of sexual pleasure nine months ago and this overwhelming, relentless, squalling being. The disproportion between one and the other is comical – or would be if the reality of a child were not so utterly engulfing.

I remember, as I’m sure most fathers do, how scary and difficult this is. Compared with the body shock of motherhood, it seems ridiculous to even talk about it. And it seems in any case rather shameful. How could you possibly not know what to make of your relationship with this miraculous child? What kind of monster do you have to be not to feel instantly bonded? But the truth is that you become a father, not by contributing sperm to an egg, but merely by defining yourself as a dad.

But we can’t define ourselves alone. We figure out what paternity means by emulating or reacting against, by running towards or away from, our fathers and their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. My grandson is Danish, and in that language “grandfather” is a term that gets divided up according to which parent you belong to: I am “farfar” – the father’s father. But this business of paternity always travels far, far away, into our own childhoods and the ideas of fatherhood inherited through the generations.

This is not some kind of deterministic doom. Fatherhood does change, often quite radically. Writing in 1969, Alan Bestic noted that "The Englishman thinks it no shame to wheel out the pram while his wife is making the dinner … But few Irishmen have ever wheeled a pram on their own, and the greatest concession we make in acknowledging a shared responsibility for the contents of such a vehicle is to lend a hand in pushing it up a hill; and even then it must be a fairly steep hill." I look out the window now and I see those daddies with buggies queuing for the shop.

The vast majority of us try our best to make it up as we go along, through the million moments of time given and attention paid and stories read

But the forefathers have not gone away. Patriarchal structures and notions have not been banished and men trying to invent fatherhood for themselves often find that they are trapped within them. And if they look for images that might help, they often find only ogres who tell them by bad example what not to be. Or they find nothing at all, a kind of emptiness in which fathers are unnecessary.

But much of the joy of life is in the unnecessary things. Fatherhood is a kind of superfluity, a makey-up thing. It can always be as it is so often depicted: useless, toxic or merely absent. But the vast majority of us try our best to make it up as we go along, through the million moments of time given and attention paid and stories read and goals conceded and snot wiped and encouragement whispered and hands held tight. It becomes something precious to us and to our children. It has been felt in these months through forced separations, but also seen in the simple pleasures of the daddies on the streets, given, for once, the time to ease into this ordinary and wonderful kind of love.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column