If there’s one thing dads are good at, it’s coming up with excuses as to why we’re bad.
Undoubtedly, the over-riding reason we give for not being the “good dad” of legend is work; perhaps we’re a self-employed builder who has to do seven days a week because he is afraid of turning down jobs lest they dry up; maybe we’re an office worker kept at his desk long past baby’s bedtime by some macho culture of presenteeism; possibly we might be a warehouse employee on a zero-hours contract, concerned about his contribution to the stability of home life.
Or perhaps we are John Banville, 70, Man Booker Prize-winning author of 30-odd books who, in an interview with The Irish Times at the weekend, put the blame fairly and squarely on him not being a good father on the fact he’s a writer.
“It was very hard on them [the family], very hard on the people around me, on my children,” he says. “I have not been a good father. I don’t think any writer is.”
Before we unpack Banville’s statements. we perhaps have to work out just what we mean by being a “bad father”. And maybe the only way to do that is to find out what it means to be a good one.
Every family set-up will have their own criteria for being a good dad, and it will differ within the confines of the unit – what dad thinks is good might not be the same stuff what his kids think it should be.
But let’s hazard a guess at some universal themes. Dad will want to be bringing some money in to the home, whether as the old chestnut of “chief breadwinner”, equal partner or lone earner. He should be pulling his weight in the kitchen and on the Hoover. He’ll know when the kids need their PE kit or a bag of self-raising flour for domestic science. He’ll know when boundaries have been crossed and how long he should confiscate the iPhone or X-Box controller for.
It’s a potentially long shopping list for being a good dad, but I’d hazard near the top of it most men would write “time to spend with the family”, time which they might consider to be in short supply. But in at number one with a bullet should be “love”, as equally as nebulous a concept as time, perhaps, but — if you’re doing the dad thing right — in endless supply from boundless reserves.
Can you imagine any woman – whether a writer, a working mother or a stay-at-home mum – who would ever use the excuse that she was “too busy” ploughing her own very important furrow to be a proper parent to her children?
Knowing what makes a good dad should make it easy to see where we’re falling down, and I’d bet that the “time” thing is our chief weapon in excusing our fatherly failings. And it’s the time spent on work – and bringing in the spondoolicks – that takes us away from daddy duties.
Which brings us back to John Banville, and his admission that he wasn’t a good father. Banville has four children – two sons from his first marriage and two daughters from his current relationship. But what does he mean exactly, when he says he wasn’t a good dad?
“You take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen that it’s very hard on one’s loved ones,” says Banville. While there will be many writers who think they manage to hold down highly serviceable roles as dads, despite Banville’s assertion that all writers are probably bad fathers, Banville himself is determined: “We are ruthless. We’re not nice people. We might be interesting, we might be diverting… but mostly it’s just a slog. You have to concentrate so deeply, have to sink down into yourself as far as you can go, you lose sight of the people around you.”
What strikes me most about Banville’s comments is that there seems to be an element of perverse pride in what he’s saying, even arrogance, as though the lofty heights of prize-winning authordom are the ultimate get-out clause for basic parenting. And if someone so readily finds an excuse in the way he’s earning his dough as a way to excuse being – in his own words, remember – a bad father, perhaps the “writer” badge is just an excuse in itself. Maybe Banville would still be too busy to be a good father if he was trading in the City or digging ditches in town.
It’s all just too easy. And can you imagine any woman – whether a writer, a working mother or a stay-at-home mum – who would ever use the excuse that she was “too busy” ploughing her own very important furrow to be a proper parent to her children?
It’s something only we men think we can get away with… and usually because most of the time we’re pretty sure that should our work-life balance tip over towards career we’ll always have a wife or partner who can do that mysterious multi-tasking to pick up the slack.
Perhaps Banville, 71 in December, is a “man of his generation” when it comes to what he thinks fathers should be. Or maybe his ideas of what it actually takes to be a good father are woefully skewed.
And I’m sorry, John Banville, but if you’ve been lucky enough to be a full-time best-selling writer, dancing to your own tune, working from home in the embrace of your family — a situation most working men would kill for — then you’ve had the best possible opportunity to earn that World’s Greatest Dad mug.
If you feel you’ve screwed it up, it seems pretty lame to blame that on the job that gave you the greatest shot at being a good father that any man could hope for — and to tar with the same brush everyone else who is actually making a pretty good fist of it.