And baby makes me

September 5, 2004

John and Christine Peterson with their children and foster children.
Picture:Craig Sillitoe

Lucy Beaumont
Most of the children that John Peterson has fostered have grown up and moved on with their lives. That's the point.

"If it wasn't for them, I don't know where I'd be now," said Amanda, 26, of Mr Peterson and his wife, Christine. "They moulded us and made us better people."

Amanda and her sister Donna, 30, are among eight children the couple have fostered over the years. The Petersons have looked after dozens more children in their Richmond home on a short-term basis during times of crisis.

"I was 15 when I moved in with them because I had problems with my mum," said Donna. "J.P. believed in me. He always has. He means everything."

Mr Peterson, 57, said the most important thing a father could do was simply to "be there". Donna remembers fishing trips, laughter and fair discipline. "One time they caught me wagging and grounded me, so I couldn't go to an AC/DC concert," laughed Donna, now a mother of three.

"I want to raise my kids the same way."

Mr Peterson, a detective senior sergeant, said he hoped he had been a good influence on his young charges.

"The kids that we've had have been slightly damaged in some way, through no fault of their own," he said. "You just try to keep them from running off the rails.

"You never really replace the parent," said Mr Peterson, who has two adult sons from a previous marriage and a teenage son with Christine.

"You just hope that you've made a bit of difference... that you've given them some hope."

The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare hotline: 1800 013 088.

Michael McGirr
Oscar Wilde said that fathers should be seen and not heard. He had a point. Or half a point. Fathers should certainly be seen. Every parent wants to be trusted; a father is someone who has to be seen to be believed.

Expectant fathers find that the mother gets all the advice. By the time our little Benedict was born, Jenny, my wife, had heard it all, everything from what to do when you can't sleep to what to do when you can't stay awake. It was all well intentioned and Jenny learned to appreciate the spirit in which the advice was offered but to ignore the advice itself.

I, on the other hand, found that nobody had much to recommend. I was 40 when Benedict sprang onto our scene. The day after his birth, one of the midwives asked me if he was my first grandchild.

"No," I replied. The woman smiled reassuringly.

I think people assumed I knew more about life, and hence fatherhood, than I did. I have always been happy for people to make this assumption but they have always been wrong and never more wrong than in the face of fatherhood.

The birth of Benedict has made every other fresh start in my life look like changing my socks.

A baby changes everything from how you spend your evenings (mostly asleep) to how you spend your nights (mostly awake) to how you think about yourself and your partner, and about God for that matter.

I had to go looking for wisdom. Some of the most memorable, I am sad to say, came from disappointed fathers. Their advice was generally along the lines of "if I had my time again" and urged any father to keep life simple, be less distracted and, above all, turn up, especially on days when you know the house is in chaos and it would be easier to stay at work, where nobody is going to smear banana over the silk tie that costs $8 to get cleaned.

"Just go home," said a friend of ours. "But make sure you take your tie off before you put the key in the door."

"But I work at home."

"Then go out. But take the baby with you."

Benedict has prised our world open.

People say your world shrinks when you have to share it with kids. I have found the opposite, that sometimes the world gets a bit too big. It's the house that shrinks.

Benedict has created moments of closeness with all sorts of people. One old man we know, a recovering alcoholic and a private soul, said he had something to show us. It was a drawing his seven-year-old boy had left behind when his mother took the children and escaped years before. "I will love you with all my hart," it said on top. "I will love you with all my hurt," was added below. We went home and cried. We cried again when another friend touched Benedict's face and said he hadn't heard from his adult son for three years. Both men told us they had too many places to be other than home. Most of the places were licensed.

Someone told me that Benedict would teach me how to be a dad, as long as I was prepared to learn. I used to be a priest so I have seen the inside of plenty of churches. Nothing ever got me by the short and curlies as much as seeing Benedict in the role of baby Jesus in our town's nativity play last Christmas. An elderly parishioner said she had never been as touched at Mass as when the priest held up little Benedict, who was smiling, and said that God sure knows how to get our attention.

Michael McGirr is the author of Bypass: the story of a road (Picador).

Don Edgar
Fathers are not what they used to be. And just as well. Unlike the years after World War II, when nearly everyone got married and had children, the Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that close to 30 per cent of those now in the child-bearing years (roughly 20 to 40) will never marry and never have children. While there are no statistics on the average age of first-time fathers, the median age of men having first or subsequent children is 32.3. Fertility is down from 3.54 children per family in 1961 to 1.75.

So the men who do become fathers have thought about it a long time, have negotiated the timing with their partners, and want to be much more involved in raising their children when they do come along.

Each child is precious, rare, and he wants to be an active father to them, not a passive and remote authority figure.

Today, it is the rare man who is not present during the birth, and that presence gives a greater sense of being an integral part of bringing a new life into the world.

Far more of today's fathers attend parent-teacher nights, ride bikes and walk with their kids, help with homework, demand time off work to care for sick children, and share the responsibilities of parenting. They may still avoid the housework, but being a dad involves a lot more time. They actually talk, and listen, to their kids. And they have learned it is better to be a father in their own way, not simply as an appendage to the mother.

The work-family balance is no longer simply a "women's issue" - it is a core demand from men who want to play a real part in raising their children.

Such men are not the sensitive new-age wimps so maligned in the media; they are the men most confident of their own masculinity and of their own concept of what a decent life is about.

In Australia it is, unexpectedly, men in the mines and refineries of companies such as Alcoa who demand workshops on partnering and parenting - especially when they have infants and/or teenagers, the two most critical stages for forging the bonds of fatherhood.

That battle to share the care is one that will escalate - partly driven by women who won't put up with an uninvolved father, partly driven by fathers with a new attitude to life and work. Corporate automatons who insist that being a parent is a private choice and not the company's problem will find that it is their problem, because in a future short on labour, they will have to compete for the best workers. Repeated evidence shows the best workers - both men and women - are those with parenting responsibilities. The day might come when fathers demand equal parenting time within a flexible career, during marriage, not just equal parenting post-divorce. That will be a true revolution.

Children themselves yearn for more time with their dads. Research shows their self-confidence, social skills and school achievement all improve when fathers spend more time with them, one-on-one.

Fathers are learning they are "a double engine behind the child's potentiality", and society should welcome and celebrate their newfound role.

Dr Don Edgar, social policy adviser, was founding director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. His next book, The War Over Work, is due out next year.