Well, Peter is confused and conflicted; that much is clear.
He thinks he always wanted children, although he can’t quite remember for sure. Perhaps it was just his wife who did. He thinks of his kids as his ‘world’ and a huge source of joy, and yet also as the destroyers of his manhood and freedom. He sees his children in terms of his balance sheet: they are ‘mouths to feed’ and they make constant demands on ‘my money’. He resents his children for getting more positive female attention than he does himself.
It was absolutely fascinating for me to listen to Peter’s confession and the panel’s discussion. As a doting father of two little boys myself, and as a historian of emotions, the show stimulated dozens of different lines of thought and feeling in my own mind.
Any parent will be able to identify with Peter’s feeling of frustration that he now has so little time to himself. Fewer will identify with the feeling of being at Ascot contemplating buying a racehorse and then remembering the school fees.
It was the emphasis on money that I found most striking in Peter’s confession, rather than his resentment at the changes in his lifestyle. I have never owned a boat, sports car, or racehorse, but I would be astonished if doing so would give me a sense of true ‘manhood’ and personal freedom. When you see someone driving an expensive car with a personalised number plate, do you think to yourself: ‘Ah. There goes a happy man! He truly understands the nature of freedom and manhood’?
Historically, there have always been many different roles for the father – the absent authoritarian; the grafter and provider; the source of moral authority; and the embodiment of love, nurture, and affection. It is no coincidence that the qualities of the father and the qualities of God, ‘Our Father’, have much in common. Freud believed that religious faith could be traced back to the need for a father figure, and he described the father as ‘the oldest, first, and sole authority for the child’.
I don’t think that either Freud or God can provide the answer to Peter’s dilemma, but he shouldn’t expect himself to be able to fulfil all the many different demands of fatherhood simultaneously and perfectly. Like Peter, I have found the experience of fatherhood both demanding and rewarding. I have also, like him, seen my own father in a new light knowing that he went through something similar. As a teenager and young adult I sometimes found my father’s interest and affection towards me embarrassing. I can now understand a little better where such feelings come from.