Fatherhood is one of the most universal and collective experiences, but at the same time is intensely personal, individual and unique. This is what Tom Chivers, is encountering and thinking about in his article ‘What does it feel like to be a Father’ in The Telegraph. He concludes:
In about four and a half months, it seems, I am going to change, profoundly and almost instantly. It’s a frightening thought. I can’t wait.
Men have always wondered about becoming fathers. Perhaps one of the things that is always associated with fatherhood, despite changing styles in expression, is that it brings with it a deluge of emotions that are rarely felt anywhere else in life. As the clergyman John Angell James rhetorically asked in 1822:
who, that has felt them, can ever forget the emotions awakened by the first gaze upon the face of his child, by the first embrace of his babe?
Indeed one of the aspects I enjoyed most when writing about parenting in Georgian England was the sheer, unabated love for their children that men often expressed; much like that which Tom Chivers anticipates.
A number of examples can be found in William Hutton’s autobiography which he assembled in extreme old age from the diaries he had kept. William was born in 1723 and died in 1815. In between he climbed the social ladder to rise from a child worker in a Derby silk mill, to a bookshop owner in Birmingham, and ended owning a successful paper warehouse. He wrote the first history of Birmingham, and was a travel writer, powered by his phenomenal ability to walk long distances. Oh, and he was really quite delightful!
Of 1756 he recorded:
My dear wife brought me a little daughter, who has been the pleasure of my life to this day.
For 1758 he described a fine year when:
I procured all the intelligence I could relative to the fabrication of paper; engaged an artist to make me a model of a mill; attended to business; and nursed my children; while the year ran round. On the 2nd of July, Mrs. Hutton brought me another son, so that I had now three to nurse; all of whom I frequently carried together in my arms. This I could not do without a smile; while he who had none, would view the act with envy.
And then, just as now, everyone’s child was the best. In 1770 he recalled:
I went to Nottingham races, and took my son upon a pony. When I. surveyed the little man, and the little horse, the strong affection of a father taught me to think him the prettiest figure upon the race-ground.
At the end of his life, he confessed
my children are my treasure, my happiness. I have ardently wished I might not be separated from them. I have hitherto had my wish. The world would only exhibit a barren desert without them.
William died a happy man, his surviving daughter and son close by him.
I’m delighted that there are more historians writing about fatherhood in the last couple of years and that men’s emotions figure prominently in the analysis. Here I’ve talked about positive feelings, but of course fatherhood stirs others too, like anxiety, sorrow, anger, and fear. All need far more attention for the changing ways in which men are meant to handle these feelings as fathers.
For more recent fathers’ thoughts and feelings, do have a look at the modern historian Laura King’s wonderful website ‘Hiding in the Pub to Cutting the Cord’ and the sociologist Tina Miller’s book Making Sense of Fatherhood.