Paternally grateful

IS there a word for it? I can’t think of one. The label “maternal” is fenced off by women, exclusively, proudly; “paternal” – well, feminism has stained its meaning, it’s veered into something hegemonic, domineering, controlling, hardened, a word a lot of females flinch from by instinct.

But how to describe what I see all around me, in boys as well as men? It requires a very particular modern word but I don’t know it. What is it I’m trying to describe?

The sight of young boys in a school playground – nine, 10, 11 – delightedly, confidently passing around a baby like a pass-the-parcel; boys having competitions to get the child laughing; helping him with his first galumphing, wobbling steps. There’s such an open, kind, giggly tenderness in them; something, dare I say, deeply maternal – even more so than the girls. But of course it’s not described like that. I see it in my father, who wants to steal the kids whenever he visits; showers them with presents, cuddles, the gift of his attention, blows raspberries on tiny tummies, disentangles them from fishing rods; “go away mum, they’re mine now”. I see it in The Chap, making three lots of school lunches every weeknight no matter how big a workday he’s had, getting up at dawn every weekend to get to an obscure footy pitch, camping out at his sons’ school this Father’s Day weekend despite an extreme aversion to tents, sleeping bags and the lack of good coffee anywhere in sight. The man who held each one of his children in the first hour of their lives and wept, held them strong and possessive and proud yet with infinite gentleness. And as I witnessed it, every time, I thought this is an emotion as powerful, magnificent, pure, as anything a woman can lay claim to.

But what is the word that encapsulates all this? That distinctly modern, easy, masculine tenderness towards a young child. A great liberation of feminism is that men are allowed to be so much more in touch with their feminine side, and when we women discern the confidence of this graceful way of being we celebrate it. There’s something deeply satisfying to it, in a biological sense.

But then this: the collective, reactive flinch at a lone male, in public, with children. Virgin Australia recently removed Sydney fireman Johnny McGirr from his seat because he was sitting next to two unaccompanied boys. Mr McGirr: “[The attitude of the airline] is ‘we respect you but as soon as you board a Virgin airline you are a potential paedophile’, and that strips away all the good that any male does regardless of his standing in society, his profession or his moral attitudes.” A new soft play centre in England’s Birmingham has declared that fathers and boys over nine are not welcome. My own children’s nursery in London once hired a male teacher; the result, a flurry of horror and panic among some parents and a destructive, divisive campaign to have him turfed out.

It’s such a shame, all this. Because I look at those boys in their schoolground playing so joyfully with a baby and think what wonderful fathers they’ll all make, whatever their sexual orientation in adulthood. Men of the new world indeed. This paranoid suspicion of the male in public, with kids, feels like a betrayal of the easy, fluid innocence of our young men. We’re in a world that doesn’t celebrate the word I’m looking for, whatever it is. American poet Anne Sexton wrote, “It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.” The memories of my own father involve tenderness and cherishing and a fierce love of the child, qualities that do not reduce his masculinity – but enhance it. So Happy Father’s Day, to all of you out there. And thank you. A lot of us women notice what you do and are deeply moved by it.

We just don’t say it enough.