Globe and Mail

The new, improved dads?

Fathers have one thing in common: a commitment to be loving and involved with their children

The Globe and Mail
Friday, November 12, 1999

Toronto -- John Hykel's life is vastly different from his father's.

When his father was 16, the Gestapo stood him against a wall and threatened him with death unless he revealed where his family was hiding two Czech partisans. The Nazis eventually hanged his mother for that.

Young John grew up in comfort in the Toronto suburb of Mimico.

And yet as fathers -- John is now a 37-year-old father of two -- they are very similar: firm but fun-loving.

And while John's father, Milan, was away for months at a time during his childhood, travelling on business, John himself works long hours as a manager at Home Depot.

Today, much is being made of the New Father, the tender, diaper-changing contrast to the Old Father, who is the embodiment of masculine authority and reserve and who is widely scorned.

But the reality on Mr. Hykel's middle-class street in the Danforth village, whose residents have agreed to let a reporter observe their lives for a year, is much more complex.

In many cases, the New Father does not reject the old. How could he? In spite of all their differences, they are too much alike.

"My dad was someone I held in high regard," Mr. Hykel says. "I elevated him in my mind. I always wanted to impress him.

"My mother and I probably had more heart-to-hearts. With my father, it was more emotion through action, rather than words."

Mr. Hykel and Milan went for long walks along Mimico Creek. "He'd talk about work or whatever was on his mind. I always felt like I had an 'in' with my dad on that level. He would take me into his trust."

Trying to find one all-enveloping rule for today's fathers is impossible; their personal histories are too varied.

One father on this street grew up with his own father 1,000 kilometres away, and saw him just once a year. He is now a warm and deeply involved father.

Another father, when he was a teenager, was slapped in the face by his own father over disagreements. He admits to having trouble being as engaged with his family as he would like to be.

Yet another father is a househusband by choice. Another is divorced, but shares custody of his two young children and pays most of the bills.

What seems true of all these fathers, no matter what their backgrounds, is a commitment to being a loving, involved presence in their children's lives.

Patrick Herrmann

He grew up almost fatherless. His father had been his mother's ski instructor in the Italian Alps. Patrick grew up in Germany with his mother and grandmother. "I was a love child," says Mr. Herrmann, curly-haired and affable.

He says he bears no resentment toward his mother or his father. "From what I hear, I think he's a pretty great guy," he says of his father.

He was not impressed by his friends' fathers in rural Germany. They were beer-swilling, table-thumping authoritarians, he says. In countless visits to his best friend's home until the age of 15, he doubts that the father spoke more than three words to his son. "I'd rather have no dad than a dad like that," he says.

Now, Mr. Herrmann is part of a smoothly functioning traditional family. However, it is only by necessity that he is the main breadwinner, he says. He thinks that he would like to be a stay-at-home father some day, finances permitting.

Unlike many fathers, he knows very little about sports; he does, however, like to roughhouse with his boys -- it's the one thing he thinks he missed out on in his childhood.

"For me, it's all brand new," he says. "I'm kind of winging it."

He tries to be home by mid-afternoon from his job as a computer consultant with the local school board.

Olga Herrmann, a stay-at-home mother and part-time editor, attests to her husband's involvement with sensitive, strong-willed Daniel, 4, and sweet-tempered, two-year-old Jake. "He's a caring, nurturing father who makes himself available to his children, always," she says.

Kim Trollope

His father saw his role as that of family provider. Providing wasn't easy.

He was an immigrant from Britain who had quit school at 14. In Canada, he worked as a draftsman, but attended night classes to get his high-school equivalency and eventually obtained a diploma in recreational leadership.

But then he suffered two years of unemployment that led to the rupture of his marriage while Kim was in his late teens.

"He was always there," says Mr. Trollope, the father of two energetic boys, 6 and 4. "He was always ready for a yuck. 'Oh dad, my thing's busted.' 'Okay, let's go fix that.' If I needed something, he was there. That's the same kind of thing I'm trying to do for my children as well."

Mr. Trollope offered to be a househusband so his wife, Jacqui Strachan, a lawyer, could work full-time. However, Ms. Strachan decided to leave the profession and stay home with the children.

Mr. Trollope, who works as a technical director at Harbourfront, is now his family's chief breadwinner.

Milan Hykel

His father, known in the Czech village of Prostejove for his anti-German views, ran from the Nazis in 1938 when Mr. Hykel was 8. His mother was hanged in 1944.

"I was on my own all my life," says Mr. Hykel, now 70.

After the war, his father, a clothing merchant, returned to the village and sent him to England to study. But then the Communists threw his father into a prison camp as a bourgeois. His father escaped to Germany and later came to Canada; Mr. Hykel joined his father in Toronto.

While working five days a week for Simpsons department store, he spent Saturdays helping out in his father's Queen Street West clothing store.

"We were very good friends."

Like his father, he went to work in the clothing industry; when his older son, Peter, was in his mid-teens, and John was 11, he took a job that required him to be away for up to eight months a year in Europe and Asia.

"I liked what I was doing. I liked the fashion, the styling, the merchandising. You worked during the day and caught a flight at night. It was four weeks in a row we were up and down. And I had a good wife. I said, 'Are you okay?' She said, 'I'm fine.' "

He never learned to cook. Once, when his wife was in the hospital for an operation, he telephoned her because he encountered difficulties poaching an egg.

Mr. Hykel says he has no regrets. "The boys were good to me. My wife has been good to me."

He mentions that he would not let the teenaged John out past midnight, though his friends could stay out much later. One Christmas, when John was an adult, he thanked him for this, he recalls, his jaw trembling.

"John and Peter are working their butts off, but they are happy," he says.

John Hykel

Sometimes his wife, Vivian Cheung, feels like a "retail widow."

Mr. Hykel works so many hours, including overnight shifts, that he puts in an extra five months of 40-hour weeks during a typical year.

But he does not feel badly. Like his father, he professes no regrets: He does not worry whether he is the New Father. His three-year-old son, Kristofer, and year-old daughter, Audrey, run shouting to him when he comes home. They love him. (Unlike his father, he cooks and vacuums and does the laundry.)

"I think being a dad is when you are there. I don't think it's the amount of time you can spend."

He rejects the pressure on him to be a New Father. "We say, 'You've got to do this, the perfect father does this.' I think there's a perception out there that everybody's got to be superparents."

However, he wonders whether his father feels badly about his long-ago absences. Sometimes, the old man still mentions them.

Although life was "great when he was home -- I really missed him when he wasn't there" -- he wants to reassure his father that he has no hard feelings. "He was doing what he thought best at the time."


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