Justin Langer and his wife, Sue, haven’t quite produced the full cricketing complement of 11. Nonetheless his four girls, Jessica, Ali Rose, Sophie and Grace would form a handy slips cordon. The former Test batsman and current coach of the Western Warriors spoke with Medical Forum about the pleasures and vicissitudes of fathering.
“It’s hard being a dad, particularly the first time around. The job doesn’t come with a textbook.
I think I was probably a bit obsessive with the first one but by the time Grace came around we were pretty comfortable watching her crawl around in the dirt.”
“That said, our oldest daughter is 17 and in a lot of ways Sue was a single mother when I was spending a long time away from home. When I was assistant coach for the Australian team I was gone for 11 months! I’m in my bed a lot more, now that I’m based here at the WACA.
It’s so much better being close to home and my family and I’m more accessible as a father than I’ve ever been in the last 20 years.”
Fathering in the moment
Justin acknowledges the demands of a busy career and the transition to stepping in the front door as a father.
“We all talk about work/life balance, don’t we? I’m mindful of it and I try to be really present when I’m home with Sue and the children. I do my best to leave my phone alone but my mind does tend to be ticking all the time. It’s a daily challenge, if I’m completely honest.”
Justin is well aware of the need to provide a model of appropriate behaviour towards women.
“One thing I’ve learnt from the Fathering Project [see Medical Forum, July 2013], and Dr Bruce Robinson in particular, is that it’s so important for my daughters to see that I treat Sue with care, kindness and respect. They, in their turn, will expect to be treated the same way in their own relationships.”
“It’s a big responsibility being a husband and father. How we deal with those relationships is important because our children mirror us and bad manners and poor language is easily replicated.
But we’re only human and the Langer home is not a complete Zen cave. It’s not rainbows and butterflies every day!”
Men are powerful role models
The increasing divorce rate has significant socio-economic repercussions and, says Justin, the absent male is a significant factor.
“It’s often the case that some young boys don’t have a lot of contact with older men. If dad’s not around it follows that uncles and male friends probably won’t be either. Despite a wonderful nurturing mother there are certain, and quite different, strengths a child can get from a male mentor.”
“I’ve had those throughout my life and it’s been critically important. I learnt wonderful values from my own father about honesty and a strong work ethic. He’s my hero and I have a magnificent relationship with him.”
Justin Langer was notoriously tough on himself during his cricketing career, particularly when he was dropped from the Australian XI in 2001. There are some inherent dangers, he says, with the increasing professionalism of sport and that regime shouldn’t extend to the junior level.
“I was watching Sophie playing Under 12 netball last year and was appalled at the attitudes of some parents and coaches.
The kids were placed under a lot of pressure and it’s supposed to be fun. I left feeling quite despondent. Sport has become so professional and I worry about the effect this has on young children.”
Teaching children resilience
Though Justin is no fan of the ‘no-one loses’ ethos either.
“I think it’s a lot of rubbish quite frankly. There’s nothing wrong with having a winner and loser, that’s what sport is all about. It’s a contest. In both winning and losing there are great lessons to be learnt. Being able to bounce back builds layers of resilience. Life can be a tough and bumpy road. It’s critically important that young people learn how to rise above those bad days.”
Sadly, the words ‘men’s health’ and ‘suicide’ are increasingly placed in the same sentence. And parenthood as a stressor is an acknowledged causal factor. Becoming a father, particularly for the first time, can be a daunting experience.
“I certainly felt that, and it’s not helped by the fact that Australian men feel they shouldn’t show their emotions. But you’re crazy if you don’t because it leads to absolute desperation and worse. I had a particularly tough time in England during the 2001 tour and only after opening up and talking with Adam Gilchrist and John Buchanan did it begin to change for the better.”
“It was the same old thing of not wanting to appear weak.”