'I remember feeling totally lost and bewildered when Oscar was born.'

'I remember feeling totally lost and bewildered when Oscar was born.'

We were on the tram, me and two little boys. It was a Saturday evening in June and the three of us were returning from an afternoon at the football.

One of the children was my son, Oscar, now seven years old. His school friend Will had also come along to the game with us.

Heading up Nicholson Street, two matronly women noticed the three of us and clicked their tongues approvingly. ''You're a good dad,'' one said with a friendly smile. ''Taking two kids to the footy all by yourself.''

It felt good to get affirmation from strangers about your ability to take small children into public places and have them come out the other side alive. But pride at the public acknowledgement didn't last long. What if I was a woman? I could have five kids on the tram and no one would bat an eyelid.

A few weeks later I was reading an article in the Huffington Post, about the ''new breed'' of dads. The author claimed ''fathers [who] have a screen shot of their kids on their iPhone or desktop … [or] change diapers or babysit while mom goes out to see a movie or have dinner with her girlfriends'' were a sign of just how far things have come in parenting equality.

Really? That's all I have to do to be a good dad? Put a picture of Oscar on my phone? ''Babysit'' my own child?

Like the tram incident, the initial thrill at meeting this modest standard was soon replaced by a feeling that maybe fathers everywhere were drowning in a sea of these pyrrhic victories, living in a world where every day they are confronted with messages which tell them they are not really capable of nurturing and raising children.

It was at least a little heartening therefore to read in last week's Age that academics like Professor Charles Areni are attempting to kick off a debate about the societal ''glass ceiling'' that men hit when they aspire to be competent, engaged parents, sharing the load equally or even raising a child alone.

This idea was also pursued in a recent article on the Christian lifestyle website Relevant. ''If a man is somewhat engaged with his children and makes some attempt to be present and active in their lives, he is considered a good father,'' wrote Peter Chin.

''[But] when someone tells you or implies that you can't do something well, that's not a cause for celebration. Men should not feel emancipated because everyone believes they are only mildly competent as caregivers. That's an insult.''

A friend posted the article to Facebook, which sparked a discussion among young dads who have experienced a culture that assumes the woman will always be the primary caregiver and the man will only ever be a bit player in proceedings.

The stories began flowing: the birthing classes where the men were ridiculed because they would ''rather be playing footy'', the call to the maternal health line where the dad is asked,: ''Doesn't your wife speak English?''; the stay-at-home father who takes his daughter out in the pram and is asked, ''Mummy's got the day off, has she?''; the City of Melbourne website that says the Parents Group is ''for new mothers''.

My friend's husband Stewart read all the parenting books before his partner gave birth to their daughter. He stays at home to help raise her, and is as committed a father as I have seen.

''I see many of my peers not understanding where they fit in to their new families,'' he wrote.

''I was told many times that I would be 'wanting to get out of the house' and that it will 'be such a relief when you get to go back to work'.''

As white, middle-class men, it seems ridiculous to talk about being marginalised. ''Man up,'' I can hear a thousand frazzled mums scream. ''Don't blame the system because you're not committed.''

But it's not as simple as that. Some women would benefit from examining how they often inadvertently shut their partners out of the decision-making, while at the same time decrying their lack of engagement.

As one of the first fathers in my group of friends, I remember feeling totally lost and bewildered when Oscar was born, and having no one to talk to about it. Stewart put it well: I didn't know where I fitted in.

Oscar's mother and I separated not long after his first birthday and are in a successful co-parenting arrangement.

The break-up is still a great source of sadness. I wish I had held the strength and confidence to forge a truly equal role for myself as a parent within that relationship. But at the same time becoming a single father has been the best thing that could have happened to me in terms of forcing me to become the parent I wanted to be.

Like myself seven years ago, I see friends who are starting to have babies but seem similarly unsure about their role, but not able to talk about it. I want to say to them: Don't believe the TV shows that depict all dads as variations of Homer Simpson; don't believe the midwives who assume you're going to run a million miles from a dirty nappy; don't believe the ladies on the tram who think a man controlling more than one child in public is a cause for celebration; don't believe your mates who try and tell you family life is robbing you of your youth and freedom.

Many people will try to imprison you in this cage of low expectation. It's often tempting to get in there and stay there, but no one wins out of that - not us, not our partners, and certainly not our children.

Ben Hart is a public affairs professional.