The New Fatherhood: Yes, They Can Do It

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Discovering Dad: And Staying Connected

Today, father is factoring more prominently in research studies, and the findings are fascinating— children yearn deeply, and from a very young age, for their dads. They are born with a drive to find and connect to the father; and father’s instincts—when allowed—prompt them to respond appropriately. While the ways in which the father relates to and cares for his offspring differs in style to that of the mother, it seems father and mother have equal, if slightly different, parenting abilities. There is no evidence that, given equal experience and support, parents of one gender necessarily excel as caregivers over the other. Mother and father contribute in unique and complementary ways to their children’s wellbeing, and children thrive when they experience these different styles throughout all developmental stages.

Paralleling these findings is the evidence that men want to be involved with their children in ways their own dads weren’t. And, parents’ sharing in the physical and emotional care of their infants and children, as well as in the responsibilities and decision-making, is now a major expectation among newly marrying couples. In the US, in 1981, when researchers asked newly marrying couples to rank-order values they hoped to instill into their marriages, “sharing responsibilities, decision-making, and physical and emotional care of infants and young children” was rated 11 out of 15. In 1997, when the same question was asked, it was prioritized second.

Parenting is easier for partners. Married parents report more global happiness and less depression than single parents, in contrast to a recent spate of films, books and magazine stories about the joys of conceiving and rearing a baby alone. Cohabiting couples fall in between. Married parents experience more meaning in their lives than their childless peers, and a substantial minority of married parents are “very happy” in their marriages.

A substantial minority of husbands (35 percent) and wives (37 percent) do not experience parenthood as an obstacle to marital happiness.  Married men and women are markedly more likely to report that they find life meaningful compared with their childless peers. The fact that the transition to parenthood places unique strains on couples’ relationships is rarely talked about or addressed.  Some studies have shown mothers’ satisfaction declining most sharply during first year and fathers’ satisfaction in the second year while others have reported more congruent declines.

These findings give further weight to the tremendous importance of seeking to understand how children and mothers and fathers can stay connected, most especially in the time it matters most to the healthy development of their children. As they get older, the value of this connection extends beyond their immediate family to their community and our world.

Ending the Dynamic of Disappearing Dads

  • Studies indicate that a decline in relationship satisfaction post-birth is not inevitable, and that the salience of teamwork leads to a couple’s relationship satisfaction increasing.
  • Most couples are unaware of the challenges they inevitably encounter by becoming parents. Information and preparation prior to the birth can minimize the stresses and reduce the risk of dads’ leaving—physically or emotionally.
  • It is only when we acknowledge a problem that we can begin to seek its resolution. Steps toward ending the dynamic of disappearing dads include:
    • An awareness of the underlying forces of DDD—and recognizing men’s leaving cannot simply be accepted as “the way it is.”
    • Realizing DDD is not just a personal phenomenon, but created and perpetuated by the dominant culture.
    • Recognizing that the birth of a child almost inevitably put a couple’s relationship at risk—countering the “it can’t happen to us” syndrome.
    • Reviewing our own birth and childhood so as to identify unresolved issues that may be restimulated.
  • Embracing the significance of attachment theory to adult love, parenting styles, and connecting more securely with our children—the ultimate preventative.
  • Social, communal, economic, and political policies and practices supporting parents in experiencing the joys of parenting.

Involved Dads Are Good for Moms, Too

The father’s involvement has significant indirect effects for the entire family system. When the mother feels supported by the father, she is more patient, flexible, emotionally responsive, and available to their children. High levels of father involvement are strongly linked with both mothers’ and fathers’ satisfaction with their relationship and with family life.21 A couple’s more equitable sharing of earning and caring roles is associated with lower rates of separation and divorce.  And a clear correlation has been shown between involved fathering and the happiness and stability of parents’ marriage in midlife.

An additional benefit of involved fathering is the example it sets in demonstrating both men and women can nurture well. It shows young boys that being an involved father is something to aspire to when they themselves become fathers, and shows young girls they can expect their future husband to be involved fathers as well.

But Can They Do It?

A large body of research indicates that while mother is seen as nurturer and father as playmate and/or disciplinarian, there is no evidence that given equal experience and support, parents of either gender necessarily excel as caregivers. It appears that father and mother have equal, if slightly different abilities (the most notable being lactation), to nurture a child; and that many of the perceived differences are situational and/or cultural, rather than innate or gender-driven.

Fashioning a New Role for Dads

At this point in time, the involved father who serves as primary caregiver for his children during the day usually faces a great deal of “matronizing” behavior. While the intention may be to be supportive, the message is clear: “You’re only a man, so you don’t know how to do that properly. I’ll do it for you.”

When I was at the unschooling conference last September, there was a session organized for dads to share their problems and concerns. I had absolutely nothing to contribute. I didn’t say a word the entire hour and a half. That was because all their problems and concerns were problems and concerns I don’t have, or haven’t had for a very long time (mainly because I haven’t had a “real job” since 1998 and have spent 20 of my 25 years of parenthood as a stay-at- home dad).

All my problems and concerns are something else—masculinity issues, I suppose I could call them, rather than fatherhood issues. On the first day of the conference, one of the co-organizers asked me if I would mind her baby son while she took care of some urgent business because he’d apparently taken a liking to me. So I was standing there having a conversation with this baby in my arms, as I do, and the other co-organizer came over and said something like, “I hope you won’t be offended if I use this word, but my friend and I couldn’t help but notice how maternal you are.” And I chuckled and said something like, “Oh, okay. No, I’m not offended.” That evening, instead of going to the bush dance, I went over to the local Surf Life Saving Club [every Australian coastal town has one] and had a couple of beers and watched the footy on TV! —Bob, interview for Why Dads Leave

Whether seeking to serve as primary caregiver or as an involved father equally sharing the parenting role with his partner, these men are challenging society’s view of male and female roles—not an easy ride. Even the existence of the choice itself appears as new and radical to most. A decade or two ago, it simply wasn’t on the agenda. Now, for a small but increasing number of couples, it emerges as a matter for consideration on philosophical, emotional and practical grounds.

Involved fathers—and their partners—are challenged to both fashion a paternal role different from that of their fathers, and also to prepare their children for flexible adult roles that are not blindly gender-driven.

Yes, They Can Do It

Nurturance refers to a range of feelings and skills that can and must be learned and practiced. Some women seem to be “born mothers,” but many more learn how to care for their children just as they learn the depth and limits of maternal feelings—on the job. Men’s capacity for emotional involvement with children, and their ability to care for them in practical ways, may come naturally or may need to be developed. Until recently, parent education has been synonymous with mother education. Programs are needed for not only men, but for boys, providing them with skills and experiences that will later facilitate their development of nurturing parenting roles.

As will become evident, given the tremendous obstacles to a father’s involvement, it often takes concerted effort on part of both mom and dad to “make room for daddy.” When men override their doubts about their competence in this family domain, and women overcome their ambivalence about sharing the role of expert regarding their child, fathers are able to be centrally involved in their children’s lives.

Staking Their Claim

While women have been socialized throughout their life in the art and science of nurturing, not only have most men been actively discouraged from developing their nurturing abilities, the nurturing male remains fuel for ridicule and engenders suspicions about gender identity in many corners of male society. This is all the more reason for women not only to open the gate, but open their hearts and hold out their hands to welcome their partner in.

Only a generation or two ago, being a good father was synonymous with being a good provider and protector. Good dads “brought home the bacon,” mowed the lawn, washed the car, and could be called on to discipline the children. Today’s “good father” is still expected, in most relationships, to be the breadwinner, and also to be a real presence, physically and emotionally, in his family. It’s what many new dads want; and what their partners say they want of them. But it can be a tough call for even the most well-meaning and motivated.

Not only do dads have no training in things like being nurturing and “emotionally available,” they carry a lifetime of being socialized—as were their dads and their dads before them—to associate masculinity with independence and goal-orientation, and to perceive asking for help as a sign of weakness. After all, a guy is meant to know what to do.

During the first year, most new dads—being unprepared—feel scared, frightened, even terrified. It is frightening to find yourself feeling helpless, frustrated, tense, and even angry when the baby won’t stop crying; you are exhausted from lack of sleep, unable to think straight and deprived of any quality time alone with your partner. Fears can range from not being able to live up to your own expectations, or not being able to protect your child from harm, or from war, disease, and environmental destruction, to fears of simply not being “ready” to assume the role of father, and of repeating mistakes made by your own father. On top of all this, as we saw above, there may be plenty of reasons that dad is feeling jealous—and afraid of being abandoned by his partner.

Many a well-intended and even highly committed father will find himself facing a rapidly closing, or even locked gate, after the birth of his child. Sadly, many of these men will begin to lose touch with their earlier high hopes and ideals of fathering their child with their partners, and of happy homes and families. As a man feels himself to be incompetent, invisible, superfluous, he distances himself from home and from involvement with his child, and seeks redemption in the world of work and career—or at the bar or in bed with another woman. Many a new dad will still believe in the ideals of commitment, involvement, and power sharing, but the practicalities are just too difficult. In this sad situation, there is no winner.

A Society’s “FatherStory”

A society’s FatherStory—the shared understanding of what it means for a man to have a child—is a primary indicator of the number of children who will grow up with, and without, a father. Our society’s Fatherstory sees fatherhood as a distinctive social role for men, as superfluous—unnecessary, even as undesirable. Anthropological, cross-cultural, and cross-species research, as well as modern primatology, reveals a tremendous range of potentials for fathering behavior, and a tremendous diversity of father-child relationships.  Social and cultural variables greatly influence a father’s involvement with his children.  

An enormous discrepancy is emerging between cultural myth and expectations concerning fathers’ capacities to nurture, and day-to-day reality.  Fathers are proving to be competent with, and sensitive to, children.  New cultural stories of fatherhood that shape our understanding of fatherhood as a fulfilling and vital social role, are critical to turning the tide of men leaving.  Elements vital to the sustenance of a new Fatherstory include: respect of men’s parenting potential, an informed awareness of both moms and dads of their own and the others significance to the wellbeing of their children, and the imperative of recognizing the importance of connection—parent-child and adult-adult. All need to be backed by both a supportive community and social, economic, and legal policies and practices.

Pregnant Partners

Lack of recognition of a father’s emotional involvement in a pregnancy is of special concern. Counseling and educating fathers at this stage can improve the quality of the father-child attachment, father involvement, mother-child involvement, and breastfeeding rates. A skilled birth worker talking with an expectant father can tell a lot about what will likely happen in the family after the birth—whether the man will have trouble bonding with his baby or is at risk of postnatal depression, or whether his partner will manage to breastfeed, to become very involved with her baby, or become depressed.

With respect to couple-relationships, paying attention to fathers’ satisfaction in the postnatal period may be particularly important, given that the first year after the birth is the peak time for parental separation, fathers’ satisfaction is more likely than mothers’ to decline during this time, and men’s dissatisfaction is more predictive than women’s of the relationship ending.

After the Birth: Spotlight on Dad

While a vast body of research has focused on the transition from woman to mother, little attention has been given to the transition from man to father. There is very little support for men confronting the emotional demands of becoming a father unless they are so distressed as to seek counseling or therapy. Even for the small number of men who enter therapy, few therapists address the realities of insecure attachment and the cascade of feelings and emotions that the birth of a child engenders. This is unfortunate, as preparatory information and support—prior to, as well as after, the birth—can greatly facilitate a man’s transition to fatherhood and a couple’s recognizing and resolving problems before they become insurmountable.

Most fathers turn to their wives, not to other men, to help them cope with their feelings about fathering. It’s not manly to ask other guys for help, especially on such a personal matter. The trouble is that even if his partner wants and intends to be supportive, it is very difficult for her to really appreciate her partner’s reality, and so many men end up feeling inadequate and isolated. Feeling this way makes it tough to be a good dad—or husband.

If new fathers knew, or were reassured that it was normal to experience even wild emotional swings, and that the birth of a child restimulates issues from their own childhood, they might not be driven into flight or fight. —Martin Rubin, MD

It is mind-blowing to discover that the incredible, deeply moving feelings experienced in being at the birth and becoming a father are not enough to carry you through to do the job you want to do. —Chris Maple, PhD

Talking with other new and experienced dads about the fears he faces, he can find relief in learning he is not alone, and that his response is “normal.” Hopefully those he shares his feelings with will not encourage him to “get used to it,” but rather to recognize the opportunities transition time offers a man.

Addressing the Legacy of Unmet Needs

While there is much attention given to the importance of parents fostering a secure bond with their child, there is little given the importance of addressing the legacy of unmet needs that parents carry from their own childhood—and how these can be restimulated with the birth and care of their own infant.  If we can be conscious of ourselves and the pull of our own unmet needs, even if some hang-ups remain, we have a better chance of creating satisfying relationships with our partners and secure attachments with our children.

We pass our own attachment styles on to our children. A key quality of secure-autonomous adults is not that they had secure attachments with their parents, but that they have an open and coherent way of reflecting on their attachment style.

A key quality distinguishing securely-attached from anxiously- attached adults, is their capacity to understand what makes themselves and others tick. Anxious adults either fail to have insights into themselves or offer explanations that are platitudinous, self-deceptive, or self-serving.

While guilt says “I did something wrong,” shame says, “I am something wrong.” Guilt is focused on behaviors, shame on the self. While guilt is fixable (behavior can be changed), shame feels like it is not (an unworthy self is unredeemable). While there is a consistent link between shame, anger, and hostility, guilt tends to motivate individuals to accept responsibility and may actually inhibit anger and hostility.

Reviewing our childhood history can be a painful re-immersion that reinforces the existing pain; or a compassionate “witnessing” experience that recognized both the pain and the intent to heal.  Heartfelt emotions such as appreciation and caring, and other intentionally accessed heartfelt emotions play a significant role in the neuronal rewiring of dysfunctional patterns. Through the heart, we can actually rewire our neural connections and in so doing, reclaim our ability to nurture, trust and thrive.

This article features highlighted sections of the book Why Dads Leave: Insights and Resources for When Partners Become Parents.  Visit the website.

Listen to an interview with the author and Kindred’s editor, Lisa Reagan.  Free Download!

Watch John Travis, MD, talk about the Disappearing Dads Dynamic

 

 

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