I love every minute of fatherhood, staying up all night, changing nappies, kids crying, I find it really funny and inspiring. It connects you to the world in a new way. —Sir Elton John
OK, it's not a competition. Much more attention is paid to the needs of new mothers, typically, than new fathers - even with strides toward recognizing the importance of fatherhood we are just beginning to see what fatherhood means in the 21st century, and where it might be heading. And yet mothers are highlighted, with good reason - in spite of changes in the structure of the “traditional” family leading to greater involvement of fathers in caregiving, mothers are still more frequently on the front line of parenting, and the mother’s health and needs probably has a greater impact on children’s emotional and physical health - if only because mothers are more commonly the primary caregiver.
According to the Pew Research Center (June, 2017), there are several noteworthy findings about contemporary fatherhood:
1. Parenting is core to fathers’ identity.
Just the same as mothers, being a parent is a crucial part of identity, with surveys reporting 57% of fathers and 58% of mothers say parenting is extremely important to their identity.
2. Fathers are more involved in child care than 50 years ago.
Fathers today say they spend on average 7 hours per week involved with child care, which is three times higher than 30 years ago. About half of fathers say they’d like to spend more time with their children, compared to a quarter of mothers, and fathers are less likely than mothers to report they believe they are doing a good job of parenting.
3. Working fathers report difficulty with work-life balance.
Roughly half of fathers report that they have difficulty in this area, less than the approximately 60% of mothers who feel similarly. Fathers also report they would like to be home more than they are, as do mothers.
4. Fathers are viewed as less capable of caring for children than mothers.
Fifth-three percent of Americans surveyed said that they think mothers do a better job than fathers, 45% said they do about as good a job, and only 1% said fathers do a better job. This perception is commonplace, and likely to be demoralizing for fathers, though it may also provide motivation to be great dads.
5. Most people say that babies’ bonding with fathers is just as important as with mothers.
About a quarter of those survey said that bonding with mothers is more important, and only 2% said bonding with fathers is more important. Fathers take much less time of for work than mothers for paternity leave, an average of one week for dads, vs. 11 weeks for moms. That’s a huge sacrifice for guys who want to spend time with their new babies.
There is a lot to consider in these survey findings. One major take-home is that father’s overall are feeling deprived on the parenting front, that in spite of the shift from traditional gender-based parenting roles and family structure, dads in general are feeling like they want to be more involved as parents. Because of work demands and traditional role pressures, fathers still otexture they are missing out – and arguably are missing out.
What do fathers say they need the first time around?
With that in mind, I was interested in a recently qualitative study of new fathers. In “Getting Help for Yourself is a Way of Helping Your Baby”: Fathers’ Experiences of Support for Mental Health and Parenting in the Perinatal Period (2017), researchers Rominov, Giallo, Pilkington and Whelan conducted a qualitative analysis of detailed interviews with 20 new fathers in Australia. My sense is that while Australian culture may be more stereotypically "masculine" and less progressive in terms of how men deal with emotions, Americans are not that far ahead of the curve, and there findings are very relevant. Many are familiar and bear repeating, and much of what they report is actionable and useful. Hence, I am happy to share it.
They note that for a variety of factors, fathers are left out of the preparation process leading up to childbirth, and are also overlooked after the baby is born. They review the prior research about new fathers, noting that the time around birth is highly distressing, representing a period of intense re-shuffling of their lives on every level, and a time of fast-changing and conflicting emotions ranging from intense happiness, to apprehension, to intense fear, to pride, and helpless. If there is a difficult birth, possibly tragic, it can lead to long-term problems in the family. As noted above, men can feel pulled between family and work, and also need to deal with changes in their social life outside of the family.
The higher demands of parenting, including fatigue and sleep deprivation, can have a negative effect on emotional well-being and relationships, and can affect work performance. The effect of bringing a baby into the marital relationship, especially for first time parents, can be a difficult adjustment with lasting negative effects on intimacy, though it often brings people closer together. There are a multitude of other issues discussed, from high rates of anxiety disorders, depression, role confusion and changes in identity, and notably that fathers tend to be left out by healthcare providers before, during and after childbirth. And on average, men tend to be less likely to seek and use support than women.
Rominov and her colleagues used a descriptive qualitative approach, recruiting fathers for 30 minute face-to-face meetings initially, but finding that meeting in person was, while desired, tellingly difficult. As a result, most of the interviews were conducted via telephone. All the participants were in stable relationships with the mother, working and on average in their early to mid 30s. Some were expecting another child after having kids, some were expecting their first, and some had only recently become fathers, representing a diversity of perspectives.
The interviews were semi-structured, and designed to elicit information about support needs related to fatherhood and emotional wellbeing in the period right around childbirth. The researchers took steps to identify and control for bias in participants toward the research protocol, and considered the effect of whether the interviewer was a man or a woman. In order to make sense of the recorded interviews, they were transcribed and processed using a qualitative software analysis package which breaks narratives down into key themes via semantic analysis which are then reviewed and refined by the researchers.
Five major themes emerged:
1. Experiences of Support
Fathers described feeling cut off from formal supports. They received information about parenting and pregnancy, but in terms of interacting with professionals – physicians, nurses, in pre-birth education classes, and so on – there was little father-specific attention to emotional support or mental health needs, and existing support was offered less often that would have been helpful.
Fathers tended to get support from other sources, such as friends (like other dads), family members and coworkers. This was the strongest source of support, and fathers were grateful for it. Fathers also noted that their wives and partners were often more active in helping them find support than others, looking things up for them and helping them get their needs met – on top of dealing with pregnancy, childbirth and child care.
2. Support Needs
What kinds of support did fathers say they wanted? First, they wanted better preparation in many areas. They weren’t ready for the effects of fatigue and sleep deprivation, and would have liked coaching on expecting and coping with exhaustion. They wanted emotional support and education in early pregnancy – a time of happiness and excitement but also a time of worry and uncertainly. One younger father reported that it felt like things to do with early pregnancy were a big secret, “People do not talk about it, you’re not meant to say anything,” suggesting that there may be stigma surrounding early pregnancy for fathers.
I suspect some of this may have to do with others’ hesitation to talk about the future in early pregnancy because of fears of causing distress, especially fears of miscarriage. Fathers especially reported needing more support when things did not go as hoped or planned. Breastfeeding was a challenging topic as well, due to pressure from the persistent message that breastfeeding is the best way to go, and negative attitudes toward alternatives. This puts pressure on both father and mother, and can lead to marital conflict when mishandled – e.g. when the father puts additional pressure to breastfeed on already anxious mothers who may already be feeling inadequate if encountering breastfeeding difficulty.
Another support need was for more information and guidance about bonding and attachment, especially given the importance of the first few months, which if mishandled cannot be reclaimed. Similar to anxiety about breastfeeding, fathers who didn’t feel bonded right away reported feelings of shame, stigma and inadequacy. Fathers reported confusion about and difficulty making sense of all the information available – books, internet, various experts – which often give conflicting perspectives. Lastly, fathers needed more support about how to deal with the impact of a new baby on the relationships with their partners. They said that having supportive material available in many different ways would have been helpful – father’s groups, classes facilitated by other fathers, services outside of regular work hours to fit their schedules, online information, print materials and visual training materials.
3. Barriers to Support
Main barriers to support included stigma against men’s mental health and seeking help, which go against traditional masculine norms which tell us that men are not supposed to be vulnerable or discuss feelings, but rather are meant to be tough and unaffected by stress, the familiar stereotypical definitions of “strong” and “weak”. Fathers were reluctant to seek support out of concern for taking resources and attention away from mother and child, as well. One father noted overcoming reluctance to seek help by framing it as a way to indirectly help his baby, making seeking help “acceptable”. Inflexible work scheduling and demands were another major barrier to support, both in terms of pragmatic arrangements as well as in terms of dismissive attitudes.
4. Facilitators of Support
Interviewees said that they would like to participate more in support services and have more access to perinatal resources. They wanted professional and personal recognition of the importance of the father, both in terms of a general attitude of inclusion as well as in terms of father-specific resources and information included into standard antenatal classes. Father’s wanted professionals to discuss things from the father’s perspective, and to present information in father-affirming ways.
Many respondents reported that they would have found it helpful for professionals and others actively direct them to what resources were available. Instead, they often found out about resources, if at all, too late. Even a simple information sheet or an outreach phone call to alert fathers to resources, and reduce stigma, would have been very helpful. With such low expectations, even a little bit of outreach could have had a big positive impact.
5. Timing of Support
Fathers noted that what information was available often was presented out of sync with where they were in the pregnancy, birthing and child-rearing process. Aside from needing more resources, fathers needed the resources around the time they were dealing with that particular phase. Because there is so much going on, and so much apprehension and uncertainty, it’s hard to get information for example about labor and delivery while dealing with early pregnancy issues. Relevant information present shortly before the corresponding phase would be more effective and easier to take in. Sometimes, information was presented after it would have been useful, for example information about childbirth being provided after the baby was born.
Not only was this timing not useful, it led to feelings of resentment from getting it too late. Fathers noted especially needing more direction in how to deal with challenges in the early newborn period – such as sleep routine, dealing with work and social life, and adjusting to changes in the relationship with their partners. Most fathers reported feeling unprepared, and having to figure out how to handle things after an issue came up rather than proactively, and coming up with ad hoc solutions rather than relying on good quality information, noting that they felt they were “winging it”.
Tips for new fathers (and new families)
What major recommendations can we make? Here are tips for making the most of those early years. While it's better to be ahead of the curve, a lot of them apply even if you are in the midst of it already:
1. Prevention is the best medicine.
Take a proactive stance. Do research on your own. Read up on pregnancy and baby's first year - there are a number of excellent books and other media resources, some geared specifically to fathers (e.g. Caveman's Guide series, Dude, You're Going to Be a Dad) and general books (e.g. What to Expect When You're Expecting, The Baby Book). Ask healthcare providers and other dads about useful resources.
2. Educate yourself about your workplace. Y
ou may be able to negotiate more time or flexibility without putting your job at risk. Bear in mind that if you miss the chance, you won't be able to get it back, and strong regret about missing that irreplacable time is common. Don't let it happen. Think about time management in advance, and plan to make sure that you know what you need and want, and make sure you make those things a priority.
3. Make a plan.
When you've educated yourself about what to expect, sit down and make a list of all the key areas. Make sure you are reasonably prepared for the things fathers say are problem areas - sleep deprivation and fatigue, emotional pit falls, relationship challenges, bonding with your child, and the workplace. Again, before things get too crazy, sit down and discuss this with your partner, healthcare providers, and social supports. Be bold in reaching out for support and be proud to ask for help.
4. Identify resources ahead of time applicable to each phase of the process.
This includes if you are dealing with fertility issues, and have them on-hand so you can be proactive and intentional, rather than reactive and last-minute. Keep your eye on priorities, and don't get too distracted by important issues which can nevertheless take over and distract from emotional and personal needs which you may already downplay. A common trap is putting all your time and energy putting together the baby's room at the expense of attending to other needs, and mom can be very focused on this as well. It's easy to fall into a stereotypical male problem-solving, action-oriented role in order to feel useful while ignoring important needs.
5. Develop good coping habits and self-care, setting up routines ahead of time.
Maintain healthy routines and avoid maladaptive coping, such as excessive alcohol use and comfort eating. When you are engaging in child care, it will help enormously. I found it very useful to pay attention to exercise and use good physical form (e.g. from yoga) when taking care of the babies while exhausted, to avoid back strain and unnecessary injury. The last thing you want when you are "on call" is to pull a muscle in your back.
6. Discuss challenges with your partner ahead of time.
Talk things through in detail with a planful, collaborative spirit. Communicate! Deal with your individual emotional responses, and take a collaborative stance toward your relationship needs. Make sure you have adequate help. If you are fortunate enough to have supportive family and friends, that is great. Let them help you. If you can afford it, consider getting skilled in-home assistance the first few weeks. A good baby nurse can be useful both in terms of providing hands-on help, as well as showing you the ropes. One of my fond memories from when my kids were just born was our great baby nurse showing us the right way to give a bath.
7. Be ready to deal with challenge areas.
Areas like breast feeding and changes in your social and intimate life can sneak up and do damage fast. Watch how you phrase things, especially when under stress and sleep deprived, as a poorly phrased comment can linger for months and years when it comes to things that are core to who we are. Avoid blaming and hostile comments. If you have unresolved relationship problems, speak to a counselor preventively, rather than waiting until things are getting too bad to ignore. It's important for you both to have personal time and time together, if at all possible. The first year of so of having a baby puts blinders on people, and it is hard to balance the rush of having a new life to take care of with keeping other needs in perspective... but keep it on your radar.
8. Be prepared for the unexpected.
Educate yourself about potential problems, but don't over worry. There is so much anxiety about everything which can go wrong, and it is easy to either avoid those issues or to become obsessive. Again, if you need help finding the right balance, go for it, and whenever possible do this together. Don't hesitate to touch base with your pediatrician if you have any questions. It's better to call during the day with a "silly" question than page them at 3:00 am with a possible emergency.
9. If you had issues with a lack of closeness with your father, as many of us have, get on top of it.
Shapiro's The Measure of a Man is a good book which addresses this issue, and it can be useful to speak friends, family, and even with a counselor - again, ahead of time. Know what being a father means to you, and take so time to hash out healthy and unhealthy views you may hold both consciousless and unconsciously. However, rather than being perfectionistic about being a father, recognize that it is a learning process and give yourself gentle room to grow.
I hope this is usefully and practical, while also highlighting how personally meaningful and enriching fatherhood is. It's a time of self-discovery, and for many people becoming a father is the most significant life and identity changing experience you can have. On the other hand, having kids is pretty common - I've heard billions of people have done it - so hold it lightly, as well.
Please feel free to share resources in the comment section, and Happy Father's Day!
Rominov, H., Giallo, R., Pilkington, P. D., & Whelan, T. A. (2017, April 13). “Getting Help for Yourself is a Way of Helping Your Baby:” Fathers’ Experiences of Support for Mental Health and Parenting in the Perinatal Period. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/men0000103