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The 7 Things Everyone Should Know About Fatherhood

What I really learned while trying to become "World's Greatest Dad."

Sometime in the spring of 2011, I learned that my then girlfriend and now wife was pregnant, and that I would thus likely soon be a father for the first time. Not an extraordinary revelation, but I was 54 at the time, and up to that point had precious little interaction with children. I was also an author of many books of American cultural history, making it my natural inclination to heavily research a topic in which I was interested but knew relatively little about. I decided to write a cultural history of fatherhood in America, mostly as a means to learn as much as possible about the subject from recognized experts in the field over the past half century. I threw myself into the vast body of literature, extracting every journalistic and scholarly tidbit that I thought could prove useful one day when caring for my future child. Through such collective wisdom, I reckoned, I could hit the ground of fatherhood running and avoid making many of the mistakes that typically come with a first-time dad. An intimate familiarity with the deep reservoir of knowledge dedicated to fatherhood from the mid-1960s right up to today would be an ideal platform for paternity, I truly believed, quite possibly making me, as the ubiquitous coffee mug message goes, “World’s Greatest Dad.”

Six months later—the very week my daughter was born, rather incredibly—I finished the first draft of my book "American Fatherhood." Was my rather extreme method of learning how to be a good father successful? Yes and no. The hundreds of articles and books on the subject that I parsed were no doubt useful fodder that likely informs my view of and approach to fathering. But, as any father or mother knows, parenting is largely an improvisational art versus a science, as well as a work in progress that no amount of study can really teach. The really useful stuff- what it feels like to bring your kid to the ER in the middle of the night, when to give him or her some space, how to think three moves ahead to avoid the dreaded tantrum, and why going out drinking the night before you’re on for childcare duty the following day is a very bad idea- was nowhere to be found in the most erudite tome or the most authoritative how-to.

Still, my slightly loony exercise did produce an unexpected bounty: the unearthing of what I consider to be key learnings or essential truths regarding fatherhood. The distillation of mounds of research into a handful of fundamental facts or central themes is an even more beneficial outcome than the entirely personal one that I had imagined when I set out on my literary journey, as it offers valuable insights for anyone interested in the role of parenting within American society. Here are what I believe to be the seven things everyone should know about fatherhood as a kind of primer of paternity:

#1 Fatherhood is an expression (perhaps the ultimate one) of masculinity. For most of the 20th century, fatherhood served as a prime source of “feminization” of and for men, with male parents urged to embrace the values and techniques of motherhood. In recent years, however, fathers have rejected this model in place of one that affirms and even celebrates their maleness. For decades, men were instructed to adopt the parenting styles of women, but they have finally forged a form of child raising that is true to their own gender. In short, fatherhood has become a means of asserting, rather than denying or suppressing, masculinity, marking a historic triumph for men that has yet to be fully appreciated.

#2 Fathers are integral to the wellbeing of a family. It may be obvious, but fathers truly matter. Through the first two centuries of the nation’s history, however, this was not believed to be the case, at least with regard to shaping the lives of children in a real, discernible way. “Father is not a very impressive figure in American life,” Leonard Benson plainly put it in his 1968 Fatherhood: A Sociological Perspective, thinking that his essential purpose was to ensure a stable family system. Until the 1970s, in fact, men’s role in family life was consistently underestimated, limited primarily to financial provider, no-nonsense disciplinarian, and occasional playmate. It would take numerous research studies to learn that fathers have a direct impact on the emotional wellbeing of their kids, and contribute in others ways that differed substantially from mothers. Breaking free from deeply seated gender archetypes- reinforced by “attachment theory” that posited that children’s parental bond was with the mother- was understandably not an easy process for men. Over the past half-century, men rose to become nearly full partners as parents, something that redefined gender relationships and represents a win-win situation for all.

#3 Kids suffer without fathers. The flip side to the greater recognition of men as parents is the likely scenarios when they are not present. If men are integral to the emotional and cognitive development of their children, it makes perfect sense that kids will suffer psychically if they are not around. That is precisely the case, with dozens of studies conducted over the past few decades confirming as much. Compounding the problem are the many social ills stemming from absentee fatherhood, ranging from poor performance in school to increased incidence of criminality. Fathers’ abandonment of their families is thus something that goes well beyond the individuals involved, affecting all of us in some ways as American citizens. “Fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation,” warns David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America and the loudest voice of what he and others believe to be “our most social problem.” Sadly, it could be said that the problem has become woven into the fabric of the country, indelibly linked to the institutional inequities associated with race and class.

#4 Fatherhood is generationally defined. A good percentage of men who have left their families no doubt had poor relationships with their own dads, making the problem a recurrent one across generations. Ironically, perhaps, a fair share of great dads also would describe the experience with their own fathers as negative in some way, most often lacking warmth, love, or simply “quality time.” Many fathers in fact take a parental approach that is purposely reactionary to the one in which they are most familiar, a determined effort to not pay whatever trauma they suffered forward. While going back to and repairing the damages of the past is not possible, such fathers conclude, one can do one’s best that they are not repeated. These dads are thus using their own upbringing as inspiration but in a reverse sense, on a mission to be a better father than the one they had. Doling out massive quantities of attention and affection to a child is this kind of father’s modus operandi, often erring on the side of too much nurturing, if there is such a thing. While perhaps not ideal, fathers’ giving excess amounts of love to a little one is obviously a better scenario than passing on a paternal history of apathy, neglect, or abuse.

#5 Fatherhood is good for you. More “truant” dads might reconsider their decision if they were aware of the value of fatherhood to not just their child but to themselves. Not just kids benefit immensely with involved and engaged dads but adults, research has shown, something that holds true across economic lines. Studies have demonstrated the positive effects of parenting among men, with fathers finding the time spent with their children to be rewarding and fulfilling on many levels. Fathers learn much from a child by spending both quality and quantity time with him or her, any dad will tell you, their perspective of the world irrevocably altered. As well, much is known about kids’ psychological gains when they receive paternal love but not the other way around; new research is showing, however, that fathers do indeed benefit from the emotional bond they share with a child (grounded in oxytocin, the “love hormone”).

#6 “Fathering” is a two-way street. “Fathering,” as some refer to more active male parenting, is without doubt symbiotic in nature, a fact that is often overlooked. “The father-child relationship is a two-way process, and children influence their fathers just as fathers alter their children’s development,” wrote Ross D. Parke in his 1996 book simply titled Fatherhood. What researchers have learned is that fatherhood typically serves as a principal vehicle for men to find meaning and purpose in their lives, something work and socializing frequently fall short of doing. “Being a father can change the ways that men think about themselves,” Parke continued, believing that for many, fatherhood provides a clear sense of identity. The sheer intensity of caring for another human being surpasses most of not all other experiences in life, father after father has made clear when asked, explaining in part why men want to become dads in the first place. In short, men have rightfully viewed fatherhood as one of if not the only opportunity to become “complete” people, and as a path towards self-realization and perhaps even enlightenment.

#7 Men are hardwired to be fathers. Men’s “victory” as fathers, if it can be called that, was not just socially and culturally based but biologically as well. Just as women are “hardwired” to be mothers, men are cognitively “programmed” to be fathers, recent research is showing. Neuroscientists are uncovering the secrets to the “daddy brain,” i.e., the physiological changes that take place as men become and even act as fathers. A different kind of biochemistry and neural activity kicks into place after a man becomes a dad, they have learned, nature’s way of advancing a powerful emotional bond between parent and child. From this scientific perspective, the new kind of fatherhood that emerged in the last quarter of the 20th century can be seen as being consistent with the biological makeup of men. Cultural standards were in a sense suppressing a fuller expression of fatherhood, with men able to follow their more nurturing instincts when it became socially permissible. Best of all, perhaps, men were also liberated to readopt traditional expressions of “guyness,” making gender identity and relationships more fluid. Assuming dad is present, both fatherhood and masculinity can be said to be in a very good place today, a happy ending to the story.

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