The importance of fathering

Fifty years ago our expectations of a father were relatively simple.

Go to work, provide for your family and occasionally step in to discipline where necessary.

Expectations have evolved and this generation of fathers are redefining what being a father means.

Men are now expected (and expecting) to participate more in the day to day care of their children and are navigating parenting in a way their fathers rarely did.

This can often be a challenge as many men are learning what parenting means for them without the benefit and support of a role model who has navigated this space before.

The science of fathering

Studies in human biology have found that just like his partner, when a man becomes a father there is a dramatic shift in hormones. There is a spike in the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, a lowering of testosterone and an increase in prolactin.

These all are designed to reduce risk-taking behaviours, encourage bonding, nurturing and the desire to be close to your baby suggesting that male involvement in the care and raising of infants has always been part of our biological design.

This shift happens around the time of birth, however, its effects are likely to be muted and temporary if the father is not involved in providing physical care to their infants.

Added to the biological research around fathers there is also a vast amount of research specifically related to the importance of warm, supportive and positive fathering to a child’s growth, development and social outcomes throughout their life.

Studies are showing that an engaged father is a common denominator in:

  • Fewer cognitive delays
  • Better school readiness and long-term performance
  • Decrease in tantrums and aggressive behaviours in toddlers
  • Fewer behavioural problems throughout childhood
  • Lower rates of depression in adolescence
  • Lower rates of risky drug and alcohol use
  • Lower rates of criminal behaviour

** It is important to note that while the research confirms the importance of a father being more involved there isn’t any conclusive evidence that men provide something that women are unable to. Rather it suggests that they provide a different perspective that complements the primary care. This suggests that in situations such as same-sex families and single-parent families with other family members able to stand in the gap of the absent father, the less involved caregiver is able to have a different impact on the mother just as the father does.**

What do men say about fathering?

When we talk about fathering there is often a discussion surrounding the joy of it, but often the dialogue includes the feeling of heaviness that comes with the responsibility of caring and providing for another little human.

Often there is a feeling of loss, of freedom, of the relationship with a partner as it changes and even a loss of self.

The prevailing expectations of providing financial support and practical support can feel overwhelming at times particularly in the first few months where you are finding your feet, going back to work and sometimes having to function on disrupted sleep.

Some men find they lack confidence in caring for their children with the prevailing and persistent misconception that women are somehow experts in parenting babies not men.

It is important to note that 10-15 percent of new fathers experience disturbance in mood and are diagnosed with postpartum depression (PPD) within the first 12 months.

For those experiencing PPD there is often a stigma attached and many do not seek support.

Interestingly men who are more hands-on with their babies have been found to experience less depressive symptoms in the postnatal period and express feeling more connection and confidence in their fathering role.

So how can we help new fathers find confidence in parenting and ensure the best outcomes for men and their children?

  • Before birth and in the early postnatal period identify ways in which you as a father can get involved in caring for your newborn baby and surround yourself with people who will help support the development of the father-child relationship.
  • Go to antenatal and parenting classes with partners.
  • Remember that fathers are capable of doing all baby care with the exception of only breastfeeding. So dads, step up and get involved with baths, nappies, settling, walks, cuddles, bottles etc.
  • Take time to build your confidence in the fathering role. (Mums try not to jump in to save him or do it ‘right’ and accept different is ok).
  • Invest in the parental relationship. A positive intimate relationship is important for self-esteem, confidence and mental health. This directly impacts the relationship between parent and child.
  • Make memories. Take advantage of the time you have with your children, even if you are relatively time-poor. Be present, not preoccupied wherever possible.
  • Be intentional and consistent with your children and take time to work out what makes them who they are.
  • Always remember what you do matters.

For further resources, see:

Written by Lauren Hughes. Lauren is part of the Child Health Team at One for Women and is also a qualified midwife. She feels strongly about the support and continuity of care that One for Women, and her role as a Child Health Nurse provides to new mums. To book an appointment with Lauren, phone 9328 0500.

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