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Invisible Dads: Why We Need To Support Fathers

Alex O'Donoghue

Written by Alex O'Donoghue

11 min read

Father holding baby

There’s no arguing that women are the absolute heroines and champions - carrying and growing a human, giving birth, feeding and raising a baby through their bodies. They often suffer career setbacks and take on a huge mental load.

But in all this, it’s easy to forget that the father is also having a dramatic transition to parenthood, and is doing so with very little support from the medical sector or society.

While the evidence demonstrates the enormous impact fathers have on their children from birth, it also shows men are given very little support when they become parents.

It’s not about support for fathers instead of mothers - it’s support for both. If we help fathers, we help mothers. If we help them, we also help their children.

Dads Are Instrumental To Children’s Development

Dad reading to his baby

There are fascinating results from different research being undertaken with fathers and children's later life development.

  • Girls whose fathers lived with them when they were in middle childhood (ages six to ten) demonstrated less sadness, worry, and shyness as pre-teens (ages nine to thirteen) compared with girls whose fathers did not live with them.
  • Fathers’ sensitivity in play when their child was aged two, predicted the child’s security at age ten, and significantly predicted the child’s adjustment to life challenges at age sixteen.
  • In one study it was found that fathers’ supportiveness when children were two years old was associated with children’s intellectual functioning scores at two and three years old.
  • Fathers spend a much higher percentage of their one-on-one interaction with infants and preschoolers in stimulating, playful activity than do mothers. From these interactions, children learn how to regulate their behavior. Physical play, for example, can teach children how to deal with aggressive impulses and physical contact without losing control of their emotions.
  • And in a different angle on this, a study of Chinese parents found that it was a father’s warmth toward his child that was the most important factor in predicting a child’s future academic success.
  • Children who grow up in a household with a father show superior outcomes in intelligence tests. The IQ advantage is most commonly attributed to the way that fathers interact with their children, with an emphasis on the physical and play, rather than language based activities. Interestingly, fathers don’t need to be academic themselves to help their children do well at school.

Dads Are Also Vulnerable To Postpartum Depression

New father with baby

In Britain, suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. And about one in ten dads suffer from postnatal depression.

According to NCT, fathers are more vulnerable to depression in the first year of the birth of their child and more than a third of new dads are worried about their mental health. This is exacerbated by frequent feelings of guilt about what their partner is going through - breastfeeding through the night and healing from birth and labour.

Ironically, the World Health Organisation sets out no information on paternal mental health and nor does the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Dads are often considered to be less competent at caring than mothers and they are expected to be 'the strong one', providing support to mothers but not expecting it in return. And while research exists about the impact of birth trauma on mothers, little is known about the impact on fathers. 

There are fascinating results from a 2018 study on British fathers called How Was It For You?.

Over 40% of fathers who could not be at pre-birth or antenatal appointments reported the reason being that their employers would not give them time off.

Of those who did attend, half of men reported that medical staff didn’t mention their roles as fathers or speak to them directly. Ironically, 98% attended the birth and 91% were there from start to finish. 

Martin, father of two boys, highlights another aspect of becoming a parent which was important, yet difficult.

"A challenging part has been assuming the responsibility of being my children's carer, while understanding the importance of the choices we make as adults and as a family. I know this affects my children's lives both short and long term."

How Dads Experience Professional Support

mother holding baby with dad nearby

Although we include men in NCT groups, their experience is very different to women. Many fathers feel alienated and have little knowledge about how they can support their partner at this time.

Tim, dad of three-month old Noah, shared his thoughts on this. Like many other men, he experienced no medical professionals checking in on him or supporting him through his wife's pregnancy, or postpartum. He says: "We were in NCT and while there was talk about men's wellbeing I felt it was glazed over and covered very quickly."

Martin, father of two boys, agrees.

"I think NCT was very female focused and the men seemed almost... token. I think support for fathers needs to take a different form. I've found value in online groups and things like dad newsletters - this is where I've found advice for dads trying to be better dads."

Bradley, new dad to Benji, shared similarly. "What would have been a support for me was a dad's group to chat about everything and the changes that come with being a dad."

Fathers Are Expected To Figure It Out

Dad and son looking at picture frame

Men are feeling pressured to be good fathers. 67% of soon-to-be fathers, 53% of current fathers and 50% of all men say that men are under more pressure nowadays to be good fathers.”

- Fatherhood and Social Connections, a global research report: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2019

Things have changed for fathers. And pretty quickly.

There has been a huge, relatively recent shift in what we expect of dads. Unlike any other generation prior, they are expected to be present during pregnancy, labour and birth. They’re expected to be hands on postpartum and take an active role in sharing parenting and child rearing. And be a mother’s main support.

All of which is a wonderful progression - but how do you do something you've never been shown or experienced before?

Martin is one of many men who echo this experience.

“What it means to be a dad today is so different to the generation before us. One of the most challenging things for me becoming a dad was not having had a father figure in my life - I had to learn what it means to be a dad to my children at the same time as being one."

Pandemic Dads - A Mother’s Experience

mother lying in hospital after giving birth

Many scientists advocate that healthy women and newborns should return home as soon as possible after delivery, especially if the father is not allowed to stay overnight in the hospital. And yet more than 40% of fathers surveyed said that hospitals had not allowed sufficient time for the new family to spend together after the birth.

The pandemic, and strict regulations for fathers supporting birthing partners, has again highlighted how dads are treated before and during birth. They are low priority.

Alecia, whose baby girl is three weeks old, shared her pregnancy experience - which, for her husband, was only marginally better post-birth.

“Having had multiple miscarriages before this pregnancy, I had to sit in the early pregnancy unit alone waiting to find out whether this one was going to make it. I’ve had six scans since then and my husband hasn’t been able to join a single one. After labour he will be able to stay with his baby for two hours. The next day, he will only be able to visit us for one hour.”

The Transition To Fatherhood

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New dads lose much of their previous life and identity. And of course, based on the medical and sometimes maternal feedback they receive - they are relegated to mother and baby support role.

In one study, a huge factor that came up for fathers was the abrupt lifestyle change fathers also experience. For Michael, father of two, life changed dramatically.

“The lack of time is insane. I used to have many interests, take part in a number of sports, socialise a couple of times a week and still have plenty of time to relax and sleep in. With kids that’s basically all gone - they hoover up any spare time you have and more.”

Bradley, a new dad, also struggles with this part of fatherhood. “The most challenging part has been to put my son and partner before me. This has been a constant struggle - of trying to do the things I enjoy, while not being selfish.”

Michael adds to this. "It also puts a big strain on your friendships with non-parents as it becomes much harder to meet up with them."

This is a very common response. And it's not just about dads not being able to do fun things anymore. While women have a defined role to step into, men don't. They aren’t breastfeeding, or part of new mother networks. Paretnity leave is usually capped at a mere two weeks.

This often leads to fathers feeling unprepared for the overnight life changes while having and no longer have time to find comfort in old outlets. 

Dads Supporting Dads Is Key

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The research supports the idea that having close friends is important for fathers’ mental health. For example, fathers without close friends are more likely to experience increased stress levels in the first twelve months of becoming a parent.

Martin found this to be true when his colleague became a dad at the same time, and he had someone to go through a shared experience with.

“I think the kinds of support that need to be in place for dads are around emotional strength and mental wellbeing. It was important for me to have my business partner at the time also becoming a dad and so we were able to share concerns, frustrations and unknowns."

Tim, new father to Noah, has sought support in friends, too.

"I thought I was fairly prepared but the truth is you can only do so much reading and finding tips to doing things. Until you're in the thick of it, there are so many unknowns. For me, friends were a huge help - those who had been through it - especially those who didn’t preach but supported with unbiased information."

Important Coping Tips For Being A New Dad

Dad standing in front of a mirror brushing his anxious toddlers teeth

  • Share your feelings with people you trust. And try to find an experienced dad who can talk you through anything you’re uncertain about (which will be alot!).
  • Talk to your partner about your roles and your part in caring for your newborn. 
  • Try to take some time for yourself through exercise, or social activities, even for just an hour. It's important your partner understands why this is important, otherwise you will end up feeling guilty and 'selfish'.
  • Learn how to care for your newborn and help out as much as you can. This will help you see that you’re valuable, and valued. And that you've got some control over your new life.
  • Don’t be concerned if you haven’t bonded with your baby in the same way your partner has. For many dads those feelings don’t kick in until their baby is able to respond to them (like smiling).
  • This is the time to accept help or ask for it. Take advantage of offers of help from friends and family – especially if it means you and your partner can get a little bit of time together.

Support Groups And Resources For Dads

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