Toolbox : Professionals
Why Fathers Matter
This section provides a brief literature review of the research into the developmental advantages that a nurturing father provides for his children, and some of the things that can go wrong for new fathers.
The Value of Fathers
Social scientists have been studying mothers and children since the social sciences were being pioneered more than two centuries ago. As a result, there is a vast amount of research and knowledge on mothers and their interactions with children.
Research on fathers was nearly non-existent until the 1970s. For the first 25 years, the topic of fathers was all about deficits such as the effects of absent fathers or child abuse.
There has been greater interest and a broader range of research around fathers over the last 20 years. There is now a significant and expanding international research base that is providing compelling evidence about the value to the child of having an engaged, nurturing father. While we know at a gut level that fathers are important to their children, how fathers are important has begun to be quantified and qualified. And fathers' roles have changed dramatically.
The Difference an Engaged Dad Makes
The most competent infants tend to have fathers who talk to them, show affection, play with them and participate in their physical care.1 A young child who has an engaged, nurturing father tends to show greater tolerance of stress. They will keep trying when faced with a new challenge, cope better when frustrated and wait longer for an adult’s attention. They will tend to play better with other children and develop more successful friendships. They will feel more secure in their own abilities and be more willing to explore their world.2 Broadly speaking, a child who has an active, nurturing father is more likely to do well both socially and academically at school, and to reach more of their potential.
The advantages of having an involved, nurturing father doesn’t end as the child leaves school; the father-effect magnifies as children age. As children enter the more socially complex adolescent and adult worlds, having had a positive, nurturing father equips them with the self-esteem, resilience and empathy they need in order to become productive members of society.
Adults who, as children, had a highly involved father are:
twice as likely to complete secondary school, do tertiary training and get a job
half as likely to have recurring episodes of adult depression
75% less likely to have a teen pregnancy (boys and girls alike)
80% less likely to spend time in jail 2
far less likely to suicide 3
New Zealand’s former principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft observed that most of the offenders who came up in his court simply had no meaningful relationship with their father or any positive adult males in their lives. Becroft describes these boys as “heat-seeking missiles” looking for male role models. The models they find are often other boys who may be little older than themselves and who also did not have positive fathering.4 Gangs are full of men who were drawn by their innate need for male acceptance and security. In contrast, boys who have fathers who are engaged in their lives do not need to go in search of that attention in unhealthy places.
Girls and their father
Girls who don’t get adequate nurturing attention from adult males within their family are more vulnerable when adults (or other children) make inappropriate sexual advances. These girls often have difficulty setting sexual boundries and tend to be overly receptive to people whose intentions are to manipulate them.1
Fathers can create protection
If a father feels a strong emotional bond with his child, he creates a shell of protection around the child. It is rare for a father to maltreat a child with whom he has developed a close attachment during infancy; nor will he passively allow others to mistreat them.1
Research also indicates that a father who cares for a young child seems to develop a sexual aversion to that child.5 A man’s involvement in the physical care of a child prior to their turning three years old (whether the child is biologically his or not) significantly reduces the probability that he will sexually abuse the child later. It seems that a father caring for an infant essentially immunises the father against crossing taboo sexual barriers later. 6
Good fathers promote good mothers
Good fathers also stimulate mothers to be good mothers. A mother who has the full support of her partner is more likely to be strongly bonded with her child, to be sensitive to the child’s needs and to behave more positively towards the child.7 The inverse is also true. A child in a two-parent family is more likely to suffer abuse from their mother if their fathers is absent or neglectful.1
Not all engaged fathering is good
It’s also important to differentiate nurturing from controlling. If a father is very controlling of, authoritarian toward or mistrustful of his daughter, the girl is likely to suffer from poorer psychological wellbeing as an adult. Girls whose fathers are trusting, respectful and appreciative (while providing good guidance) have higher levels of wellbeing as adults. This is irrespective of the quality of the relationship the girl has with her mother.8
The value in a good father
A good father builds empathy: one of our most important social skills. The amount of time a father spends with a child is one of the strongest predictors of empathy in the child.9 Why this influence on the child’s empathy is not clear. We may speculate this is a result of the rough and tumble play that fathers often initiate - where children learn how far they can go before someone gets hurt; but no one really knows.
The value of good fathering is as fundamental as it is universal. The lack of adequate support from fathers for their children can create a malaise of under achievement. A vast number of children do not realise as much of their potential as they could have if they had had a reasonably supportive and interested father.1
The implication is that a lack of active, nurturing fathering may affects a society’s productivity. This suggests that it makes economic, as well as social, sense to support men to be the best fathers they are capable of being.
Disclaimer: all of this does not mean that children who do not have an engaged, nurturing father will fail at school and become unemployable sociopathic depressives who get pregnant too young, join a gang, commit crimes and go to prison. However, it is no coincidence that the great majority of people who have these and other negative life stories did not, as children, receive the nurturing support from their father that they needed. If we work towards having a nation of well-informed fathers who are emotionally committed to their children, we will not only reduce child abuse and neglect, but we will go a long way towards reducing delinquency, criminality and violence, including domestic violence. We will have more secure and better-grounded children who will become productive members of society and flourish as individuals. If children experience their father as supportive and nurturing, the way they view the roles of men and women may be affected, possibly leading to better informed and more balanced attitudes about gender roles and equality later in life.
Starting Early is Important
One thing is clear: the father getting on board early with his child has great advantages. Many men (and women) have traditionally believed that the infant years are really the domain of women and that father-time really kicks-in once the child is old enough to throw a ball or hold a fishing pole. However, the foundation for the intimacy and fun that a father and his child will share when the child is old enough to kick a ball or go fishing is laid early. There runs the risk of emotional distance opening up if fathers hold back (or are held back by any number of social or economic reasons) and are not engaged with their children during the early years.
The optimum time for father/child bonding to begin is during the pregnancy. Fathers who are highly involved during the pregnancy will be more involved when the baby is born.10 Being engaged with the pregnancy is the beginning of his relationship with his child. If he is on-board pre-birth, the father is more likely to give his attention and emotional support to his partner and newborn, and to actively want to care for his baby.11 Antenatal services (including classes) have great potential for influencing both parents about the value of the father taking an active role. This is about sharing infant care.
A baby who has an affectionate father
A baby who has an affectionate father (one who responds quickly to his cries and other cues) feels more secure and attached to his father. This forms a virtuous cycle as the father, in turn, feels a stronger bond to his child. The advantages play out through the child having better language and communication skills – as well as a tendency to be better at maths as they get older.11
It's not about equal time with the baby
It’s not that the father must spend an equal amount of time with the baby as the mother in order to get good results; unless he is the primary caregiver this isn’t realistic. The important thing is for the father to put in regular, quality time. What the baby thrives on is direct personal attention and interaction. Getting a share of this from his father greatly supports the child’s development.6
Hormones and Instincts
Parents who interact with and are attuned to their infant tend to feel better themselves than those who don’t. This is largely the effect of hormones released in the adult body as a result of playing with a baby. Fathers get these hormone-induced good feelings just like mothers do when they are interacting with the baby.12 Mothers may act differently from fathers as a result of these hormones (mothers are more likely to groom or stroke the baby, while fathers may do things like move the baby’s limbs or lift them in the air), but these nurturing behaviours are good for everyone and, in part, a result the hormones of interacting with the baby.
There are no gender-based biological differences between the mothers and fathers in their sensitivity to their infants or in their capacity to provide intimate care. Levels of nurturing hormones are similar in all men and women who lovingly care for their infants. Raised levels of beneficial hormones associated with tolerance/trust (oxytocin), sensitivity to infants (vasopressin) and homemaking/bonding (prolactin) occur in fathers as well as mothers.13
There is also a relationship between lower testosterone levels in men who have a caring role with their infant. If fathers are active caregivers or are co-sleeping with their babies, their testosterone levels are lower after the birth and over the first year. This is important because low testosterone levels in fathers are connected with greater sensitivity to infants and may also bolster the fathers’ immune systems, thereby decreasing the chances of passing infections to their newborns.14
Nurturing behaviour is not gender-based
Nurturing behaviour is not gender-based – but men and women often do it differently. The ability to breastfeed (or having a second x chromosome) is not what makes mothers competent at caring for infants. What makes a mother competent or even expert at caring for her baby is all the practice she gets. If the father isn’t as good at infant care as the mother, it’s because he hasn’t done it as much or as often. That’s not a criticism of fathers or of mothers because there is an array of social, cultural and financial circumstances that commonly separate fathers from their infant children. However, with respect to competency in caring for an infant, whoever does it the most will be more skillful.
However, services focus on mothers
Nonetheless, many men and women (as well as our support agencies) consider babies to be, primarily, a woman’s domain. Breastfeeding seems to validate this view and breastfeeding certainly nourishes the baby physically as well as emotionally by supporting and enriching that very critical mother/child bond. However, breastfeeding is the single activity a mother can do with a baby that a father cannot. Men are just as capable as women of doing everything else for a baby. Men may do it differently from women (see Fathers Parent Differently, just below), but they can be just as effective. It is social convention that underlies the traditional division of parental responsibilities between mothers and fathers, not biology.6
Social lessons we learn early account for some of this. For instance, nurturing behaviour is more often rewarded in girls, while boys may be more commonly applauded for their physical achievements. However, while factoring in how much hands-on experience with babies the new mother and new father had before their baby was born, both parents are learning on the job. There has never been any research that confirms or even indicates that women are better at looking after babies than men.6
“When our first was just a few days old, my husband was looking after him while I had a sleep. When I came out the baby was lying on the couch on his tummy, still as still. I thought my baby was dead, you know, cot death. I got such a fright that after that I didn’t trust my husband with him. From then on I did absolutely everything with the baby, I didn’t let my husband do anything. I thought I was keeping the baby safe. But now he’s six and he never goes to his dad, he always comes to me. I can see now that I kept them apart. And I can’t go back and fix it, that bonding time, it’s gone.”
- Mother of two
Encouraging fathers to do the caring
The critical thing is to encourage the father to care for the baby, and to encourage the mother to invite and encourage him to do it. A father bonding with his baby is a direct result of their direct interaction. This is why a father actively caring for his infant is so important. If the father isn’t doing much playing with, soothing, bathing, changing and dressing the baby, he will struggle to bond with his child. It is exclusion (whether because he doesn’t believe it is his role, he doesn’t know how and is afraid to try, he is distracted by other things like work, sports or hobbies, or he is discouraged by others) that will result is him not bonding with his child. Trying to bridge missing emotional connection later, when the child is already school age or a teenager, is trying to cross a gap that will have grown wider day by day and year by year. It’s a gap that may become too wide to bridge. Such a gap will not exist if the father has been hands-on looking after his child from the very beginning.
Dads Parent Differently to Mums
Mothers and fathers invariably interact with the baby in their own way. The father’s touch is often more animated – and this is good for the baby – even though it might alarm his partner. A baby learns from being handled by their father25 precisely because he does it differently from their mother. Fathers have instincts around their babies, just as mothers do, and they sense how fragile their baby is and how to handle them safely, even though it may seem to the mother that he is being too rough. Mothers tend to be softer, more inward and protective. Both are right. The contrast supports the baby’s development.
Rough-and-tumble play is good for children. It teaches young children to regulate their most raucous feelings and behaviours and teaches them how to deal with their aggressive impulses. Fathers engage in rough-and-tumble play more than mothers – perhaps to the discomfort of the mothers – and tend to set wider limits on how far the child can take their wildness.15 Through rough-and-tumble play children experience the excitement of being scared and out of control but in a safe and secure environment, and toddlers learn how to reel in their wildest behaviour, learn to recognise the limits of acceptability and learn how to express themselves in more measured, socially acceptable ways.11
“One evening when [the baby] was about three months, he started crying. And crying. I mean REALLY crying. I tried everything. I’d fed him so he wasn’t hungry, he wasn’t dirty or wet, he hadn’t been awake very long so it wasn’t like he was tired. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t get him to stop. This went on and escalated to where he was bright red and shrieking, hardly able to get his breath. I was getting panicky. I had no idea what to do, I felt helpless. [My partner] was there, had been the whole time. He said ‘give him to me’. So I handed the baby over. He didn’t cuddle him but sat down and sat the baby on his knee, held him by his little arms and started bouncing him up and down singing She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain! It was crazy, he was really bouncing him up and down and singing this stupid song louder than the baby was crying! I was shocked, but I took myself off. I went into the garden, I was probably crying myself but I knew I had to hold it together. I walked around and took a few deep breaths. I was probably only gone a few minutes when I charged back in to take my baby back from the brute … and the baby was there in his arms: they were quietly looking at each other. I couldn’t believe it. It was like [my partner] knew something about the baby that I didn’t! It was a major turning point for me, for us, actually. It made a huge difference to how I felt about my partner. For one thing, it was an incredible relief because I suddenly didn’t feel like it was all up to me. Up until then I’d thought it was. We were really going to be doing this together.”
– Mother of a nine-year-old
Women may think that men play too roughly with babies, but they probably aren’t. Babies are more robust than many think. Looking after a baby by striving for quiet calm may be best for much of the time, but shrieks and giggles are part of the mix. Babies, toddlers and school aged children often love this and these are important experiences for them to have.
How fathers support mothering
One of the most effective strategies for increasing the numbers of mothers who breastfeed (and the duration of breastfeeding) is to inform the father about the merits of breastfeeding. Whether a woman breastfeeds or not is most strongly influenced by her culture – and her partner is a very strong element of her personal culture. Research is showing that women who have the support of their partner are more likely to initiate breastfeeding and to breastfeed for longer.16 Educating fathers about breastfeeding and how they can support their partners is a very effective and well-documented health promotion strategy.
The Mother’s Mental Health
If the partner of a first-time mother is well connected with how the mother is coping emotionally in the early weeks after delivery, the mother will be less affected by post-birth depression. And if a mother does suffer from perinatal depression, an attentive, engaged partner plays an important role in her recovery.
A depressed mother is more likely to turn to her partner for support than to any other individual, including health professionals. If the woman gets treatment for depression and her partner participates in her treatment, her symptoms reduce more than if her partner is not involved.17 Women who are hospitalised for perinatal depression and have supportive partners spend less time in care than those who don’t have supportive partners.17
The baby of a depressed mother is in danger of having developmental problems because the mother is often incapable of giving the baby the attention he needs when his brain is developing so quickly and continuously. A father’s positive mental health, combined with him taking a big role in caring for his infant, can protect the baby against the negative effects that are common in children whose mothers suffered from perinatal depression.17
Other Ways the Father May Affect the Child
The Father’s Mental Health
Perinatal depression in new fathers is more common than most of us realise. Depression rates for new fathers are about double the average for men in the general population of same age group.18 For professionals, it’s important to monitor the state of mind of the father of a mother with depression because her depression raises the risk of him becoming depressed.
It is estimated that as many as half the partners of depressed mothers experience symptoms of depression themselves.19
If the father is also depressed, he is unlikely to be able to step into the void left by the depressed mother. The effects on their infant will be exacerbated and the child will be at significant risk of having social, psychological and cognitive deficits. A child whose father reports symptoms of distress during the first year is two to three times more likely to have behavioural problems than children of symptom-free fathers.20
It appears that fathers experience depression before the birth more often than mothers do. This may be due to him feeling powerless about the upcoming birth, feeling anxious that his partner survives, that the baby arrives whole and healthy, or worrying about his ability to cope with his new life. Providing support for the father at this time can be very effective in heading off depression.
A man is more likely to develop perinatal depression if:
his partner is depressed
he is not happy in his couple relationship
he didn’t feel ready to be a father
he can’t engage with his children due to circumstances he can’t control21
he witnessed a traumatic birth.
Depression in both mothers and fathers can be linked to the infant not sleeping well or crying incessantly. Providing assistance to parents to sort these issues out can produce significant benefits for everyone’s mental health.
Smoking, Drinking and Eating
Key health promotion messages for pregnant women and new mothers are more effective if the partner also gets them. If messages about diet and nutrition, smoking, drinking alcohol and using other recreational drugs do not reach her partner, the woman is less likely to change her behaviour around these things. Targeting fathers as well as mothers with positive health messages increases the likelihood of lifestyle changes by both of them and leads to better health and wellbeing outcomes for the baby.22
Significant life events – like the birth of their baby – are a time of increased receptiveness to smoking cessation messages. The desire to be a good father can spark the man’s interest in cleaning up his act. The disruption of his pre-baby life provides opportunities to establish new routines which don’t include smoking or as much alcohol or other drugs. Interventions at this time can be very effective.23
Things that Impact on Effective Fathering
Father Viewed as Mother’s Helper
A man might be acknowledged, congratulated and praised if he is seen to support his partner to look after the baby. Certainly, a mother with an infant or young child may regularly feel overworked and needs her partner to be there to ease the unrelenting demands of the baby. Supporting her is important, but it’s not the extent of what being a father is. Saying: “Isn’t he a great support to Natalie?” may also be interpreted as: “He’s a good mother’s helper,” which is quite different from being a great father himself.
The father is the mother’s supporter through the pregnancy and birth, but if he is still seen and treated primarily as her supporter after that the birth (rather than as a parent in his own right) he may come to believe his role with his child is through his partner. This is problematic because a relationship through someone else is not the stuff of compelling emotional connection – and it is that emotional bond that is so important to establish.
A mother who is co-parenting with her partner still feels supported and is also more likely to do a better job of mothering.24 At the same time, a father who feels he is valued and supported in his parenting by his partner will feel more empowered And by caring for his infant he will become more sensitive to the baby and recognise the baby’s uniqueness while becoming more capable and skillful in looking after them.
If asked, most women will say they don’t want a supporter, they want a partner with whom they raise their child. A partnership is a more complex relationship than one where one person calls all the shots, but it is healthier. People who parent as partners are interdependent and answerable to each other. Ultimately, a strong partnership between the parents is what produces a balanced child and is more likely to result in a resilient couple relationship.
The mother’s attitude and expectations about her partner’s role as a father is one of three main factors that predict how involved a father will be with his baby.* Maternal gatekeeping (how a mother allows her partner to interact with the baby) is, in part, the result of her perception of the father’s competence with the child. What a woman thinks and feels about her partner shapes the father’s opportunities to be with and care for the baby. A man may have a concept in his head about what kind of father he will be but the mother’s attitude can override the father’s own expectations. A mother who perceives her partner to be less competent as a parent than she is herself may restrict his access to “her” children.6 This is likely to be self-fulfilling because, as mentioned earlier, a father’s competence as a carer of his baby is dependent on how much caring he does.
This does not dismiss men’s responsibility for their own actions or blame women if their partners withdraw or leave the family altogether. The father that a man becomes rests primarily with the man himself. However, there are factors that are highly influential in this and some of these can be linked to couple behaviours that begin once the baby arrives.
Maternal gatekeeping is not about bitter access disputes or custody battles. It is the very common behaviour among ordinary mothers in conventional homes. It happens when a mother shelters the baby from the father, usually without even realising she’s doing it. After all, she understands that her baby’s moment-to-moment survival is primarily her responsibility and that she is simply doing what she believes is best for the baby. But when her vigilance to protect and oversee the child extends to controlling her partner’s ability to interact, then it undermines his relationship with his child, and ultimately the child’s relationship with him. This behaviour can also damage or destroy the couple relationship.26
“My sister never gives her partner a look-in with the kids. She snaps at him because he never does anything good enough. When he is looking after the babies, he has to do it exactly like she tells him. Even when she’s gone out and he’s looking after the boys, you can see he feels like he’s just baby-sitting ‘til she gets back – and he knows he’ll get a blast anyway because he hasn’t done something up to her standard. She’s taking all the fun out of it for him. I’ve told her, but she doesn’t listen to me. He’s a good guy but she’s like the total hard boss.” – Auntie of two
Few mothers recognise their behaviour as being controlling and will just think they are acting like a mother – that’s how common maternal gatekeeping is. The gatekeeping mother is likely to be a very committed mother. She may truly believe that her way of caring for the baby is best and that things needs to be done her way. Maternal gatekeeping may be as subtle as the mother seldom or never leaving her partner time alone with the baby; or by her simply taking responsibility for everything to do regarding the baby. This might range from determining what the baby wears to how messy the baby is allowed to get before having to be cleaned up. She may subtly control how the father is allowed to play with the baby and give him no scope for real shared decision making. The closed-gate mother may simply assume the lead and operate without seeing any reason or value in consulting her partner.
Maternal gatekeeping isn’t even restricted to mothers, it can be expressed by any number of well-intentioned women with links to the family who are convinced they know better than the father what is good for the baby.
“My partner’s sister was over and they were talking and I took the baby outside to watch the sunset. A few minutes go by and out comes my sister-in-law saying, ‘The baby needs to come inside now, the night air isn’t good for her.’ I had the baby inside my jersey, she wasn’t cold, we were sharing a moment. I like my sister-in-law, I do, but I wasn’t having it. I told her that we were taking in the sunset, we’ll be in. She left us to it but it was like she was some kind of authority – and that I had no idea.”
– Father of a four-month-old
Fathers on the receiving end of a gatekeeping partner often lack the language to discuss what he is experiencing or even how to bring it up without sounding critical of his partner. If he is confident enough to talk to her about it, he may be met with disbelief, dismissal or even derision. Even if he tries to approach it sensitively, she still may take it as criticism of her as a mother.
Strong couples will find their ways through this, but many find this creates a fissure in their relationship. In the face of her certainty about how things should be with the baby, he may give up trying to be involved. She may effectively convince him that he’s a bungler and that she is the expert. A mother is likely to win this conflict, but it does not bode well for the couple relationship or for the well-being of child.
Pointing out to a mother that her behaviour is distancing her partner may fall to a service provider. Someone who the mother sees as an objective authority may be in a position to help her recognise her behaviour is putting her partner off - and this could have significant negative consequences for her baby. The couple may need help to negotiate this tricky area.
Common Motives for Maternal Gatekeeping
A mother may find it exasperating to watch her partner trying to get the baby’s arm through a sleeve or a napper right so it doesn’t leak. She may well be able to save time, fuss (and laundry!) by just doing all the hands-on tasks with the baby herself. But if she hangs back and lets the father make mistakes, it will improve his skills and demonstrates her confidence in him – even if she can see he isn’t going to make as good a job as she would of it. This is how he will learn, and it also teaches the baby to feel comfortable with their father. This can result in the baby no being totally reliant on their mother to meet their every need.
The mother may not trust the father with the baby. Perhaps she thinks the father doesn’t have the patience or sensitivity, or she believes he handles the baby too roughly. It is important for someone to question her about this. The mother may have valid concerns, but she may be reacting merely because her partner doesn’t do things with the baby the way she does or the way she wants him to.
The gatekeeping mother may want her partner to like the baby and therefore tries to shield him by only allowing him to have positive experiences with the baby. She may think she’s assisting the father/baby relationship if she steps in and immediately smooths things over if the baby starts to fuss or cry. However, by not allowing the father and baby time for uncertainty together, the mother may be interrupting their relationship-building process. Working through uncertainty and feelings of discomfort and getting through to the other side is important to any relationship and can increase the father’s and the baby’s confidence in each other.
An inexperienced and under-skilled father may want to hand the baby over as soon as the baby starts fussing. However, with encouragement and practice a father can learn to read the baby’s cues and recognise what his baby needs. It is by working through the fussy times that the mother has learned how to deal with these occurrences. If the father knows he can bail out and his partner will step in whenever the baby does anything but lie quietly in his arms and smile at him or giggle when he makes a funny face, he won’t get to know his baby.
The mother may need to feel in control. The mother may feel absolutely wedded to the idea that the baby is completely up to her and that looking after the baby is her new role in life, her identity. She may decide it is all up to her and not let the father (or anyone else) interfere. If she refuses to give him room, even a very motivated father will eventually find the resistance too hard and just step back and leave the baby to her. Less motivated fathers won’t have to be told twice.
“When I was a new dad, I put our baby to bed every night. She would have her last feed and I’d put on some music and hold her against my chest and move around the house sort of dancing until she dropped off. It was never more than 15 minutes and she’d be asleep in my arms. I’d lay her in her cot and tuck her in. One night my wife said, ‘You’re lucky I let you do that.’ I was gobsmacked (here I am remembering it two decades later!). Until then I thought that putting our daughter to bed was my job. I didn’t challenge my wife. In a way I felt I was put on notice. The fact was, she was right; she actually was in charge when it came to the children. What she wanted to happen was always what we did.” – Father of two
Since it is best for the child if the father is there in the long-run, encouraging him to be confident and competent with the baby is an effective strategy. A father who has bonded with his baby is very unlikely to drift away from the child later in life.27
Stories that fathers tell about feeling excluded from their baby are very common. And most mothers are unaware their partner feels that way – or don’t think that changing their behaviour is necessary or warranted. Support services may be in a position to either observe closed (or open) gatekeeping behaviour and point it out to the mother. We may be able to encourage the maternal gate to be more open.
Just talking about maternal gatekeeping to mothers can be helpful. On a day-to-day basis, mothers probably aren’t reflecting on how they may be excluding their partner. When closed gate behaviour is discussed, most women recognise it in themselves. Just talking about it can broaden their understanding of how their actions may be distancing their partner from the baby.
The Open Maternal Gate
The good news is that, while the mother controls the “maternal gate, “she can it swing open. A father is more likely to step up and be a hands-on carer of his baby if his partner expects him and invites him to be. If the mother understands that including her partner in infant care has very real, long-term benefits, then she is more likely to make room for him. The open maternal gate can look like this: the mother …
talking through decisions about the baby with her partner and considering and valuing his input
suggesting father and baby activities
saving activities for the father (like bathing, reading to, putting to bed)
appreciating the effort he makes
giving her partner time with the baby without hovering.
Service providers that are able to assist mothers to bring out the great father in their partner are doing work that helps hold relationships together. This has bonuses for the family and can break cycles of dysfunction and may make positive changes that may last for generations.
Transitioning to Being Parents
Coping with Change
Few who work in family support or health services are couples counsellors. However, there are some important things to keep in mind about couple’s relationships as we go about this work. The arrival of a first baby brings huge changes and challenges the couple’s relationship. Women and men are re-defined as mothers and fathers – whether they feel ready for that or not. They are no longer just a couple, they have a tiny third party who has immense needs and is completely and relentlessly selfish. What the couple’s life used to be, what they did, how they spent their time, how they spent their money, their attention, their energy: all of these things change suddenly, absolutely and for the foreseeable future. No matter how much they talked about the baby and what they decided about how it would be, the impact of becoming parents will be greater than, different from and probably more stressful than either of them had imagined.
Managing the relationship changes and the stress of all the added responsibility can be the difference between the couple holding together and breaking apart. In some relationships, the arrival of a baby can be the beginning of the end.
Parenting services may have little influence over this, but what is important to keep in mind is that if the father does not become emotionally connected to the baby, the couple relationship will be weaker. It’s estimated that 30% of fathers leave the family home within a few years of their first child’s birth.28 One thing is certain: if a father has fallen in love with his baby, he is less likely to take that path. Or if he does leave the intimate couple relationship, he will put great energy into maintaining his relationship with his child.
Conversely, if he hasn’t made an emotional commitment to his baby, moving on becomes an easier option.
The father being active with the baby will not solve all relationship issues, but it tends to strengthen the couple. There is some truth in the adage: women love men who love children. Both mothers and fathers say that their couple relationship is more satisfying when the father is highly engaged with the children. The flip side of this is also true: the less involved the father is in the baby’s care, the more likely both he and the mother will become disenchanted with their relationship.28
He Will Always Be the Child’s Father
Most couple relationships don’t last a lifetime. A US study estimates that only one-third of children born between 1997 and 2000 will be living with both biological parents at 18 years of age.6 The fact is that relationships change, couples do split up, new partners are found, blended families are formed.
People who interact professionally with families will come across couples whose relationships they assume will not go the distance. The break-up may or may not actually happen, but whatever does happen, one thing that never changes is who the child’s actual parents are. Like the mother, the person the child understands to be their father remains their father – for life. The heart string pulling reality TV shows about finding lost or unknown parents indicates how rare it is for fathers (or mothers) to go missing altogether, and how strong the pull is for a child to need to be connected to their parents.
Antagonised partners can use their ability to deny access to the children as a way of hurting their former partner. Using children as weapons in couple disputes is destructive and harmful to children. It is poor parenting to puts spite and selfishness ahead of their children’s well-being. Parenting services may have little influence over the parents’ relationship, but they could well be in a position to explain to offending parents that, if the couple relationship ends, in most cases the child/father relationship (or the child/mother relationship) should be encouraged to carry on – unless the former partner is a danger to the child.
Both parents need to be made aware that poor behaviour around custody and access is harmful to the children and can damage them emotionally. Mothers and fathers in dissolved couple relationships may need it explained that an active, on-going child/father relationship is important for their child. This is true unless the partner is known to be abusive towards the child. The father continuing a regular and active part in the child’s life is better for the child than both of them being denied that, regardless of the state of the couple’s relationship or whether they are living together.
The More Nurturing Relationships the Better
Attachment to at least one parent is essential to the wellbeing of every child. But one attachment is the minimum, not the optimum. Most health or social services prioritise and focus on the mother child dyad. In a dyad, each person has one important relationship.
A baby does better if warmly attached to both their mother and father (and even better if baby is attached to other – usually whanau). In a triadic relationship, each person doubles the number of important relationships. A triad is stronger and more stable. It is better for the baby and better for the parents as a couple and as individuals. If the mother/father relationship breaks down, the baby is better supported they continues to have a nurturing relationships with both the father and the mother.
The Uninterested Father
Some men may just be selfish, distant and refuse to help care for the infant. This may be as simple as him not being committed to the couple relationship. But some men just don’t “get” babies or think the baby is her department. This doesn’t mean they can’t be a great father or that they are impossible to reach. But getting through to them will be harder.
“My nephew and his partner have a new baby. I was over there and when he came in from work, he went over to the baby and did a gitchy goo under the chin, got a beer out of the fridge and then carried on out the back to his shed. That was it! I’m thinking, that’s not good enough. He needs to be in here, paying attention to his baby.” – Auntie
Few men are unaffected by the birth of their child. The birth of his baby is a fundamental transition point in a man’s life. This period, especially if he is engaged in the pregnancy and birth process, renders a man extraordinarily open emotionally. This is a time that can establish his commitment to his child. That period of high hormones can just come and then go by if he didn’t feel included (or if he excludes himself) and wasn’t active in the process. A father is more likely to connect with his infant if he is acknowledged and celebrated alongside the mother and the baby. If he feels left out or chooses not to participate, that particularly heightened emotional connection may go begging. This is a door that doesn’t stay open for long.
Drawing the father in, especially if he is reluctant, is important work. Calling on him to step up to his new role may fall to family and friends – or it may fall to (or be pointed out or reinforced by) those who are there through a professional service.
1 H B Biller and R S Solomon, Child Maltreatment and Parental Deprivation: a Manifesto for Research, Prevention, and Treatment, Lexington Books, 1986
2 Hart Research, “Parenting Infants and Toddlers Today, Tuning in to Father: Key Findings from
a 2009 National Parent Survey”, conducted for and published by Zero to Three, 2010
3 Father Facts, Seventh Edition, Chapter 3, National Fatherhood Initiative, 2015
4 Judge Andrew Becroft interviewed by Simon Dallow for Agenda on TVOne, 5 June 2004
5 P B Gray and K G Anderson, Fatherhood – evolution and human paternal behaviour, Harvard University Press 2010
6 Kyle D Pruett, Fatherneed – why father care is as essential as mother care for your child, Broadway Books, pg 181, 2000
7 The Fatherhood Institute, Fathers and Parenting Interventions: What Works? (2009) pg 16 citing Diemer 1997, Feiring 1976 & Bloom 1998
8 Swan, N; & Huppert, F., 15 March 2010, The effect of parenting on psychological wellbeing. Retrieved January
17, 2013, from Radio National: Health Report
9 Koestner, Franz, Weinberger, The Family Origins of Empathetic Concern - a 26 Year Longitudinal study
10 N. J., Fagan, J., & Farrie, D., Explaining the long reach of fathers’ prenatal involvement on later paternal engagement,Cabrera, 2008, published in Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 1094-1107.
11 Zero to Three, The Father Factor: the Crucial Impact of Fathers on Young Children’s Development, 2015
12 Feldman, Gordon, Zagoory-Sharon, Leckman, Oxytocin, cortisol, and triadic family interactions, Department of Psychology, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel, 2010
13 Ruth Feldman, Oxytocin and social affiliation in humans, published in Hormones and Behavior, Elsevier, 2012
14 FI Research Summary: Fathers and Hormones, Fatherhood Institute, November 2014
15 Richard Fletcher, The Father Factor; Chapter 4, Finch Publishing, 2011
16 Australian Fatherhood Research Network Bulletin, Breastfeeding is a Family Affair, June 2011
17 Adrienne Burgess, Maternal and Infant Health in the Perinatal Period: the Father’s Role Literature Review
18 Svend Aage Madsen, Fathers and Postnatal Depression Research Results from the Project: Men’s Psychological Transition to Fatherhood, Righospitalet January 2006
19 Tammentie, Tarkka, Astedt-Kurki et al Family dynamics and postnatal depression, Journal of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 2004; Goodman, Paternal postpartum depression, its relationship to maternal postpartum depression, and implications for family health, Journal of Advanced Nursing 2004
20 Fletcher, St George, May, Hartman, King, Father-Inclusive Practice in Family Centre: An Australian Perspective (citing Fletcher, Freeman, Garfield & Vimpani, 2011), Zero to Three Journal, May 2015
21 Burgess A, Fathers’ roles in perinatal mental health: causes, interactions and effects, is the literature review that supports much of this section in New Digest 53 January 2011
22 Royal College of Midwives, Reaching out: Involving Fathers in Maternity Care (citing Bottorff, 2006; Flouri & Buchanan) 2003
23 The Fatherhood Institute, Fathers and Smoking in the Perinatal Period, a research summary produced, 2007
24 The Fatherhood Institute, Fathers and Parenting Interventions: What Works? (2009) pg 16 citing Diemer 1997, Feiring 1976 & Bloom 1998
25 Jay Fagan and Marina Barnett, The Relationship between Maternal Gatekeeping, Paternal Competence, Mothers’ Attitudes about the Father Role, and Father Involvement, Journal of Family Issues, 2003
26 Meryn G Callander, Why Fathers Leave – Insights & Resources for When Partners Become Parents, Akasha Publications, 2012
27 Fathers Direct, Including New Fathers: a Guide for Maternity Professionals, pg 10