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Fathers’ influence on development and well-being of children

Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition - Monday, July 11, 2022

Fathers’ influence on the development and well-being of children

June 12, 2019

Mary Beth Nierengarten, MA

Contemporary PEDS Journal, Vol 36 No 6, Volume 36, Issue 6

 

Despite the growing involvement of fathers in their children’s lives, there persists a lack of focus on fathers in pediatric care. Updated guidelines can help pediatricians to better engage fathers in the care of their children.



 

Growing evidence shows the positive influence that fathers have on the development and well-being of their children. Longitudinal data published over the past decade or so support that paternal involvement from the prenatal stage through a child’s lifetime benefits the psychosocial and behavioral development of their children, often in ways different from and complementary to maternal involvement.1,2 Other data exploring the biological and epigenetic influences of fathers on their children are revealing the complexity of this paternal influence on their children.3-7 Among the most studied areas of research is paternal depression and the associated adverse effects on children.8-13

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its guidance for pediatricians on the role of fathers in the care and development of their children based on the increasing number of “high-quality” studies that now quantify and qualify this role.1 According to the guideline, among the drivers underlying this increased interest in fathers are socioeconomic forces in which the traditional roles of men and women are changing. More mothers are working outside the home and more stay-at-home fathers are taking on caregiving activities. Fathers also are increasingly taking on the primary caregiving role as single parents. Also highlighted are changing social mores encouraging more involvement by fathers beyond their historic protector and provider role. Data show this, with involvement by fathers in childcare nearly doubling between 1965 and 2011.14

Despite this growing involvement of fathers in their children’s lives, pediatric visits largely still focus on the mother-child relationship.15,16 A recent systematic review of father-inclusive perinatal parent education in the United States found only a small number of early parent education programs for fathers.15 In addition, recent survey results of 100 pediatric primary care providers found that less than 50% of the respondents regularly implemented recommendations for engaging fathers as listed in the recent guidelines by the AAP.16 The survey also found that supporting parenting skills and perinatal depression screening for fathers were the least implemented recommended practices.

Craig F. Garfield, MD, professor of Pediatrics and Medical Social Sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois, attending physician at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, and one of the authors of the AAP guidelines on fathers, emphasizes the persisting lack of focus on fathers when it comes to pediatric care.

“Pediatrics has been slow in embracing the roles of fathers,” he says, citing, for example, a recently published AAP guideline on postnatal depression that largely focused only on maternal depression.17

This article reviews some of the data on ways fathers contribute positively to the development and wellbeing of their sons and daughters, and suggests opportunities for pediatricians to better engage fathers in the care of their children.

Defining the role of father

When talking about the role of fathers in their children’s development and well-being, it is important to define what is meant by “father” as the term carries several assumptions that may not be completely accurate given the changing family structure. In the AAP guideline on fathers, father is defined broadly as “the male or males identified as most involved in caregiving and committed to the well-being of the child, regardless of living situation, marital status, or biological relation.” Along with the biological father, this definition includes foster fathers, stepfathers, and grandfathers.1

Underlying this discussion of who is a father is the recognition of the evolving and changing nature of family structures, societal norms, and understanding of masculinity and femininity that is creating additional complexity to understanding the multiple influences on childhood development. Research shows that the influence of fathers on the psychosocial and behavioral development of children is distinct from that of mothers.1 However, it is difficult to tease out of this current research how these different influences are related to the biological distinctiveness of masculinity or femininity. Emerging research on the neurobiology of parenting provides some preliminary signs by showing just how complex the interplay between hormonal and neural circuitry is in men and women and how these biological processes manifest differently in parenting behavior.7

Benefits of fathers’ early involvement

Data show that getting fathers involved early in their children’s lives predicts later involvement. Prenatal involvement by fathers, along with living with the mother, is the strongest predictor of their involvement by the time a child is aged 5 years.1,18

Paternal involvement just after a child is born is also critical. “Good research shows that the more men take time to spend at home with a child after birth, 2 weeks or more, they are almost 2 times as likely to be involved in diapering, feeding, cleaning, and caring for their baby at 9 months,” says Garfield.19

Helping fathers to be more confident in taking care of their children helps their children during all stages of their development (Table 1).1 Garfield highlights 3 main areas in which involvement by fathers is distinct from, and often complementary to, involvement by mothers.

One is in the area of language development. Garfield cites evidence showing that the more words and language to which a child is exposed at an early age, the greater benefit for kindergarten readiness. Children exposed to language and vocabulary through both mothers and fathers benefit by the additive effect of both hearing more words and also more variety.1,20,21

Another way in which fathers uniquely contribute to early childhood development is by promoting more risk taking and problem-solving behavior through greater physical engagement with the child than is typically done by mothers.1,21-25 “Really unique to dads is in the general area of play and in particular what is called ‘rough and tumble’ play,” says Garfield, describing this type of play as a very high-energy and physical game wherein fathers may be changing the rules during play forcing the child to adapt quickly to the changes.26 “It is thought that this is helping children learn about how to make decisions and how to stay focused when they are amped up,” he says, “and that can actually be teaching resilience to the child as well.”

Fathers also influence their children during early childhood years and into adolescence by role-modelling behavior.1 Garfield emphasizes the important influence of fathers as a role model for adolescent sons and daughters. “They are role modelling how to be in a relationship, how to make health and well-being behavior decisions, and that can be important for the child as well,” he says. For example, longitudinal data show an association between father involvement and reduced behavioral problems and enhanced cognitive development in adolescent boys as well as reduced psychological problems in adolescent girls.27 Other benefits of father involvement for adolescent girls are decreased early sexual experiences and teenaged pregnancy,21,28 and for boys the potential for improvement in sexual health through better communication about condoms.29

Interplay of biology with caregiving

An emerging area of research on the biologic and epigenetic influences of fathers and mothers on children is offering further insight into the complexity of parental biology on childhood development and caregiving. For example, recent studies explore the interplay of biologic and environmental influences of fathers on childhood atopic dermatitis,3 the efficacy of treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children,4 paternal diet and breast cancer risk in daughters,5 and increased incidence of childhood autism and cancers associated older paternal age.6

Further research is looking closer at how caregiving behavior is linked to neural and hormonal mechanisms of mothers and fathers as recently reported in a study examining the role of hormones (oxytocin, testosterone, prolactin, and arginine vasopressin) and their interplay on parenting behavior, and brain changes and parenting behavior.7

Fathers and postnatal depression

An important area of research is on the influence of fathers’ mental and physical health on their children. Among the most studied areas is that of paternal postnatal depression and the adverse effects on children. An updated meta-analysis found paternal depression in 8% of men during the first trimester and 1-year postpartum period.12 Data also show that by the time their children are aged 12 years, more than 20% of fathers will experience depression.10 In addition, during the first 5 years of fatherhood, those fathers who reside with their children have reported a 68% increase in their symptoms of depression.9

Despite this prevalence, the recently published AAP guidance on postnatal depression focused almost exclusively on mothers, as mentioned previously.17 “With the exception of a short paragraph talking about the problem of paternal postnatal depression, dads were missing from the report,” says Garfield.

The need to better recognize, identify, and address postnatal depression in fathers is highlighted by data showing the associated adverse effects on children-notably, poorer behavioral and emotional outcomes.13

Additional data show that when mothers are depressed, fathers play an indirect but key role in helping their children by supporting mothers, which mitigates the impact of maternal depression.30


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The science of how fatherhood transforms you

Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition - Monday, July 11, 2022

The science of how fatherhood transforms you

Emerging research has proven it: Men’s bodies are built to parent, and involved fathers bring benefits to almost every aspect of their kids’ lives. (And—bonus!—there’s a payoff for dads, too.)

Micah Toub, Photography by Roberto CarusoJune 8, 2021




Couch: Urbanbarn.com, Clothes: gapcanada.ca, Parasol diapers: Well.ca

When it came to being a dad, my father says he was pretty much flying blind. My grandfather didn’t change my dad’s diapers, didn’t put him to bed, didn’t even play with him that much. One of the most prominent father-son memories he has is of when he was five and his mother was letting him stay up late to watch a show on TV; his father vetoed that and sent him to bed crying. He also remembers his dad coming after him with a belt. Then, when my dad was 13, my grandfather remarried and moved away.

“I didn’t have a role model for how to be an involved father, so I had to come up with that myself,” he told me recently. “But I think it was also instinctive—it just came out of my desire to be close. I felt love for you, so I wanted to teach you things and play with you.” He added that, subconsciously, he was probably making up for the shortcomings of his own childhood.

The idea that a man can possess a parenting instinct, and is not just suited to be a provider or a hapless sidekick, is relatively new. For my grandfather’s generation, it was highly controversial. When I was born, in 1976, the expectation that men should do more was picking up steam, but they were still considered a poor substitute for mom. In fact, up to that point, scientists who studied children’s early development looked exclusively at mothers.

 

“[The mid-’70s] was the heyday of attachment theory, which, as it was incarnated then, was very much focused on the critical importance of the attachment between an infant and its mother in the first years of life,” says Michael Lamb, who became a forerunner of fatherhood research in the ’70s and continues to study it at the University of Cambridge in the UK. “That went along with the assumption that it was the only [primary] relationship kids could form.”

At that time, however, Lamb and a small number of other researchers were all coming to the same conclusion: Babies can form as strong an attachment to their dads as to their moms. From that seed has grown an intriguing but limited body of evidence stating that not only are men built to care for children, but that being an involved dad impacts kids’ physiologies, psychologies and outcomes for the rest of their lives.

In short, dads make a difference. So why is it that when we see a man with an infant on a weekday, we still reflexively wonder where that baby’s mother is, even if we think it’s so darn cute that he’s “babysitting”? The truth is, just as women have always had what it takes to be CEOs, men have always had the power to nurture. Now that we’re recognizing this, the day may soon come when the default assumption that mom is the primary parent will seem laughably quaint—and we’ll all be better for it.

The birth of a father

It wasn’t until the turn of this century that researchers discovered a fascinating detail about men: Our bodies transform when we become fathers. (And I’m not talking about the second trimester–size belly bump we fight into old age.) Whether we’re biological dads or adoptive ones, heterosexual or queer, our hormonal systems alter dramatically when we become parents—an amazing revelation basically implying that despite the narrow role we fathers have straitjacketed ourselves into for so long, our internal chemistries may have always been nudging us toward more involvement.

We’ve long known that oxytocin—the “love hormone”—plays a role in a mother’s initial bonding with her child after birth. But more recently, researchers have observed that the same spike in oxytocin occurs when fathers hold and play with their newborns.

My own discovery of this fact began in an initially distressing way. The fairy tale I’d always heard was that parents experience an overwhelming flood of love for their babies on first sight. Almost four years ago, when the surgeon brought my son around the curtain and passed him to me, I was astonished by the fragile, crying creature. But I didn’t experience that surge of love. “I feel like he could be anybody’s baby,” I confessed to my mother in an anxious phone call from the hospital hallway.

The next two days were a blur, as I alternated between taking care of my son and my wife, who was recovering from a C-section. But once we’d settled at home and I made a habit of putting my son on my shirtless chest, I began to feel it: love. It was transcendent, much like the early-days rush I’ve experienced in other landmark relationships, and it came with similar side effects: the feeling of walking on air, an overriding empathy toward all people and a narcissistic inability to talk about anything else. The oxytocin buzz.

While that love drug pumps through a new father, his testosterone level typically drops, making him less prone to risk-taking behaviour and more able to nurture his newborn. And also, oddly, he registers an increase in prolactin—a hormone best known for helping women produce breastmilk. Its purpose, it turns out, is greater than that.

University of Notre Dame anthropologist Lee Gettler explains that the presence of prolactin goes back hundreds of millions of years to our animal ancestors—before mammals existed (even before breastfeeding existed). Over the past decade, Gettler’s research has come to some conclusions about the hormone’s function in modern-day dads. “Fathers with higher prolactin play with their babies in ways that are beneficial for their babies’ learning and exploration, and the fathers also seem to be more responsive and sensitive to infant cries,” he says. In other words, this ancient hormone plays some role in, as my father put it, increasing dads’ desire to be close.

All of the internal changes can depend on how much time dads spend solo with their kids in infancy and toddlerhood, says Hayley Alloway, who studies endocrinology in fathers at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “Having time where the man is responsible for direct physical interaction with an infant—not just being in the room, but actually providing care—has the biggest influence on his hormonal levels changing,” she says. And indeed, studies have shown that the more intimate time a dad has with his baby, the lower his testosterone dips and the more empathetic and soothing he is with his child.

I experienced the change in myself but wondered whether other involved dads did, too. What it means to be “involved” is somewhat subjective—a complex matrix of quantity of time spent with quality of interactions. But I found that several men who define themselves as “involved” parents all spent intensive and regular one-on-one time with their babies during their first year. None of them went into a scientist’s lab to prove it, but we know their hormones were shifting to accommodate their new role. And while they didn’t always find it easy, they spoke of the transformation with the seriousness of someone taking on the great responsibility that it is.

Josh*, who became a stay-at-home dad when his son was eight months old, told me the physical bonding started almost immediately, as he paced the hospital hallways with his newborn to give his wife some rest. “I didn’t want his crying to wake her,” he says. “I was the only dad I saw doing this, and I got a lot of people saying, ‘Aww, that’s adorable,’ but I was surprised it was so unusual.” Later, when his son was a month old and could take a bottle, he and his wife began splitting the nighttime feedings. For months on end, if he wasn’t rocking and soothing his son, the baby was asleep right on top of him—a difficult, sleepless experience that he nonetheless describes as “lovely.”

“It was important to me to step up and say, I’m here now. I’m not going to wait until my kid can participate in my favourite hobbies. I’m putting in the time immediately,” he says. “Being a dad means doing the hard things as well as the fun things.” The reward for Josh’s effort came during the daytime, when he says his son would often crawl over to him and sit in his lap, which never failed to send that “in love” feeling surging through his body.

Brandon Hay, founder of Toronto’s Black Daddies Club, also did much of the nighttime duty 15 years ago when he first became a dad. And the growing bond he had with his baby changed the way he viewed his own life. “After my son was born, I had a new purpose. Life is bigger than just me now.” Brandon’s own father had been mostly absent during his childhood in Jamaica, inspiring Brandon to do an about-face in one generation, taking his parenting role so seriously that to do even better, he formed an organization—a network of black fathers that has engaged 8,000 families since 2007.

According to Alloway, the hormonal changes in dads during the initial stages of a baby’s life don’t continue once the two have less physical contact—but kids do have a long-term effect on men’s bodies. Although research in this area is scant, one 2004 study that reviewed the literature since 1966 found that men under 40 with children had poorer health than those who had none. (As someone who became a father at 37, my joints and bones can confirm this.) But, in men over 40—who had settled into their parental roles—the opposite was true. And, if a father makes it all the way to 60, a 2017 study conducted in Sweden at Stockholm University and the Karolinska Institutet found having a kid adds about two years onto his life expectancy.

Reaping the benefits

The social movement to create more equity among the sexes, which was in full swing by the mid-’70s, played a role in my father becoming more involved in my care. While feminists battled to create the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, within my own house in Denver, Colo., my parents were figuring out how my mother—who had stayed home to raise my sister—could go back to school and work. “It wasn’t the old paradigm anymore,” my dad says now. “We decided that we both had to raise our kids and that it was going to be something we did as a team.”

Although I can’t recall the times he changed my diaper or rocked me in the middle of the night, I do have fond memories of him cuddling with me in bed to read books, and I remember that he used to pick me up from kindergarten early at least once a week. In this sense, he was at the forefront of the shift, involving himself in ways that are now the norm.

Although that push 40 years ago may have been for the sake of balancing work and child care between parents, the research Lamb and others began doing at the time attempted to show that fathers were more than just a convenient backup to mothers. After modest initial studies—experiments showing that a temporarily abandoned baby would stop crying when its father returned—researchers eventually came to conclude that active dads can have a net positive impact.

And no, it’s not just that an involved dad makes a kid better at sports—research shows our presence is a boon to pretty much every aspect of a human being’s development. Having an involved dad has been associated with fewer cognitive delays, better school readiness, a decrease in tantrums and aggressive behaviour, and lower rates of depression. In the book Do Fathers Matter?, science journalist Paul Raeburn summarizes findings from a 2007 Swedish study concluding that an involved father may even keep his teenage offspring out of jail: “Children whose fathers played with them, read to them, took them on outings and helped care for them had fewer behavioural problems in the early school years, and less likelihood of delinquency or criminal behaviour as adolescents.”

Of all the studies Raeburn came across, two of the most surprising to him were from the University of North Carolina showing that, no matter how well-spoken a mother was, the father’s use of vocabulary had the greatest impact on a toddler’s language development.

That conclusion reminded me of something my friend Simon* told me about the initial weeks of his four-year-old’s life. “My first impression of being a father was the shift of having another person in between me and my wife,” he says. “It came as a shock, but then I also realized I wanted in. I wanted my son to have a connection with me, too.”

After googling different iterations of “how do dads bond with babies?”, Simon found information that suggested infants can form strong connections with a parent’s voice. “I didn’t have breasts, but I could talk,” he says, and so he did. He talked to his child constantly and, in short order, his son—who is now a skilled and passionate storyteller—responded by gravitating toward Simon whenever he heard his voice.

My friend’s experience may explain one reason for those studies’ conclusions, but Raeburn says his conversations with the researchers suggested something else. “They speculate that because a father traditionally spends less time with the child than the mother, they weren’t as attuned to what words the kids knew,” he explains. “So while mothers might change their language a bit to use words that their kid understands, fathers are more likely to speak using something closer to their normal vocabulary, which stretches kids so they learn more.”

This hypothesis inadvertently raises one of the concerns I have with studies aiming to prove that kids with involved dads do better in life. If the researcher’s rationale is true, wouldn’t a dad who splits care evenly with his partner, or who even does more, stop having that effect? And then this: How do we know what’s due to the gender or sex of the parent and what’s just a benefit of having more than one person investing time in a child’s development?

As it turns out, Lamb—that pioneer of proving fathers make a difference—has come around to the opinion that gender isn’t relevant when it comes to outcomes. While he says he believes all that research has been useful to confirm “the appropriateness of fathers becoming more involved,” he hasn’t seen conclusive evidence that men provide anything women can’t—and he thinks that the less-involved parent just ends up having a different impact, no matter their gender. “Kids benefit from having both parents actively involved because then they have more parent time and more parent stimulation. And because any two people differ in personality and bring different strengths to the table.”

I think Lamb’s insight is something that can apply to having two moms or being raised by a single parent with other family members or caregivers filling in the gaps. But still, for all the families that do have dads in them, it’s worth emphasizing what this research is saying: Yes, we matter. We can be left alone with our kids.

The personal payoff

When you talk to involved dads, you quickly discover that the positive effects of becoming one aren’t just for the children. Fathers’ own ideas of manhood expand during the transition, as do their abilities to form rewarding human connections.

Brandon was 22 when his first son was born, and he didn’t yet have a solid career, a fact he struggled with because, to him, being a father was synonymous with providing. “I knew a lot of friends who were going out west to get jobs in oil rigs, and I thought maybe I should do that,” he recalls. “I thought I would be more impactful if I went away and sent my partner money.” In the end, he stayed—and shared the primary parenting role. Although he remembers feeling judged (and judging himself) for doing drop-offs in his sweats while other dads wore suits, he doesn’t regret that time spent together. “It was important that I was giving my kids what I didn’t have.”

Later, when Brandon worked on a research project with Lance McCready at OISE and Carl James of York University that explored the experiences of and issues facing black fathers, one of the main findings was that they, too, found it difficult to “feel like a father” if they weren’t providing financially. As he told me about this over the phone, he was taking a walk with his third child, now 12—not going anywhere specific, just strolling for the sake of being together. “What I tell new dads is that little things like this, taking a walk, don’t cost money, and they’re the things your kids remember in the longer term.”

But Brandon says the payoff has also been personal. “I grew up in a culture and era when spanking was the go-to. I had to develop the kind of patience you need to not jump to that kind of discipline and instead take the time to talk to them, have conversations with them and really communicate,” he says. “Before I had kids, I never really knew what love was. I’d say, ‘I love my mom,’ or ‘I think I love this girl.’ With my kids, it’s different. I would give them a body part.”

While Josh’s dad lived in the same house, he was largely absent, retreating into his work and sharing little of himself with his son. Although his dad is nearing retirement now, Josh says it may be too late to form a real bond with him. It’s not that they fight, he says, but just that their conversations don’t go beyond the superficial and never dip into their emotional lives. “To this day, I don’t feel as deep of a connection with him as I do with my mother, even though I’d like to,” he says. “We keep reaching out, but neither of us has had practice, so it’s awkward.”

With his own son, Josh is trying to break that cycle. “I’m watching myself pick up some of my dad’s habit of living in his head,” Josh says. “I’ll literally be sitting down looking at my kid but my mind is elsewhere.” Like a kind of mindfulness meditation, every time Josh notices he’s drifting, he reminds himself to come back to the moment. And whereas his father’s emotional vocabulary was limited, Josh is using fatherhood as an opportunity to grow his own. “When my son hurts himself, I honour his feelings instead of dismissing them. It’s affecting my life outside parenting as well—now, instead of just jumping in to fix a problem, I try my best to listen.”

When strangers see Josh with his now 16-month-old in the park, they sometimes tell him he’s an amazing father, simply because he’s out alone with his toddler. “But I’m not going for ‘amazing father,’” he says. “That seems like a very low bar. I’m going for good parent. I want to be a big part of his life and be there for him physically and emotionally. To do that, I need a solid foundation. What better way to form that than to know him well as he grows up.”

While Josh thinks a shift is occurring where dad involvement is more often considered the norm, in his opinion, it’s not happening quickly enough. “When I run into other dads when I’m out, half of them are embarrassed that they’re the at-home parent,” he says. “There’s still a lingering mentality that men should be working, and I talk to a lot of moms who feel guilty about going back to work. I think both of those reactions should be examined—if someone wants to go to work or stay at home, it shouldn’t matter their gender.”

For his part, Brandon believes the many fathers who’ve long been stepping up are under-recognized. “The narrative has been that parenting was only for moms,” he says. “And the narrative for black fathers was that they are non-existent. But when I started Black Daddies Club 10 years ago, I began to meet men who proved that was a myth. I saw fathers showing up and fathers who were engaged, and these were not the dads being depicted in media.”

When I think back to the early ’80s, I rarely saw dads like mine on television. I remember watching Mr. Mom, in which a laid-off Michael Keaton stays home with his baby, behaving as if it were the first time he’d ever spent five minutes with his kid. I didn’t get the joke.

I had a role model for how to be an involved father—one who worked during the day but was there for me in the evenings or the middle of the night. Of course, even if he hadn’t provided that example for me, I believe the fathering instinct—and the internal shifts that have reshaped me into a parent—would have inspired that desire to be close.

 

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This is Fatherhood - 7 Dads Describe The Moment It Got Real

Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition - Thursday, May 05, 2022

This is Fatherhood

7 Dads Describe The Moment It Got Real

By Amy Joyce JUNE 13, 2019 in Washington Post



To mark this Father’s Day, we asked dads to describe a moment when they truly felt like a father, in 500 words or fewer. Here are some of our favorite essays.

 

My wife’s belly protruded as she lay on the couch occasionally asking me to come feel the kicks. Even as I felt the pings of our child’s life against her skin and my palm, I did not feel like it was mine.

 

At the hospital, my wife ached in pain on the bed. I looked into her eyes and told her “everything will be okay.” We deserved a family; I deserved to be a father.

 

Seconds after my child was born, the doctor lifted him up showing me the miracle of birth. They wrapped him up and put him in my arms like that’s where he belonged. Meanwhile, I was lost. Was I a father?

 

The days and nights went on: I slept next to him and my wife in the hospital bed, swaddled him, held him, and changed him. I was amazed at the life smiling up at me. However, the connection was a loose-hanging thread. I had not come to terms with who I was.

 

It wasn’t till nights later that I felt something growing inside of me. The baby screamed, calling me through the monitor. My wife slept in bed as I crept into my son’s room. I picked him up onto my chest and sat in the rocking chair. In the stillness of the night, I realized it was my first moment alone in days, weeks, or months to comprehend this time.

 

The first thoughts were of my father’s passing only months before: the phone call from my brother that he’d stopped breathing, my mother on the phone, the long flight, the disbelief of seeing his jacket still hanging on the chair in the garage. Years before, we had sat in the dining room and I told him I didn’t want to refer to him as my stepfather, he deserved something more. “I want to call you Pops.” I imagined he’d be here to meet my son, but the room was as empty as my heart.

 

As tears pooled on my lids, I pictured the moment when I was standing next to the hospital bed of my biological father. A smile radiated from his frail cancer-ridden body. He told me he was sorry for not being there throughout my life. I said I forgave him and didn’t hate him.

 

And my mind went to my other fathers: Grandpa showing me the twisting of his wrench under the car hood, my uncle leading my pencil to draw.

 

The moment came when my child calmed in my arms, and the ache in my chest beat on his, while I wept like a baby. It was then I knew: He was mine and I was his. I was the father I’d always hoped for.

- Anthony Ellis

 

Feeling like a father is supposed to be easy, and with my oldest it was. There was an instant connection the second I held him and that was that.

 

But Sam, my second-born, was a different story.

 

He never slept, he always cried, and he hated when I held him. It had been a difficult pregnancy for my wife and with so many scares (on top of previous infertility issues), I was more exhaustedly relieved than joyful when he was born. During the next few weeks of colic and crying and hardly a second of sleep, a sudden and grim realization hit me — I was more in love with the idea of a second kid than my actual second kid.

 

While I took my paternity leave and dutifully took up my fatherly duties, it was more of a sleepwalk than an eager call to action. I was just going through the motions, getting frustrated too easily and handing him back to my wife too quickly. I vividly remember rocking him in a glider that had caused quite a fight between my wife and me before he was born, as I didn’t feel we had the room in the nursery (or our budget) for anything else.

 

So naturally we bought it.

 

There I sat, night after night, counting the minutes and trying to get him down as quickly as possible so I could sneak out and do something else — anything else — other than be with this temperamental baby. The cherry on top of all of that frustration — that entire mountain of resentment — was dealing with a kid who wouldn’t sleep while being confined to that penalty box of a chair I didn’t even want in the first place!


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FATHER PRESENCE

- Tuesday, March 15, 2022

FATHER PRESENCE


Research shows that a loving and nurturing father improves outcomes for children, families, and communities. Fathers who live with their children are often more likely to have a close, enduring relationship with their children. Even if you do not reside in the same home as your children, you can still play an active role in their lives and form a close bond. Studies suggest that children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior, and avoid high-risk behaviors, including drug use, missing school, and criminal activity.

The following principles guide father involvement:

  • All fathers can be significant contributors to the well-being of their children.
  • Parents are partners in raising their children, even when they do not live in the same household.
  • The roles fathers play in families are diverse and related to cultural and community norms.
  • Men should receive the education and support necessary to prepare them for the responsibility of parenthood.

Here are some tips and promising practices for staying present in your child’s life.

TIPS & BEST PRACTICES

  • Making a Visitation Schedule Work for Your Family.  Are you divorced or separated? Do you only see your kids on weekends? This can be one of the most significant challenges you face as a father. Give your children and make them feel at home. If you have new living arrangements, provide them their own if possible.  
  • Stay involved, even from a distance. For various reasons, many dads do not see their children regularly. As a result, you may have to redefine your role and responsibilities as a father. Staying aware of your children’s needs and interests is an essential step in remaining connected. Dads who are incarcerated may have more incredible difficulty tracking their children’s development and activities but can find ways to stay involved.


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Black Fathers Find Real, Lasting Support on Facebook

- Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Black Fathers Find Real, Lasting Support on Facebook

93,000 dads on a private Facebook group find the
 support they’ve been seeking.

By Christian Dashiell for FATHERLY Jan 17 2022, 8:00 AM




 

In 2008, Matt Prestbury was tired of the uninvolved Black dad narrative. Similar to how the FUBU changed the hip-hop fashion landscape in the mid-90s by designing and selling clothes from within the community, Prestbury created a space for Black dads with content created by Black dads.

“When I got on Facebook, I figured that was the best opportunity for us to present positive images of black dads to the world so everybody can see who we truly are,” says Prestbury. “We would be able to represent ourselves. I felt like we had an opportunity there where we could show out using our own words and our own images, and all of that good stuff. We don’t need people to tell other people who we are.” 

With over 93,000 members, the Black Fathers group has grown into one of the largest groups of dads on Facebook. It’s a place where dads come to find community, brag about their kids, get support from each other, and get parenting advice. We caught up with Prestbury to talk about mental health, how this support group has opened up after going private, and how what’s happening online in the Black Fathers group is having a positive impact offline. 

What prompted you to start the Black Fathers Facebook group?

When I first started the group, I was still a relatively young father, and I had had two children with my first wife. When we separated, the children came with me, and she kind of went out of the picture. So I began to do things with other fathers because I really wanted to create a community. I invited other dads out to different events and started fatherhood groups at the public schools where I work.

More specifically, as far as black fathers are concerned, we had the reputation of being uninvolved in our kids’ lives, and I felt that people looked at those of us who were involved like we were unicorns. But you know that you’re not, you’re not an anomaly, you’re not the exception to the rule. You really are the rule. There were tons of us. We just didn’t have a space where that was being shown. 

Why did you transition from an open Facebook group that showcased Black fathers to a closed group where Black fathers interact exclusively with each other?

It was about five years ago. We had gotten a lot of publicity early, and tons of people wanted to join. And at that point, we would let everyone in to see what was going on because I wanted to showcase what traditional parenting media wasn’t showing. And I wanted to show the world.

But at some juncture, it became problematic because I couldn’t just keep telling people who weren’t Black fathers that they could observe but not say anything, right? And there were many times when that philosophy would be questioned, and we would get stuck in back-and-forth arguments. So, it just became a thing where it was just more problematic than it was worth. So went the route of making it a private group.

How have the discussions happening in Black Fathers changed since then it became a Black dads group exclusively?

Well, since becoming a closed group just for Black fathers, we’ve seen tons and tons more transparency, vulnerability, and discussions about things that people weren’t opening up about before. Guys are way more comfortable because they feel like everybody in there in some sort of way can relate. We might not all go through the exact same thing, but I can still relate man-to-man and have compassion and empathy.

How do you keep the environment of the group positive?

For the most part, there’s an understanding that we’re here to uplift each other. Like, the world beats us up enough. You go outside, and you get it out there. Sometimes you come in, and you get it from your spouse. So, you don’t need to come in here and get beat up. We really pushed that and created a whole culture where people truly buy in. 

Today, we had a situation where some guy was just totally out of hand, and I said something to him. And you know, he just said, “Yeah, that’s my bad. I didn’t mean for it to go like that when I said it.” Even though he was really being a prick, just the fact that he owned his stuff and apologized and worked to make amends was significant. 

What do you think the value of the space has been every time the killing of an unarmed black man breaks into the broader public discussion? 

We aren’t like a complete monolith. But being all black men, we really understand what it is. It’s sad, and it sounds sickening when I say it, but it’s our daily reality. We understand it. So, for the most part, it’s a place for us to come together and confirm or reconfirm what we already know. But it’s also interesting to get different perspectives as well. There are times where some people see the future as hopeless, and other people hold onto hope. People just look at things differently. 

What are some of the other specific challenges the group has been effective at addressing?

The family court system can be a challenge for many guys in the group. Navigating custody, visitation, and child support are struggles a lot of guys have. And mental health is a huge one that I focus on. There are so many stressors. Just navigating this society as a Black man, dealing with unemployment and all the anxiety around COVID. We have our kids who are not in school for these long periods. And then when they go to school, we’re worried they’re going to get COVID. So all those stressors play a huge part in our mental well-being. 

Mental health is especially a challenge for Black men. We don’t talk about our struggles. We don’t do therapy. It’s scary because suicide attempts by black men are on the rise. There are so many people in the group who are dealing with depression, some even to the point of suicidal ideations. Changing that trend is very important to us as black men and our children. 

Have you seen more acceptance therapy and other mental health interventions because of the conversations in the group?

Oh, absolutely. You can see things are changing in terms of what we promote to one another. So when you see someone share their struggles, you have people in their group who put their phone numbers up so they can talk. And guys are always encouraging therapy. So it’s been a change. We’re getting to the point where people can be fully open. So if anybody asks if someone is struggling with a specific issue, people will willingly open up and say, “Yeah, I deal with that, too. And this is what helps me.” 

So it’s been extremely helpful. I deal with depression and anxiety, and I have absolutely no problem saying that to anybody in the group and letting them know because I know that I can feel comfortable doing it. I’m not going to get backlash or negative judgment or anything like that when I open up.

Now that you’ve developed a healthy culture in the group, do you have plans to leverage that energy?

We have the Black Fathers & Co. group, which I started after I made Black Fathers private. I still wanted that opportunity for women to be connected to what we were doing and I still wanted to show the world examples of involved Black dads. So that’s a public group that anybody can join, with the idea that it’s still a celebration of the Black fathers. 

We also started the Black Fathers Foundation to help resource dads. We’re going to be starting a scholarship in Baltimore City for a young man who’s already a father but still in high school, with the aim of supporting someone who is going to attend an HBCU.

What inspired you to structure the scholarship that way?

I wanted to have a keen focus on younger fathers. We want to take a holistic approach and not just drop money into somebody’s student account or whatever. I’ve seen a lot of very young and first-time fathers joining the group because they know that this is a place where they can come to get advice.


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7 Small Tactics to Help Improve Your Self-Discipline

Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition - Saturday, January 15, 2022

7 Small Tactics to Help Improve Your Self-Discipline

Trying to stick to a new goal? Adopt a new habit? This is the advice worth remembering.

By Steve Calechman from Fatherly

 

Jan 05 2022, 4:10 PM

 

 

The thought of achieving more self-discipline is always appealing. Who among us doesn’t want to be less bound to their temptations, to learn that new instrument or bang out that dream project? Putting things into in motion, however, gets a little thornier because that requires change and change often puts you on the path of most resistance, which is an easy deterrent. 

“Doing things the old way is easy, comfortable, and familiar,” says Jill A. Stoddard, licensed psychologist in San Diego, California and author of Be Mighty


That’s the first problem along the path of self-discipline. The second is the feeling of not measuring up since everyone else always seems like they have it together. But that’s the destructive myth, one that makes us believe that “the most disciplined people are always disciplined 24/7,” says Trevor Cote, a licensed clinical sports psychologist in Boston. “The truth falls in between.”

Self-discipline is hard and it does mean grinding some days out. It doesn’t, however, mean grinding out every day. While there are things that can help with sticking to whatever routine or habit you’re chasing, nothing will be effective if your initial target is off. So, before you buy or plan anything to help, you must decide what goal really matters to you. Then, it’s about making small changes to focus on that goal.

So what to do? Here, with help from Stoddard, Cote, and acclaimed author Harlan Coben, is how to improve your self-discipline.

1. Figure Out What Really Matters

Writing a book or cooking more might sound good, but if you’re doing anything for someone else or because it’s what you think you should do, you’ll start out strong and “hit a wall” in about a month,” Cote says. “The sustainability is not there.”

Whatever goal you set needs to tie into your values. It doesn’t mean it will be all-the-time fun, but it has to deeply resonate and be more than another item on a must-do list. 

“When you reframe it as a choice that matters to you, it can be easier to choose to be disciplined,” Stoddard says.

2. Study Your Environment

If you want to be in Tom Brady-like shape, you can certainly take inspiration from him and see the things you share. But people get tripped up when they don’t see the differences. Brady, for instance,  has coaches, chefs, equipment, and a life that supports all-out focus, something that you probably don’t, Cote notes.

You also have to weigh the consequences of devotion, because, “There’s always a cost,” Cotes adds. It could be money, physical or emotional pain, or time away from your family. Maybe you decide it’s not worth it, but it might mean reshaping what you do in order to be doable. That focus is key.

3. Give Yourself Reminders 

There’s always a YouTube clip that you find yourself drawn to. But, “Most distractions are self-created,” says Harlan Coben, acclaimed author of Win and 34 other books. What helps Coben is to remember that his life works best when there’s balance in all realms: relationships, exercise, sports, and work. “If I’m not writing at all,” says Coben. “I’m not in balance.” 

But it’s also like the gym, he says, where he knows that once he starts, it feels good and once it’s done, he always feels better. For him, there’s no fixed solution of: Do this and discipline will follow. “Most of it is reminders to myself of why I do what I do,” Coben says.

4. Chop It Down

You don’t always have the same energy, so you wait for it to come, and you end up waiting. “In reality, it’s often action that triggers motivation,” Stoddard says. When starting is hard, break up your routine into small steps. Write one paragraph or bike one hill. “There’s this feedback loop of seeing yourself do something,” Cote says. The result is, “That felt pretty good,” and you most likely have jumpstarted yourself to keep going. 

But there’s also a redefining element of what staying disciplined means. Maybe you realize you only have 40 percent energy. Rather than taking it easy or taking the day off, you shift your mindset and do the most you can. 

Says Cote, “Empty the tank for whatever you have.”

5. Create Visual Markers

Your eyes prime you for a challenge. Put a picture, an inspiring quote, a word, where it will be seen regularly. This isn’t about guilt, but as a reminder that, “This is what I want to do.” It alone won’t be the motivation, but it works in concert with all the other elements. “It’s a form of self-talk, but it’s external,” Cote says.

6. Bring Someone Else On Board

This is the literal or figurative workout buddy. But bringing someone on board is more than upping your accountability. It’s having another person there to share bits of your life with and building a connection. Time also moves quicker and is more enjoyable when you’re talking with another person rather than being alone with your runaway thoughts. “You’re outside yourself,” Cote says.

 

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The Fatherly Guide To: Teaching Kids Healthy Financial Habits

Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition - Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Fatherly  Guide To: Teaching Kids Healthy Financial Habits

 

WHY FINANCIAL LITERACY MATTERS

 

Every parent’s dream is for their child to grow into a healthy, happy adult. As it turns out, an essential part of achieving outcomes is teaching them how to have a positive relationship with money—living within their means, saving a portion of what they make, and investing prudently.

 

Talking to Your Kids About Money

Money management is one of the most basic life skills that a child can learn, but kids are too often left feeling their way in the dark. In part, that’s because financial education is a subject that many schools gloss over or skip altogether.

Only nine states require at least one semester of financial education coursework at the high school level, according to the nonprofit Next Gen Personal Finance. So it’s not surprising that 76 percent of Gen Z respondents to a 2019 study said they wished their school would have offered a fin-ed class.

That puts an even bigger onus on parents to help kids learn the basics like the importance of creating a budget and borrowing responsibly. “I ask parents to think about all the money lessons they wish someone would have taught them when they were younger,” says financial education instructor Monica Eaton. “Chances are, their kids will not get those lessons in school.”

That leaves kids to be taught at home, but unfortunately, lots of parents don’t know how to start the conversation. A recent survey found that 41 percent of parents expressed a reluctance to discuss financial matters with their children. That curtain of silence only makes it harder for kids to develop the financial skills they’ll need once they go off to college or join the workforce.

Rather than skirting the issue, experts say parents can use ordinary experiences—a trip to the mall or the bank, for example—as opportunities to talk about concepts like saving and spending. As with other aspects of life, kids will pick up on what they see their parents doing, too. Explaining the decisions you’re making to secure your financial future, whether it’s budgeting or building an emergency fund, can have a lasting impact.

“When they see mom and dad having more success in their finances, they’ll learn through osmosis,” says Samir Ahmed, a lead planner with the virtual advisory Facet Wealth.

“If you don’t teach kids at a young age, you can’t expect them to grow up to be financially responsible.”

Neale Godfrey, founder of Children’s Financial Network

Separating Needs and Wants

As parents learn early on, kids have a tendency to think they need every item that catches their eye, whether it’s a giant playset or a lunch box advertising their favorite cartoon. But if you want your kids to avoid dangerous spending habits later in life, you have to teach them that they can’t have it all. As the 47 percent of Americans with credit card debt can attest, learning that lesson is easier said than done.

Eaton says that performing simple, hands-on activities when your kids are still young can help them learn the critical distinction between needs and wants.

“Explain that money pays for both needs and wants,” Eaton, the author of the children’s financial literacy book Money Plan says. “Because money is a limited resource, needs come first.”

Teaching Needs and Wants


Start with the Basics

Collect a variety of different items from around your home, from articles of clothing and toys to personal items. Have your child call out whether each item is a must-have or a wanna-have.

 

Have a Deeper Conversation

Ask your child whether food is a need or a want. Then ask them which category a particular fast food restaurant would fit into. Soon, you’re having a conversation about what’s an actual necessity and what’s a luxury, a distinction that’s key to healthy spending habits.

 

Put It into Practice

Make it clear that you will pay for things your child needs (e.g. clothing) but not everything they want (e.g. designer jeans). If your kids want to spend their money on wants, Godfrey says, “It’s perfectly okay for them to earn the money to buy that themselves.”

 

Learning the Value of a Dollar

When kids still cling to the fantasy that mom and dad have a limitless supply of cash, the concept of saying no to a purchase is utterly foreign. If your last name is Bezos, that’s probably not a big deal. For everybody else, teaching children the finite nature of money can help prepare them for adulthood—and potentially save you from a lot of nagging in the short run.

One of the best financial lessons you can give your child is a sense of how much things cost, both in terms of the price tag and how much work goes into acquiring those dollars. Again, Eaton recommends turning it into a game to get kids interested. Take them along with you to a grocery store and give them a list of different items to purchase, but make sure they stick to a budget of around $10. Pretty soon they’ll be paying more attention to the cost of various items and prioritizing what ends up in your cart.

As your kids get a little older, you can expand that exercise into other purchasing decisions, nudging them to become informed consumers. Whether you compensate them for chores or hand out a weekly allowance, the key is to make your son or daughter pay for “want” items using their own supply of funds.

By having to work within those guardrails, kids are learning what it means to have a budget and determine how much they truly value different items or experiences. When kids know that a new video game will drain their account, for example, they may end up deciding to stick with what they have or buy a less expensive, used version. “They have to figure out if it’s worth it or not,” says Godfrey.

Illuminating the Importance of Saving

The sudden Covid-induced recession last year was a reminder of how precarious the financial health of many adults truly is. According to a Federal Reserve study conducted last November, 45 percent of laid-off workers were unable to pay their monthly bills or wouldn’t have been able to if faced with an unexpected $400 expense. In other words, the crisis exposed just how serious America’s savings problem really is.

So how do you get kids to understand the concept of delayed gratification—to put aside some of what they make now so they’re able to handle future needs? Eaton’s preferred method is to create a savings goal with your child and keep them focused on it. Have them select a product or experience they’d really like and help them research how much it costs. You can even create a “goal poster” with a picture of the item, its price, and an indication of how much progress your kid has made toward purchasing it.

“Talk about ways your child can earn money by completing chores around the house,” suggests Eaton. “Each ‘payday’ lets your child choose the amount of money they would like to put towards the purchase of their goal item.”

Godfrey recommends a slightly different approach: automating their savings so a portion of everything they earn is untouchable in the short-term. It could be as simple as creating different jars for spending and savings, although separating funds is considerably easier if you’re paying your kids through a family-friendly app like Greenlight, a debit card for kids and teens that can also be a valuable teaching tool for parents.

For instance, Greenlight users can transfer a fixed percentage of the child’s allowance to their “Spend Anywhere” balance and another portion to their “General Savings.” Parents can even divert part of their payment to the “Give” category, teaching them to set aside a portion of their income for their favorite charity.

 

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What Is Your Purpose as a Father?

Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition - Tuesday, January 11, 2022

What Is Your Purpose as a Father?

New studies suggest that having a sense of purpose makes dads healthier, happier, and stronger in the face of challenges we're all facing.

BY JEREMY ADAM SMITH from the Greater Good | JUNE 18, 2020

 

Sooner or later, our kids will make us suffer. When they’re babies, their crying keeps us up at night. Later, their teenage shenanigans might rob us of more sleep. Some of us stay at jobs we hate so that our kids will never have to wonder where their next meal will come from. We can battle with our co-parents over issues like housework and discipline, testing love we might have once thought would last forever.

These stresses and sacrifices can be painful, but studies are finding one thing that can help us to weather them: a sense of purpose. That is to say, our long-term, meaningful goals as fathers.


A sense of purpose shapes day-to-day goals and behavior. Seeing a destination on the horizon helps us to lift our eyes over the dirty dishes and temper tantrums, to a future that is better than the present. Purpose makes that pile of dishes matter. It reminds us that we matter, if only to our kids. Purpose keeps us at home with them when we wish we were elsewhere.

While purposes can vary, recent studies suggest that just having one is good for you and your family. So, what does purpose look like in a father’s life? How can you find your purpose as a father? These are existential questions that every man must answer for himself. But research does provide some insights to help us understand ourselves better—and see the fathers we want to become.

The evolution of purpose

The chances are good that your purpose is different from the one held by your own father and grandfathers. Scholars say that fathers of previous generations saw their purpose as financially supporting their families and providing discipline to their children. Some saw themselves as leaders and role models for their families, especially when it came to religious instruction. Inherent in these missions is a sense of authority, which could sometimes become authoritarianism—“the enforcement of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom,” as the dictionary says.

As a group, today’s fathers see their role somewhat differently.

For more than a century, the number of women in the workforce has steadily increased. Today, there are roughly as many women as men working for pay—though men still tend to make considerably more money than their female coworkers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 

What does this have to do with purpose? As women made more money, men’s participation at home started climbing. Today’s dads are spending much more time with their children than did their fathers. Moreover, the United States has become increasingly diverse. Immigrants have brought new conceptions of fatherhood to America. Fathers of color face challenges that are shaping their sense of purpose.

As a result of these developments, many fathers today add “nurturing” to their purpose, along with “providing.” In a discussion I hosted on my Facebook wall, a number of dads said their purpose was to be better than their fathers—and to raise kids who would be better than them. What they meant by this, more often than not, was to be physically and emotionally present in the lives of their children.

“I lost my dad a few months ago,” said Jason Avant, a dad in California. “Nowadays I find myself looking through the lens of my childhood, and I do my best to be everything he was, and everything he wasn’t.” San Francisco writer Andrew O. Dugas, one of those who defines his purpose as “to be a better father than mine was,” says: “My son turned out better than I did. Stronger. Tougher. Kinder. Smarter. Wiser.”

For many men, raising kids means that they need to make self-improvement and self-care part of their purpose. After the birth, “It was no longer acceptable for me to simply go through the motions,” said Blake Overbay, a sergeant with the Massachusetts Army National Guard. “I had to outwardly demonstrate that I was working to better myself. Like deliberate and exaggerated movements to warm-up before a workout.”

In fact, a new study links a strong sense of purpose to healthier behaviors. Boston College psychologist James R. Mahalik and his colleagues surveyed over 200 men (“mostly white, employed, heterosexual, and married”) about their sense of purpose and health behaviors like eating right or exercising, and then analyzed how those factors interacted.

“Our results suggest that when men who are fathers experience greater purpose, they lead healthier lives,” write the authors. “It would be logical to presume that they do so to promote outcomes such as improving their health to make a difference in their children’s lives.”

This finding adds to a rising number of studies that show that more purposeful people are happier, have better health and cognitive functioning, and live longer.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that purpose might lengthen life—and that the purpose that comes with fatherhood might drive healthier behaviors that could be taken up by our kids. After all, evolution involves passing on our genes. Our offspring have a better chance of growing old enough to have their own children if we stick by their side to make sure they stay healthy and strong. A sense of purpose is a tool evolution put into the hands of fathers, to remind us to do that.

The strength of our purpose

In the Facebook discussion I hosted, many fathers mentioned how a sense of crisis—the pandemic, police brutality, and economic turmoil—is affecting or clarifying their sense of purpose.

Shawn Taylor and his daughter.

For Berkeley, California, writer Shawn Taylor and his daughter, “My primary purpose is to prepare her for the racist and sexist bullshit she’ll encounter, without robbing her of her sense of wonder and joy.”

As the author Ta-Nehisi Coates once told me, in an interview for my book, The Daddy Shift: “I just thought, it was the ultimate service to black people if I can be a great father. It was almost a nationalist, Afrocentric way of seeing it.” For San Francisco attorney David Pai, “watching younger generations rise up” has energized his sense of purpose:

Their inherent curiosity, empathy, and “general goodness” makes me believe that, while I may not see it in my lifetime, I can certainly help lay the foundation for my daughter’s generation to build a more sustainable and equitable world. So that means being very intentional and self-aware in my thoughts and actions (avoiding cynicism is my challenge), not just around her, but touching upon nearly everything I do. Or, in a nutshell, trying hard not to pass on negativity, even in the end times.

A sense of crisis hasn’t fundamentally changed the paternal purpose of Scott Behson, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide. However, the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements have led him to redouble his efforts “to make sure that he is a good man to women and a good ally to people of color.”

COVID-19 has powerfully affected how writer and Dads4Change founder Whit Honea sees his purpose. The global pandemic has provided “many more examples of right, wrong, empathy, kindness, ignorance, sacrifice, and all the isms. The lesson plan changes by the headline.” Right now, he said:

History isn’t only being told, but fought, lived, and written. It has made my boys realize that their previous, comfortable view of the world was framed in window treatments and could benefit from a brick or two. Granted, these are the lessons my wife and I have been teaching our boys all along, but the reality of the moment is that they are now paying more attention. They are finding their voice and amplifying others. Their masks can’t muffle the message and they don’t hide anything. We’ll yell again tomorrow.

John Anner has three grown daughters—and he has found that raising them has changed his sense of purpose in life. Today, he is the business development director for a nonprofit called Women for Women International.

I long ago landed on my two central values—generosity, and care for women. So, my purpose, as I age, is to focus intently on those two things, building off the things my daughters have taught me. Women in general, and Black women in particular, have labored for too long for no recognition and no pay. The world is built on their uncompensated and unacknowledged labor. So now is a great time for old white guys like me to do the work—for free—and make sure women get paid.


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The Daddy Brain

Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition - Wednesday, January 05, 2022

The Daddy Brain

Moms aren't the only ones whose bodies change after having a baby. Jeremy Adam Smith reveals the new science of fatherhood.

BY JEREMY ADAM SMITH for Greater Good Magazine | JUNE 1, 2009 

Gopal Dayaneni is a stay-at-home father in Oakland, California. He still recalls the first time he gave a bottle to his six-week-old daughter, Ila. “I sat down with her in a rocking chair,” he says. “She totally took the bottle, right up against my body, comfortable and warm. She looked up at me and I was so taken with her.”

This story has a punch line: “After that, she never took a bottle again,” says Gopal. “She screamed her head off every time I tried.”

As infants and toddlers, both of Gopal’s children cried when their mom, Martha, left for work as a teacher, cried when she came back, and talked about her all day in between. This made for some very difficult days.

The author and his son, Liko© Jackie Adams

“They just love their mother more,” says Gopal ruefully.

Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead would not have been surprised by Gopal’s situation. “Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents,” she once said. Far from an eccentric view, Mead distilled a scientific consensus that prevailed for centuries and persists (as a matter of opinion) to this day: Men are natural conquerors—Lotharios and breadwinners—while women are natural nurturers. As a result, men want sex, women want babies, and babies want their mothers. According to this view, involved fathers are, at best, a happy accident.

For this reason, to many people Gopal’s reverse-traditional family might appear “unnatural,” a word that my desk dictionary defines as “contrary to the physical laws of nature” and my thesaurus says is synonymous with “abnormal,” “aberrant,” and “perverted.” When the children of a caregiving dad like Gopal cry out for their mother, many people would hold this up as evidence on behalf of what some call “the traditional family”—meaning, a breadwinning father and caregiving mother.

But the new science of fatherhood has started to cast Gopal’s dilemma in a new light. In researching my new book, The Daddy Shift, I read every word I could find in peer-reviewed scholarly journals about caregiving fathers, breadwinning moms, and the science of sexual difference. I also interviewed dozens of parents like Gopal and Martha.

Here’s what I discovered: Where once it was thought that the minds and bodies of men were hardly affected by fatherhood, today scientists are finding that fatherhood changes men down to the cellular level. For more than a century, it was assumed that mothers, not fathers, were solely responsible for the care, life chances, and happiness of children. In recent years, however, research has revealed that father involvement is essential to a child’s well being, and that dads provide unique kinds of care and play that mothers often do not.

As a result, scientists and parents alike are developing a radical new conception of fatherhood, one whose role is not limited to contributing sperm and making money. This should be a comfort to us all during a time of economic catastrophe, when 80 percent of people being laid off are men and tens of thousands of fathers are being thrown into new roles at home. Women have been supporting families for decades, taking on breadwinning roles that were once considered impossible. And after 30 years of research and growing male participation at home, we are now also beginning to understand that fathers can also take on roles as caregivers.

Brains of our fathers

In the past, says University of Oregon sociologist Scott Coltrane, researchers looked only at whether the father was present and married to the mother. They did not study how fathers interacted with their children or what impact fathers had on children’s development; no one studied how fatherhood might change a man’s brain and body.

But, says Coltrane, “in the late seventies researchers started saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t we measure what the fathers are actually doing? How do they parent?’”

In the decades since then, researchers have made a staggering number of discoveries about how critical father involvement is to child development, and how it can be cultivated. University of California, Riverside, psychologist Ross Parke is one of the pioneers of fatherhood studies. He and his colleagues developed a “systems view” that attempts to describe all the factors that influence a father’s involvement with his children:

  • His relationships with his own parents (did he have an involved father?) and in-laws (are they supportive of him?);
  • The mother’s attitude (does she welcome his participation?);
  • Timing of entry into the parental role (what pressures is he facing, especially at work?); and
  • Informal support systems such as playgroups and friendships (do other parents put social pressure on him to be involved, through example or comments?).

But biological and psychological research reveals another critical factor: getting involved early in the child’s life. Studies by biologist Katherine Wynne-Edwards and others show that pregnancy, childbirth, and fatherhood trigger a range of little hormonal shifts in the male body—but only if the father is in contact with the baby and the baby’s mother. When a child is born, Wynne-Edwards found, testosterone levels drop dramatically in men. Men also gain prolactin and oxytocin, hormones associated with lactation, as well as cortisol, the stress hormone that spikes in mothers after childbirth and helps them pay attention to the baby’s needs.

It’s not just hormones that change, but the very structure of the male brain. To understand the impact of fatherhood on the primate brain, a team of Princeton University researchers compared the brains of daddy marmoset monkeys to their child-free peers. Why marmosets? Because their males are the stay-at-home dads of the animal kingdom. It’s the male marmosets who carry babies 70 percent of the time, giving them to mothers only for nursing.

The researchers discovered that the marmoset fathers developed stronger neural connections in the prefrontal cortex, which is generally thicker in females’ brains. In 2008, the same group of researchers found that, among male mice, fatherhood generates new cells and connections in the hippocampus, the emotion-processing center of the brain that is also somewhat bigger in the average human female.

You can’t apply this directly to humans, of course: Marmosets are a different kind of primate, and mice have tails and whiskers. But the available evidence, plus common sense, suggests that early paternal involvement will lead to involvement throughout the child’s life. It seems that babies and fathers imprint on each other, biologically and emotionally, just as babies do with moms.

Why dads matter

But does father involvement matter to children? Once, researchers (and most people) would have said no. In the 1970s and ‘80s, however, psychologists discovered that fathers universally provide forms of play and stimulation that mothers do not do as much of, such as unpredictable, emotionally arousing, non-toy-mediated physical play, which is essential to a child’s development.

Today, evidence is mounting that father involvement makes a big difference for kids: A 2007 study tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 in the United Kingdom, found emotional and behavioral problems were “more common by the time youngsters reached the age of three if their fathers had not taken time off work when they were born, or had not used flexible work schedules to have a more positive role in their upbringing.” In a recent series of studies of Latino families, Ross Parke and his colleagues found that father involvement leads to lifelong educational attainment and better social adjustment for adolescents.

Full-time, caregiving dads like Gopal are still too new a social phenomenon for social scientists to have studied their long-term impact on children, but some preliminary research exists. Numerous studies have found no significant developmental difference between children raised by single moms and those raised by single dads. This doesn’t mean that moms and dads are interchangeable; behavioral differences emerge as the domestic division of labor changes. For example, when child psychologist Robert Frank and colleagues directly compared traditional to reverse-traditional households in order to understand parent-child bonds, they found that domestic tasks and child care were more fairly distributed when the at-home parent was a male.

“The child of an at-home-dad family has both a strong father influence and a strong mother influence,” said Frank in a 2005 presentation to a meeting of the American Psychological Association. “Both parents play an important role in the child’s development. This is in contrast to the at-home-mother family, in which a child has a strong mother influence but little influence from the father.”

Closing the gap

Many of the parents I interviewed for The Daddy Shift, which is about the changing roles of mothers and fathers, would not be surprised by that conclusion.

“Family is more important to a woman than to a man,” says Gina Heise, a breadwinning mom in Kansas City, Missouri. “There’s more of a connection. Maybe it’s because of the fact that women carry a baby for nine months, and so they’re already into the deal as soon as the baby appears.”

Her husband Gus, a stay-at-home dad, agrees: “I think a guy wouldn’t necessarily feel the pull to have to get home from the office. Whereas she’s like, ‘It’s five o’clock. I gotta get home to my kids.’ “

This might sound like stereotypical thinking, but consider: Differences in the brains and minds of men and women might be small (an authoritative 2008 study found that sex accounts for no more than 1 to 5 percent of the variation between the brains of men and women), but as groups, we still play very different roles in reproduction, separate and unequal. Men don’t bear children and they don’t breastfeed. As Gopal Dayaneni discovered, we can’t argue with these facts. Those experiences are unique to females who become biological mothers. Men and women’s respective roles in reproduction can create an enormous gap between fathers and mothers, not to mention fathers and children—but, research suggests, only if the gap is permitted to grow.

To Gina, who embraces her breadwinning role, the persistence of the gap is an argument in favor of stay-at-home fatherhood. “The world would be a better place if more fathers stayed home and took care of their children,” she says. “I think they would have better relationships with their children. I think they would be more respectful toward mothers. There’s just more partnership when a man stays home.”

For the foreseeable future, most men will not become stay-at-home dads—stay-at-home moms outnumber the dads, 30 to one—but the experiences of Gina, Gus, and Gopal have implications that apply to all parents. So does the research. A father’s body changes (diminishing testosterone plus rising prolactin, oxytocin, and cortisol) only if he maintains a connection to the mother and newborn child. Feelings of attachment grow in environments that can either squash the attachment or allow it to flourish.

Aside from a strong argument in favor of paternity leave, findings like these suggest that Gina might have a point. The deep bond between mothers and children has been used to justify traditional gender roles, but that can be turned around: If biology does indeed create stronger attachment for biological mothers, it might make more sense for males to serve as caregivers (at least for a time) so that connections with their children can be reinforced. In this way, we are managing the environment to provide a counter-weight to the reproductive division of labor, and to maximize the entire family’s investment in a child’s welfare. Male caregiving is a solution embraced by cultures around the globe, from contemporary Sweden (where men take care of kids more than anywhere else in the developed world) to the Na people of southwestern China and the Aka pygmies of Central Africa.

Anthropologists argue about why cultures develop the way they do, even as we argue about the direction our culture should take. One thing is for certain: Biology might, in a sense, mark the frontiers of the country in which we must live, but we are not its prisoners. Within the ambit our bodies provide, we are confronted by a mazelike world of choices. “What magnifies small differences into major divisions of labor?” asks anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. “The simplest answer is that people do, by following the path of least resistance.”

As Hrdy describes, it is all too easy for the new father to tell himself that he does not want to intrude upon the special mother-child bond. And, truth be told, it is always easier for the exhausted mother to simply give a crying infant her breast instead of the father’s arms. Likewise, it’s easier for the father to bow to the power of the breast.


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About DFFC

The Delaware Fatherhood & Family Coalition is an extension of the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program and the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative created specifically to give a voice to fathers and the importance of their involvement for the well-being of their children.


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