It’s a common trope that women, because they are the ones getting pregnant, giving birth, and (when they do) breastfeeding our infants are developing a special, intimate bond with their children. It’s a common trope too that fathers, as a result but also due to many politico-historical factors as much as prejudicial ones still largely prevalent, are, in the Western world at least, treated as second class parents, with childcare and the rising of children mostly falling upon mothers. And after all (or so goes the sexist logic...), aren’t women knowing best or being better suited to care for a child, precisely because of that special, original bonding?
Of course, in our societies where childcare has been mostly defined from such gynocentric perspective, it’s only expected that motherhood and the dyad mothers/children have been well studied and researched. This, in turn, has led not only to policies and guidelines pertaining to everything regarding from ante-natal care, giving birth, and up to the raising of our kids being entirely geared towards women mostly, but, also, as collateral damage, to a complete neglect of our understanding of fatherhood, men as dads, and the impact of fathers upon children. And indeed: how many of us dads have felt excluded as a parent, from hospital wards treating us as mere ‘visitors’ to many delivery rooms excluding us, and from health visitors completely ignoring our presence to schools not bothering to involve us despite having our contact details?
Does it matter?
'...aren’t women knowing best or being better suited to care for a child, precisely because of that special, original bonding?'
Those following this blog will remember a post that we previously wrote about ‘Do Fathers Matter’, a book by Paul Raeburn and which outlined not only the crucial biological changes fathers-to-be go through throughout pregnancy and after birth, but also the massive impact involved dads make upon their children’s overall development. Dr Anna Machin, following in the same trail, also tackles the topic with the same perspective yet with a twist: whereas Paul Raeburn was solely focused on the science, especially in his comparing of human fathers as opposed to other species (keeping thus away from making any societal comment) Dr Machin dares to use such understanding to point at our overall failure when it comes to parental issues, and, so, our children’s well-being. As such, if ‘The Life of Dad’ details some compelling research, it’s also a very accessible read rightfully pressing (at long last!) where it hurts.
First, she clearly points out that it’s not only mothers-to-be who go through crucial hormonal and neurological changes while expecting a baby. As growing research has been showing, fathers-to-be do too, and theirs are no less meaningful and impactful, a reckoning which begs the question: given that we are among only 5% of mammals (and the only apes) where the males are actively involved with their offspring -as opposed to merely copulating and tailing off, then- wouldn’t it be foolish to ignore such evolutionary features and drive as we currently do?
'...if ‘The Life of Dad’ details some compelling research, it’s also a very accessible read rightfully pressing (at long last!) where it hurts'
To be clear, hers is not about socio-biology. The changes dads go through are surely different than that of mums’, but it doesn’t imply any sort of biological determinism (as is proven, for example, by the changes affecting gay dads as opposed to those in a heterosexual relationship). As is implied too, especially when detailing the different impacts that mothers make as opposed to fathers upon the social and emotional development of children, it’s pretty clear that our environment (read: our Western cultural expectations in terms of gender roles and what constitutes ‘a dad’ in the first place, and which are everything but universal -as she also points out by looking at a few other different cultures) have a great deal to answer to when accounting for such differences.
What this is about, is a move away from a mother-centred approach (too reductionist, too unhelpful, even, too sexist) and towards a holistic one that is, an approach considering both parents, since parenting is as much about interpersonal dynamics between children and mums/dads as it is about the interpersonal dynamics between fathers and mothers. What does that mean?
'parenting is as much about interpersonal dynamics between children and mums/dads as it is about the interpersonal dynamics between fathers and mothers'
Those of us who have/ had children will know full well: the stressful, tiring demands of raising a child can make or break a relationship, and it will all depends upon how partners used to interact prior to having their baby. As such, ante-natal classes involving dads and solely to prepare couples for giving birth surely are great, but they are grossly insufficient. What is also needed indeed are classes where fathers-to-be only can be prepared towards such life-changing roles, as much as classes where both parents are encouraged to better their relationships -if need be.
This, here, is not about basic marriage counselling to encourage a naïve ‘and they lived happily ever after’. This, here, is about reckoning the impact that stress can do to mothers and fathers alike (for let’s not forget that dads too can suffer post-partum depression, yet another issue vastly ignored by our gynocentric perspective…); how such stress can bounce off in between parents and seriously strain their relationships; and how, ultimately, this will affect not only how each will poorly interact with their child but, also, how such poor interaction will negatively affect said child’s overall development. As Dr Machin reminds us, the impact, for example, of constant increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) on a still developing brain can have very damaging and lasting repercussions indeed…
Now, being a book centred upon fatherhood and its crucial importance, the author (obviously) addresses, mainly, the impact that our cultural and political neglect of dads leads to. For example, if there is a great deal of talk about men supposedly not pulling their weight at home (from house chores to getting hand on with infants) Dr Machin dares pointing out at how such accusations are terribly unfair, given that men, no matter how much they want to get involved in domestic matters, are still being rubbished when demanding so (the appallingly shortness of paternity leaves on offer are a case in point). And yet…
'...ante-natal classes involving dads and solely to prepare couples for giving birth surely are great, but they are grossly insufficient'
And yet, it would be foolish to consider it irrelevant to women concerns and causes as well. Both hormonal synchrony and the attachment theory (which was first developed by John Bowlby) have not only been shown to happen between parents interacting with their child, but also between lovers. Here’s a crucial bonding, then, that our policy makers all the way down to health and social care staff on the frontline ought to seriously consider, for its impact upon how new parents will successfully manage raising a child or not, how even a mum will cope or not (how many cases of post-partum depression could be easily prevented?), and how healthily their child will develop or not can no longer be ignored.
In the end, then, indulging in lip service (as we lazily do) when it comes to 'the rise of fatherlessness', the prevalence and impact of ‘men deserts’, and/ or men supposedly not doing their part at home (at least not as much as women) and the terrible consequences this all have upon the children growing up in our society is no longer enough. It’s been about two-hundred years that men have been reduced to breadwinners and paycheques, and so have been excluded from the domestic sphere as a result. This has had consequences, that can still be felt nowadays. The question is: is it men’s fault?
At a time when men are fully accepting of the advances of feminism, fully embrace gender equality and equity, and have been increasingly rejecting the demands imposed upon them by so-called ‘traditional masculinity’ (reducing them to sole providers, while denying their caring nature in matters of parenting to the point of exclusion) isn’t it about high time that we start fully involving them in empowering them in their households, from engaging them during the pregnancy process to extending paternity leaves, and from celebrating their influence to reckoning with the impact that becoming a dad can be?
The science is there. It belongs to us to extricate ourselves from the 1950s. 'The Life of Dad' by Dr Anna Machin, then, is more than a relevant, uplifting, and compelling read. It's a great place to start in order to change attitudes. As she puts it:
'we are at a point of critical change in Western society when it comes to dads.... In one direction lies the promised land of the involved dad -equal parent, nurturer, investor, supporter- and in the other is the more familiar land of the traditional father, ready to put food on the table and instil discipline, but existing at a slight distance to his partner and children. Objectively, we know that for the child, the family and society, a return to our evolutionary roots with a model of involved fatherhood is the way to go, but what will decide which way we turn is in part down to the individual dad. If enough dads, and mums, demand change, then change will come.'
Amen to that!
Thanks for reading, and, if you are interested in fathers' rights, men's issues, parenting, feminism, and/ or matters pertaining to domestic abuse and parental alienation, then please don't forget to subscribe to this blog. Meanwhile, Dr Machin's book can be found here. Sapere aude!