Tag Archives: Father involvement

Can “we” be pregnant?

The lady on the radio was upset. Upset by the fact that young couples nowadays say ‘We are pregnant’. What kind of a language use is that, she exclaimed. Clearly they cannot both be pregnant!

The other day I met some friends who have a six-month-old son, a happy little chap who prefers night-time company and feeds, to sleeping. Both his mother and father showed signs of sleep-deprivation as they made an effort to be social rather than fall asleep on the sofa. Frankly, they looked like shit, both of them. It was pretty clear it was their child, their nights, their decisions, their problem.

I think if I asked the lady on the radio if she thinks it’s fair that both parents take turns to get up and take care of their fussing six-month-old at night, she’d say yes, of course! Why should the mother carry the whole burden while the father gets to sleep – maybe with earplugs?

Well, here is the thing. We either want fathers to become and stay involved in pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for the child – or we don’t. We can’t pick and choose the bits and pieces where we want their involvement and exclude them from others.

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But are services before and after childbirth equipped to meet fathers’ needs? In a recent editorial I wrote for Acta Paediatrica I list a number of studies that have shown how fathers feel excluded from prenatal and child health care. They feel invisible, in the way, a disturbing presence that has no apparent role of its own to hold in a system by and for women.

What many maternal and child health nurses seem to be unaware of is their own ambivalent attitudes. On the one hand think it’s good to see more fathers attend their services, whereas on the other they do not take any active steps to accommodate fathers’ needs and do not specifically encourage their participation.

If there really is a new generation, who believes ‘they are pregnant’ services should be ready to meet them as such. Professionals working in the system need to be able to bracket their own attitudes about gender power relations in parenting and serve the family they meet based on the family’s preferences.

In a recent interview our team made with a child she referred to Mommy Sally and Mommy Vera without a wince. There was nothing strange about that for her. We have only just started to explore all the possible versions families can constitute in our postmodern society. Luckily, kids are mostly fine. The only thing that counts for them is having several involved adults around them who are sensitive to their needs. I think ‘we are pregnant’ is an excellent start for that!

A tribute to fathers

Sunday the 1st of September was Father’s day in Australia. The children prepared breakfast and handed over their presents to their father. Melbourne is full of parks and beaches with a playground never too far. There were families everywhere, enjoying the nice weather, just sitting around or sporting. I paid special attention to all the fathers I saw out there with their children, including this father.

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I did that because engaged fathers are important for their children. The most media-hyped and cited article I have ever been part of was a review of longitudinal studies looking at the effects of father involvement (Sarkadi, Kristiansson, Oberklaid, and Bremberg 2008). We said that the father’s active and regular engagement with the child predicts a range of positive outcomes, such as cognitive and social development. We could also see that father engagement seemed to help where it was most needed: it reduced the frequency of behavioural problems in boys and psychological problems in teenage girls. For poor families father engagement was even more important in protecting children from negative outcomes.

I probably never will receive such intense reactions to anything I do research-wise. It might seem as a pretty straightforward statement that fathers are important for their children, but it seemed to rip up a lot of feelings. The Sun called up, the article produced debate in the Irish Times, lesbian and single mother interest groups were furious, and fathers’ interest groups felt they got a new best friend. We still get e-mails from desperate fathers who use the article to prove their importance in court cases.

But the truth is, we didn’t talk about any fathers. It was engaged fathers, biological or not, and not living arrangements per se, that were shown to be important in our review. Antisocial, “non-existent”, or absent fathers were not the focus of our work. What we showed was that engaged fathers have an impact in their own right.

This means that over and above the mother’s engagement, which in most research on fathers is taken as a given, fathers have something special to add. They play and do things differently with their children compared to mothers, which is a good thing. For example, fathers often require more independence and socially competent behaviour of the child, helping it develop necessary life skills.

So Dear Fathers! Even if mothers and child health nurses sometimes act as gatekeepers, even if you lack ready role models for your parenting, or feel you have too many responsibilities to juggle, please don’t forget that you are important. When you read to or play with your child, change diapers, get up at night to chase away a nightmare, take an interest in homework or future plans, kick a ball, sign up your child for camp, or take them along to a barbecue or a concert – you are making a difference.

Even if you are divorced, work away from home, or never quite established a contact with your child, you still shouldn’t give up. You might not know it, but your child is secretly longing for you. And as our friend and father researcher Richard Fletcher once put it: any day is as good a day to start engaging in your child!