The Evolution of the Father

March 30, 2015 By Stephen Davies Comments

Join Stephen Davies, an Amsterdam Papa as well as a practicing psychologist, as he explores the evolution of a father's family role and the psychological needs that go along with fatherhood.

The last 30 years has seen a dramatic evolution in the role of fathers across the world. Reflect, if you will, on your own childhood. If, like me, you are in your mid thirties (and quickly approaching your forties!!) then memories of your upbringing may be largely dominated by the vision of your mother, taking care of you, organizing your daily needs, and getting you to where you needed to be on time. Your father was no doubt an important figure, the main breadwinner for the family and the one offering the final ‘deciding’ word regarding family decisions, but he left the house before you went to school and came home to eat an evening meal with the family before perhaps carrying on with his work or settling into a chair to watch the television.

The father of the 21st century has been gifted a new opportunity. Never before has there been so much encouragement for fathers to get involved in the upbringing of their children. It is becoming increasingly common to see fathers in school grounds, playgrounds or pushing buggies through the streets, on their own or with another child or children in pursuit. The fatherhood evolution has been further stimulated by the increase in women choosing to continue their own careers after starting a family. Households where both partners work part-time and share the responsibility for raising the children are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

So, times have changed, and I would argue that these changes are not only important but also necessary, and not just for each individual father, but also for their partners and for the children! However, this evolution of the father may be coming at a price that up until the last couple of years has received little consideration.

The Shift in Balance Between Parents

Before I continue, I think it is important to note that I don’t consider women to be born with an innate knowledge of how to raise children, any more than men are born with an innate knowledge of how to fix a car. Raising kids is both time-consuming and energy sapping. Biology determines that in the human species the female is the only one capable of conceiving, carrying and giving birth to the next generation. I have witnessed my own partner carrying and giving birth to our two children and I can state with certainty that I would not want to swap roles! I believe, however, that the balance in the roles fulfilled by both parents has started to shift.

Stereotypical representations and ideas passed through the ages of women being the caregivers and men the providers still crop up in modern media and subtly convince us that this is the way it should be, and even now if men are put in the role of primary caregiver on television programs or in films it is often with hilarious consequences. But is this correct?

I first became more aware of the fatherhood evolution in 2008 while my partner and I were expecting our oldest son. I was three months into my second stint of full-time university education when she informed me that our relationship had just been taken to a new level. It occurred to me very quickly that, having just started my study, I would be the one staying at home with our child while my partner continued working and bringing in the money. However, during visits to the midwife for scans and checks on my partners and the baby’s development I became increasingly aware that the majority of information regarding parental wellbeing was being directed to my partner. Even during the prenatal classes we followed together there was more emphasis on the biological aspects of pregnancy and less on what we were required to do when the baby was there, with the sessions covering baby care being largely devoted to feeding.

The Psychological Impact of Fatherhood

Being a psychology student, I started to consider the psychological implications of becoming a parent. It is well known that women can suffer terribly after going through pregnancy and childbirth, with estimates indicating that up to a third of new mothers can suffer from a period of depression around this period. However, I considered these implications from the perspective of a new father, who may find himself in a similar situation to which I was about to find myself, and as luck (or fate) had it I was required to choose a topic for my thesis at that very time.

Bear in mind that seven years ago the idea of postnatal depression affecting fathers was even more unheard-of than it is today (although the number of articles and support available in certain countries is now growing steadily) and I was able to find fewer than 20 studies that had been carried out in different parts of the world and using different techniques to test the phenomenon. The most important studies I found did not only highlight the possibility of new fathers being affected by this illness (an estimated 1 in 5 fathers could be affected), but also considered the impact that it could have on the family surrounding them. My own thesis conclusions indicated that depression experienced by either partner during the prenatal and postpartum period increased the likelihood of the other partner developing similar issues, yet even today screening of the father’s mental health during pregnancy and after birth is not common practice, even though it could have a negative effect on the relationship, the mental health of the partner and the development of the child!

Essentially this is what I envision as a possible price of the father’s evolution, because although momentum is firmly behind our increasing involvement in childcare, the necessary awareness of the issues that can develop and support for these issues are lagging well behind.

Improving Support for the Modern Father

So why hasn’t paternal postpartum depression (PPPD) been noticed earlier? There will certainly be multiple factors that play a role, but one of the largest is likely to be the difference in how symptoms of depression are displayed by men and women. Whereas on average women are more likely to be outwardly emotional and communicate their unhappiness with friends and family, men are more likely to contain their feelings or simply block them out with alcohol or other substances. They may also avoid spending time with the family by taking on more hours at work. If we go back 30 years it is possible that our fathers and their friends were also at risk of depression in the postpartum period but because they were less visible it was perhaps easier for them to get over their symptoms. The more fathers increase their role in the family, however, the less opportunity they will be getting to avoid their feelings, and the higher the likelihood is that they may have to start confronting their emotions.

And what can we do about it? Well, the first step is to create more awareness, which is primarily what this article is about. Parenthood can be a great experience but is also a major life event that can affect individuals in a way that they never considered, or choose to ignore. The second step is to try and break the stigma associated with PPND, for both parents involved, and the third step, which I believe is especially important for the expat community, is to facilitate more available support for the new fathers of the community, both from a social as well as a psychological perspective.

Stephen Davies is originally from the UK and has been living in the Netherlands since the summer of 2000. He is married to a German national and they have two sons aged 6 and 3 years. In 2014 he started his own psychology practise, Inter-Active Therapy, and launched the Amsterdam Papas social events in summer of the same year and looks forward to increasing the size of this group in 2015.

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