The imbalance in how dads are heard

Transformative role of fatherhood (part 2): Tips for new fathers so they can be understood and supported in parenthood

A transformative shift was witnessed throughout the pandemic as work-life balances found a settled equilibrium. This included more fathers being actively involved in the home and happily this change, for many, has not reverted to what were previous social norms despite the scales having the potential to become unbalanced once again. The increased parental connection has encouraged many dads to change how they intend to parent from now on with a longing to spend more quality time with their children.

“Fathers have said the pandemic has given them an opportunity to play to their individual strengths and preferences,” says Séamus Sheedy, counsellor and vice-chairman of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, “and to work together much more as partners and take on some of the burdens of running the home. They have said that the pandemic has provided a much-needed jolt or what they often describe as an epiphany, and talk about how they used to have a clear distinction between work and home but now describe lockdown as being an absolute blessing in terms of spending time with their children and not having the same desire to get back to the way it was before.”

Despite these much-needed fluctuations in equalising parental roles, an imbalance has remained in how dads are heard, understood and supported in parenthood. While dads actively embrace this transformation to fatherhood and are more willing, post-pandemic, to open up and talk about its challenges, there is a need to overcome a multitude of obstacles, including economic, structural, psychological, and interpersonal barriers. Conquering a lack of information, actively supporting dads, and navigating the mixed messaging as to the importance of the dad’s role from conception, will give fathers a much-needed voice in understanding their lived experience as a primary caregiver.

Michelle Doherty runs a doula-based service called Mamogs in Sligo. From the beginning of the pandemic, she recognised the need to support dads with as much information as possible as they entered fatherhood. “Dads are often pushed to the side and don’t feel it’s their place to ask questions,” says Doherty. “They themselves often assume their partner knows it all and don’t need them. They may feel it will be grand and better not to worry because parenting is natural.”

Acknowledging this gap in information, Doherty began a dad-to-be Masterclass, which dads have said has been a game-changer for them. “I also saw the need for regular support and wanted men to talk to each other and share experiences,” she says. “I set up a free monthly dad and dad-to-be meet on Zoom. This takes place on the first Saturday of each month from 10am to 11am. It is a safe space for dads, regardless of their journey into fatherhood, to ask questions, share experiences, and give tips knowing it stays in that space. From this, one of the regular dads said he’d love to do more. We have set up a dad and doula chat where we do a weekly short video on a topic and chat about this from a dad’s perspective, such as preparing for labour, birth, bonding, etc.”

Pandemic birthing restrictions were underlined by fearful, anxious, and worried dads who were told to wait in their car while their partner laboured and was isolated from maternity appointments. Harrowing accounts from women who needed their partner, their ultimate advocate, came out of the wards. Fathers were reduced to being secondary and in many cases, their transformation to fatherhood was marred by a distinct lack of professional support and recognition due to the implications of father exclusion. While this became dominant during the pandemic, the barrier of feeling less than or side-lined existed long before and remains a significant block which we must not allow to go unchallenged.

“We need to hear more from dads,” says Dave Saunders, chief executive of From Lads to Dads, an organisation that supports fathers in building their role as dads and having a positive, influential, and active role in the lives of their children. “We need to hear about what fatherhood means to them, the ups and downs of parenthood, and the lack of support. We also need to hear more dads being championed and promoting the role of dad. We hear all the time about the tiny percentage of dads who are not in their children’s lives or dads who are separated, but hardly ever from dads about being a dad. It is frustrating and if we want dads to step into the best gift life has to offer that is parenthood, with confidence and self-belief we need to provide the services to support them. As the role of dad has changed so much, it is about time the services were in line with this. Modern dads what to be involved in their children’s lives, to be hands-on, and role models and they need help and guidance with this.”

While many re-evaluated the value of fatherhood which in turn has altered how society views dads, better supports are needed to prepare new dads for fatherhood and additionally to support their partners.

“I would love to see a parental balanced perinatal programme that supports both parents 50/50,” says Saunders. “I would love to see a major awareness campaign around birth trauma and PND in dads and services to support them, and a complete overhaul of the maternity system to support dads, including the literature and information, so it is dad-friendly. Better leave entitlements for dads for scans and after the baby is born is important to build a complete wraparound support system for dads from the time they find out they are to become parents until a baby is at least two years of age.”

Saunders, who is also a father, has advocated for greater recognition and involvement of dads while supporting the many new dads who find their way to him. From Lads to Dads is a confidential, non-judgemental, community-based support network for dads where honest discussions about the challenges and wins of fatherhood help dads feel supported, heard, and grow in confidence.

“Currently, so many local and community programmes are asking where dad is and why he is not engaging, and that is a great start, but it needs to come from the top down,” says Saunders. “Dad needs to feel included in the pregnancy from day one as opposed to being a backup parent. Both parents play such an important role in child-rearing, and it is about recognising the differences and how beneficial they are to babies’ development. At the moment, it is very one-sided.”

Tips for new dads

  1. Managing expectations and feelings surrounding impending parenthood is important. Talk to your partner or other dads about what you expect fatherhood to be like and what kind of dad you expect or want to be;
  2. Pregnancy can be a difficult and stressful time for you and your partner. While you will support and help your partner, remember to focus on your own needs too including your mental wellbeing;
  3. Talk with other dads to find out how you can prepare for the birth and afterwards during those first initial months of fatherhood. Take the opportunity to talk about any worries, fears, or nervous excitement, and inform yourself as much as possible;
  4. Recognise that parenthood will come with highs and lows. Make sure to communicate how you’re feeling to your partner, close friend, or GP as necessary.

Read: Transformative role of fatherhood

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family