Don’t Forget the Father

Most people think of the mother and not the father when asked about the attachment between a parent and a newborn. Attachment, however, also occurs with the father and with other non-parental caregivers whom the new infant relies on for safety and security. A father’s involvement is extremely variable. It ranges from little parental care to that of a sole or co-caregiver. To view a father as biologically and genetically engineered to provide mostly economic support is outdated. Mothers and fathers often share in home and economic responsibilities. The old model of a mother staying at home with the children and the father working is being replaced by two working parents. In addition, up to 40-50 % of all new mothers are unmarried or divorced. In these single parent households frequent non-traditional duty sharing is seen with variable involvement of the biological father and other adults including grandparents.

Today most fathers want to support their children in non-financial ways. In fact, men who show an affinity for infants are more attractive to women than those who do not. In nature, certain groups of mammals show prominent “helpful father” patterns. Close primate relatives of ours, however, show limited paternal involvement. It is unclear why this is so, but, it appears a father responds to what is expected of him when it comes to the needs of his infant and child. If there is strong physical or emotional motivation then a heightened and extensive paternal involvement is seen. If limited expectations are placed on the other than providing financial support are placed on the father then less involvement is seen. This is why it is vital for a father to be engaged in meeting the minute to minute needs of his new infant. Once a pattern of limited support is established it is hard to change. Similarly once an extended caregiving pattern is established there appears to be internal physical chemical and hormonal reinforcement that encourages this behavior to continue.

Fathers, like mothers, can also suffer from postpartum depression. This is especially prominent when the mother shows signs of depression. Involved fathers experience changes in their chemical and hormonal make-up. In addition to these physical changes there are major emotional changes. Engaged and involved mothers and fathers both change.

When a father responds to the physical and emotional signals from his new infant he will rebalance his own needs. When this change occurs it can be strenuous and demanding. A new network of responsibilities and obligations can lead to internal stress and external stress including the relationship with a spouse. Fear of this stress, however, does not justify limiting or minimizing paternal involvement. Rather, it supports the establishment of a parenting budget where both parents working together meet the emotional and physical needs of their child. Such a tag team approach allows both parents the space and time they need to recover from the ongoing stressors of childrearing. Even if one parent stays home and the other parent works there should be joint participation in most parenting tasks. This can be accomplished by the parent who is home performing other non-work tasks that the working parent was responsible for prior to the birth of their child. The key is nonjudgmental, open communication and the honest sharing of feelings.

It is important for both parents to take the time to discuss their parenting roles before the delivery. The expectations you set will affect your parenting and the type of caretaking each of you provide.

After delivery everything moves so fast. Demands must be met and problems must be solved. New issues arise daily and time is difficult to find when both parents are rested and ready to tackle difficult discussions. No matter how you divide up the responsibilities the key is to be fair. Roles should change day to day based on who has the time and energy to meet the demand. Shared responsibility is the goal and each parent should have the opportunity to meeting every type of need. Anything less than this leads to concerns that one parent is working harder than the other. If one parent, due to emotional or physical issues, is unable to share in the responsibilities then that is fine as long as the issue is talked about from the heart and the responsibility is readjusted when a partners health allows.