My career as a fatherhood researcher began in a very personal way as a consequence of my husband’s experiences during the birth of our first child. But it has resulted in a decade of the most exciting and unexpected findings and the slow but steady evolution of who dad is both in his own eyes and in the eyes of those who know him.
When I began studying fathers ten years ago research relating to their lives was thin on the ground. Despite 80% of all men becoming fathers we appeared to know very little about them. Yes, there was an extensive and necessary academic literature on the very real impact that absent fathers can have on their children’s development but on the thankfully more prevalent stick around dad who supervises homework, locates that rogue school sock and chases away the bedtime monsters the scientific journals were silent. It would appear who dad was, what he experienced and how he fulfilled his role just weren’t important. Dad was apparently dispensable.
Now if you are taking the time to read this blog then probably you, like me, will know this is a long way from being the truth. I have had the huge privilege of following men as they become fathers; measuring their hormones, assessing their mental and physical health, recording their thoughts, fears and experiences. I have watched as excited but anxious dads-to-be become proud new fathers and these tentative new fathers flourish into the most wonderful caring and competent parents. The results of my studies have replicated others from around the world which show us that becoming a dad is just as biological and physiological a process as becoming a mum and that dad’s attachment to his child is as intense and crucial as that between mum and child. But as an evolutionary anthropologist I have been fascinated to learn that, of course, evolution has prepared dad for a role which compliments rather than mirrors mum’s, making sure his child receives all the input he or she requires to develop into a healthy and successful adult.
And as we approach International Fathers Mental Health Day when we highlight dad’s mental health it is important to know that as well as drawing attention to the growing body of evidence that men can suffer perinatal depression and anxiety, alongside PTSD and OCD, research has shown that dads have a unique role to play in scaffolding their child’s self-esteem and mental health; their attachment being the secure base from which a child explores the world, taking risks, surmounting challenges and building physical and mental resilience. In a world where we have a teenage mental health crisis and our social world is constantly evolving as the digital replaces the personal I would say we need dad more than ever before.
But who is Dad? In writing my book, The Life of Dad, I have had the opportunity to explore the lives of dads from around the world and what is quickly very clear is that dad is whoever steps up to the plate and fulfils the role. Of course, dad can be biologically related, co-resident or not, but he can also be your uncle, grandfather, brother, mum’s friend or boyfriend or, if you are especially lucky, a whole team of dads supporting you emotionally, practically and developmentally.
And at the end of a decade of research it is very clear that dad is not who we thought he was and, maybe, still think he is. Because what my work has revealed is that dads are special; a unique parent who is vital to their children’s lives, whatever shape or size they may come in. And because of this it is crucial that we support him as we support mum. See him as a true co-parent, not the secondary one consigned to carrying the bags and making the tea, but someone who has an equal input into pregnancy, birth and beyond and is equally impacted by them. Whose existence doesn’t just benefit his child and family but all of us, his society. Because while there are very real constraints on the financial resources available to support parents there is no limit on our ability to support and empathise with all parents, regardless of their gender. To spend the time to ask how they are, how we can help.
Finally, I hope that my work and that of my colleagues will help dads to feel more comfortable in and more empowered by their role. That by exploring the science – the genetics, neurochemistry, psychology and behaviour – and by taking a global tour of how others fulfil the role I can provide the motivation to be everything you want to be as a dad, safe in the knowledge that your role is important. And I hope that men continue to let me into their lives as they become that most special of beings – a dad.