In praise of fathers: the making of the modern dad

·7-min read

1. Knowledge is power

The role of dads in the UK has changed beyond all recognition in the past 50 years. Today, fathers no longer want to be limited to the role of family breadwinner and disciplinarian; they want to be true co-parents, providing nurture and care to their children. This change is due in part to the rise of two-earner households, reductions in hospital-based post-birth care and an absence of geographically close extended family, requiring dad to step in. But as we in the research community have learned more about who dad is biologically and psychologically, and the unique role he plays in the family, fathers have felt empowered to get involved, safe in the knowledge that they are as important to their kids and family as mum is.

2. Dads should be at the birth

Fathers became a regular fixture in the birthing room in the 1970s and today 96% of men attend the births of their children. But we are still not quite sure what to do with them. Despite the evidence that parents-to-be see childbirth as a team experience, and that a dad’s presence increases good outcomes for mum and baby, many fathers are still made to feel a bit like spare parts, the bag carrier rather than an equal player. This is compounded by the guidance our health professionals receive regarding birth. The 88-page National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) birth pathway fails to mention the words “dad” or “partner”. Because mums undergo such an overtly physical experience during childbirth, we can forget that dad is also undergoing a significant psychological and physiological change. Being at the birth is important not only as a foundational moment for the family but for the bond he builds with his child and the ease with which he takes on the mantle of “dad”. Time for a significant cultural rethink.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in 1960s-set drama Mad Men
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in 1960s-set drama Mad Men: 21st-century fathers no longer want to be distant figures Photograph: AMC

3. Fatherhood is instinctive

We tend to believe that mums are instinctive parents, but dads must learn. In fact, dads are as biologically primed to parent as mums. All new fathers experience a permanent drop in testosterone around the birth – up to a third in some cases. This drop is crucial as it not only motivates the father to be an empathic and sensitive hands-on parent, but it also removes the inhibitory impact of high testosterone on bonding hormones, ensuring that dad gets a good hit of feelgood chemicals whenever he interacts with his new baby. Add to this brain changes that increase nurturing, attention, empathy and problem-solving and dad is as biological a phenomenon as mum. No more relegation to secondary parenting role for him. He is a true co-parent.

4. Gay fathers can be both ‘mum’ and ‘dad’

As well as challenging gendered parenting roles, gay fathers have told us a lot about the immense flexibility of the father’s brain. We know from studies of heterosexual parents that mums and dads show different peaks in activation when interacting with their children – these reflect their different evolutionary roles, bonds (see below) and developmental inputs. But studies on primary caretaking gay dads show that in the absence of a mother these fathers show peaks in activation in both the “mum” and “dad” areas – which are also linked by a new neural pathway to make sure they can communicate and coordinate – so gay fathers can be everything their kids need.

5. Paternity leave should be better funded

The UK is one of the 94 countries that offer statutory paternity leave but have some way to go to towards equality for parents. Employed fathers have a right to two weeks’ leave at the statutory rate of £149 a week. The self-employed are on their own. If you wish to take longer, you can sign up to shared parental leave (SPL) where mothers “donate” some of their maternity leave to their partnerr, again at the statutory rate. However, take-up of SPL has been low, at around 5%. This is not due to the oft mis-reported reluctance on the part of dads to take leave but because few dads can afford to take it. Campaigners are lobbying the government hard to introduce a ringfenced system akin to that seen in Norway and Sweden where, on average, men take 16 weeks of paid leave. Until then we must applaud companies such as Aviva and John Lewis who are leading the way when it comes to equal parental leave.

6. Fathers build unique bonds

Dads build profound and powerful bonds with their children which are as strong as, but crucially different from, those built between a mother and child. Both mums and dads build their bonds based on nurture but dad’s has an added element of challenge and this reflects his role in scaffolding his child’s entry into the world beyond the family. Regardless of culture, fathers are seen to push developmental boundaries and introduce their children to risk and challenge, which helps them build the mental and physical resilience they are going to need to survive in our fast moving and challenging world. And one of the most effective ways they do this is through play.

7. ‘Rough and tumble’ is crucial

We all recognise rough and tumble play. It is a fast and furious activity where children get thrown into the air, aeroplaned round the room and tickled into submission, to a cacophony of shrieks and giggles. And it is a form of play almost entirely carried out by dads. As well as being lots of fun it plays a crucial role in bonding and child development. It releases a tidal wave of bonding hormones in all participants and, due to its challenging and risky nature, starts to build the skills of reciprocity, empathy, risk assessment and overcoming challenge that all kids need. And dads and kids have evolved to prefer playing with each other due to a mutual neurochemical reward, which playing with mum doesn’t offer.

8. Dad’s input is vital for teens

Dads have a unique role in assisting their child’s entry into the world beyond the family which means that at some points their input is more critical to development than mum’s. In particular, fathers have a crucial role during the transition to pre-school where they have a greater input into the development of language skills and prosocial behaviours – sharing, caring and helping – and during teenagehood, where their bond with their kids is the foundation for good mental health into adulthood. Teenagers who have secure attachments to their fathers and share activities with them have higher self-esteem and report less loneliness and lower rates of anxiety and depression. Fathers of a daughter are even more crucial as their input has an influence on educational attainment, career success and the health of future relationships.

9. Men get the blues too

A tenth of men will experience poor mental health in the perinatal period, compared with 14% of women. As well as being devastating, undiagnosed and unsupported perinatal depression (PND) has been shown to have a negative impact on child development and family functioning. Because paternal PND has different symptomology to maternal PND it can often be missed (it is not routine policy to screen men for PND at the same time as mum). Men tend to experience more anxiety and aggression and turn to self-medication as a coping mechanism. The causes of male PND differ: while there is a hormonal element, men are more likely to suffer if their relationship with their partner is difficult, if they perceive their treatment by healthcare workers to be poor and if their work/life balance means they cannot fulfil their goal of being a hands-on dad.

Related: Pandemic could lead to profound shift in parenting roles, say experts

10. ‘Dad’ does not have to be the biological father

Dads come in many forms and fulfil their role in a myriad number of ways. While in the west we tend to privilege the biological dad, this is not the case globally; dad is whoever steps up and does the job. Dad can be a grandfather, uncle, friend or teacher. Some kids have whole teams of dads. What dictates who dad is is often a mixture of environmental factors including physical and economic risks and cultural rules. Because fathers are not constrained by biology to the same extent as mothers, he is the parent who responds quickly to environmental change, which means there is no one-size-fits-all “best dad”. As UK families move further away from the nuclear model, we would do well to learn from the dads of the world and broaden our viewpoint on what it means to be dad.

  • Anna Machin is an evolutionary anthropologist and author of The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father (Simon & Schuster). To support the Guardian and Observer order a copy from guardianbookshop,com. Delivery charges may apply.

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