For our children to have good mental health, it is important that they have positive role models and experiences in their lives. This doesn’t mean everything has to be perfect – being ‘good enough’ is enough. It does mean that in an ideal situation a child would have the positive influence of both female and males in their life
Since the birth of my first child in 2001 legislation has changed giving fathers more rights to their children. In 2001, because I wasn’t married, my partner did not automatically have parental responsibility for our child. She may have shared his name, rather than mine, but ultimately, I got to call the shots. This changed on 1 December 2003. If you are unmarried, but the father is named on the birth certificate then they too now have parental responsibility and continue to do so.
Many men are really excited about having a baby, and the support and advice for them is growing, but still is limited compared to the female. They are encouraged to take an active part in the birth, attend birthing classes, and a Cornish Dad, Julian Bose, has even created the, ‘DadPad’, a guide for first time dads to help them through having their own real life baby that cries, wriggles and can be unpredictable.
Women are at the centre of child care, they have to carry the baby and hormonally their body and brain is preparing for the baby to arrive, right from conception. For the male, they are watching their partner’s belly grow with the baby inside and the support role is already beginning to take shape. Once the baby is born the male too will have chemicals moving around inside his brain to help him adapt and get into parental mode.
In a perfect scenario, the baby arrives, and both mother and father are able to adapt and care for their new son or daughter without too much strain on their relationship. The mother trusts the father to care for their new offspring, and is able to share the responsibility that comes with being a parent. Until you have your own child it really is hard to describe what it is like. To have this little being that relies on you to survive, a cute bundle of joy that loves to have a cuddle and smells so good – if only you could bottle that bathed baby smell! He/she can bring so many joys and bring a couple closer together. But what happens when the reality of having a new baby isn’t what you think it is?
Dads do get side-lined when it comes to emotional support when coping with a new baby, and are often placed as a support for the mother. They are the ones that are likely to see signs of post-natal depression or simply signs that the mum is finding it hard to cope. Sleep deprivation is a huge factor that often gets overlooked when a new baby comes along. Yes, it is part of the natural cycle and is to be expected but not everyone copes well with it. Patience can be shortened and it becomes easier to blame/get angry with each other if things are not going according to plan. Most dads are fantastic and will do anything to help both mother and baby, such as, get up in the night for nappy changes and feeds, take baby out for a walk in the pram to allow mum to have a sleep during the day, bath baby, and basically do anything mum would do. However, some dads do find the adjustment really difficult, especially when their relationship with the mother has changed considerably. This little being, takes centre stage. Sex may have gone out the window for a while, and this can be a strain for both male and female. Going out together for something like a simple coffee may also not seem so easy anymore. Those Sunday afternoon roasts at the pub with a couple of pints have now been replaced with staying in watching Cbeebies or catching an afternoon nap.
A lot of our parenting will be based on our experience of our own parents. It is important to look at your own family structure as this will influence how you are as a parent. Did you have both mum and dad? Did they bring you up singly or jointly? What about if you had no dad or mum figure in your life? If a new dad didn’t have a dad figure in their life, they have no experience to draw on and this could make it even more difficult for them. They may have had a dad that popped up every now and then, but couldn’t be relied upon. If they haven’t had a good example, a good role model, then their task becomes even more difficult. Single dads as well may be taking on a role they had never imagined would happen to them, and without a good support network, this isn’t easy.
Parenting, is hard whether you are in a partnership or single, male or female. If you haven’t studied childcare or have people to turn to for support, it is about constant learning. What works for one child will be different for another and it is easy to start thinking you are doing a bad job if you haven’t got someone to talk to about what you are experiencing. What is normal in child development and what isn’t? To hear that someone else’s child still wet the bed at the age of 5 can be a relief off your mind when you read all about the children who are dry by age 3.
Support for dads is of paramount importance, just as it is for women. They are equally involved in creating a family, having children, and need to have an equal support network. It is not just women who stay at home to look after the children, men do it too. It is great that men can take paternity leave and shared parental leave too, if this is what they want with the mother. I do feel that men do still find it difficult to talk about their feelings and when they are feeling over whelmed. The popular boys growing up are usually those that can, ‘talk the talk’, seem confident and ooze masculinity. This stereotypical view of men, this masculinity, unfortunately can be masking uncertainties, worries that males have about life. Women ask each other how they are, how is the family, and talk about ups and downs, men on the other hand seem to keep away from these subjects. Sport, music, cars, politics, and having a laugh seem to be topics that spring to my mind that men feel more comfortable talking about. What happens then, when a male has a fantastic family, but he is struggling to cope with sleep deprivation, a child constantly sleeping in his bed, money that now needs to stretch to accommodate more than two people, a screaming toddler that doesn’t seem to want to listen to anything during the day, and he needs to try and keep smiling because he can see his partner is also struggling with everything? If he crumbles, he feels everything else will crumble, so he just keeps going and going until one day it all gets too much.
A statistic that cannot be ignored is that suicide is the biggest killer of males under the age of 45. That’s roughly 84 men per week taking their own lives! This makes me feel so incredibly sad. So many families that are missing that male figure, be it a son, brother, uncle, nephew, husband or dad. These suicides can be for a wealth of reasons, and I am not here saying that having children are the cause, but having a family does add an expectation, a pressure that doesn’t ever go away. What I want to point out is that our men are so important, that for the sake of the family, keep an eye on your man, check he is ok, look for the small signs, such as he’s not smiling as much as he used to, he spends more time on his own, the sparkle may have gone from his eye, and make the effort to find time for him. Not every male finds being a parent easy, so make them feel special, let them know you recognise how hard they are trying and working and that you appreciate everything they do. Men need to feel a sense of self-worth too. You don’t need to wait for Valentine’s Day or Father’s Day to let them know how much they mean to you. It could sometimes be the difference between life or death.