Getting Dads More Involved

Author: Ross Parke, Ph.D

If fathering is so great and so beneficial for babies, mothers and even dads themselves, why are some dads not more involved? There are many cultural barriers that keep men from being as involved as they can or perhaps ought to be. As we have said earlier, boys get less parenting preparation than girls. Boys don't babysit and don't get to look after dolls. Girls do. And schools don't help much either. Few schools offer tips for future parents, unless carrying a sack of sugar or a bean bag doll around for a week counts. The message to boys and adolescents is clear--parenting is a girl's job! When parenthood does arrive men are less prepared than women. Nor can men turn to the mass media for help and advice about fathering. Even in this century men on TV are still typically depicted as either uninvolved, disinterested or in extreme cases neglectful and abusive. While some modest progress has been made with signs that T.V. fathers are shown in a more positive and realistic light, mothers are still presented as the major caregivers.

Fathers are helpers at best when they participate at all. What about parenting books for dads? A visit to your local bookstore will quickly reveal that most of the parenting books are written for mothers with only a few directed at dads. Not only does this mean that dads have fewer resources to turn to but the message that this lopsided focus on moms sends to dads is that their parenting role is not as important as mother's role. (For father oriented parenting books see Armin Brott's series, especially "The new father :A dad's guide to the first year" 2nd ed., 2001, Abbeville Press

However, mothers can play a major role in supporting father involvement and help them compensate for their limited opportunities to learn caregiving skills. First, don’t be a gatekeeper and make dad feel unwelcome as a caregiver. Second, adjust your standards and accept help from your partner even if the quality isn’t exactly up to your expectations in the beginning. Third, encourage your spouse’s involvement by praising his efforts and give advice and hints in a non threatening way so that he can do things better over time. Finally, treat your spouse as a partner not just as a helper.

All parents struggle to find the right work-family balance. Over the last 40 years mothers have increasingly become full or part time workers outside the home. This shift has opened up opportunities for fathers to become more involved with their infants and take more routine responsibility for their care. In fact, one of the best predictors of father involvement is maternal employment. However, men still work more hours outside the home and generally have less work place flexibility than mothers. The old cultural attitudes about men as breadwinners and women as homemakers are gradually changing but still a barrier to equal participation in parenting for men and women. One of the major barriers to father involvement is the lack of a clear family leave policy in all parts of North America. While mothers are granted maternity leaves, fathers can often only take time off after the birth of his baby as vacation time or unpaid leave. In view of the reality of household bills, this means that most men take very short periods of time off to help with their newborn's care and become part of the caregiving team from the beginning. And perhaps most critically they lose valuable opportunities to become acquainted with their infant that will be useful in learning to understand their early social signals and how best to respond to these messages. As we have stressed, understanding the baby's needs can often help solve a problem before the baby become distressed and more difficult to soothe. And the medical system erects barriers too. A friend once recalled a visit to the obstetrician with his pregnant partner. The puzzled obstetrician directed his comments to the mother to-be and virtually ignored the dad to-be. He was hardly made welcome and after the baby is born, the subtle discrimination continues. Nurse demonstrations about diapering, feeding and soothing--all things that both moms and dads need to know--are often scheduled at times when dads are not around, which is too bad as several projects have shown that new dads can benefit from these early parenting lessons. And well baby visits are often scheduled in the day time hours when dads are often at work. When these visits are scheduled in the evening father participation increases. So there are a variety of changes that can be made that will lower the barriers to father participation in his infant's life. Perhaps the important message for dads is to make your wishes to be involved known to your spouse, your employer and your medical team. Change is slow but dads can speed up the process by making sure that their role is recognized. (For more information on the obstacles to father involvement, see Parke & Brott " Throwaway Dads: The myths and barriers that prevent men from becoming the fathers that they want to be "1999, Houghton -Mifflin - Throwaway Dads.)

Dads are an important part of every infant's life and by encouraging dads to be more involved and more aware of their infant’s limitations and capabilities they will be better caregivers and full members of the care giving family unit. In the long run everyone will benefit--babies, mothers and fathers.