For the past year I have been conducting research into the male experience of marriage and family; events which are more usually considered from a female perspective. Throughout this month, BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour is broadcasting my interviews with men aged from twenty to eighty. The first week focussed on young men, role models and the way in which parental behaviour influences attitudes towards relationships. Last week we spoke to young men about their experiences of pregnancy, birth and fatherhood...
1. According to National Health Service (NHS), 98% of fathers who reside with the birth mother will attend the birth of their child (NHS, 2005).
2. Male participation during childbirth enhances the mothers' well-being (Yim, 2000) as well as male attachment to the child (Pestvenidze & Bohrer, 2007), however many men find the experience hugely demanding because they lack knowledge, they have no control over what is happening, and they are unclear about what is expected of them (Dellmann, 2004, Longworth & Kingdon, 2011).
3. Research by Hinton, Locock & Knight (2014) found that men who witness complications during the birth of their child can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but even witnessing a straightforward delivery can have a profound impact on fathers. In my research, men described feeling overwhelmed and under prepared. One participant was mortified because he fainted during the birth of his daughter. Another described how his son "came out like a bowling ball. It was devastation. It was like a like a scene out of Saving Private Ryan. Most traumatic experience of my life, never mind for her, it was as traumatic for me".
4. The fact that so many men feel out of their depth during childbirth suggests that more could, and should, be done to prepare men for the experience. Ante-natal care is currently almost entirely focussed on women and it begins a precedent of excluding men from decision making about children and their care which continues long after the birth.
5. Most men don't presume that they have a 'paternal instinct' and in the early months after a baby is born, the emphasis on "mother-child" makes them feel redundant. The men that I interviewed believed that as soon as their first child was born they became the least important people in the triadic relationship. One interviewee explained how he felt as if he was "just behind the cat in the pecking order".
6. New fathers can feel that they have less control over their own lives, that they are inadequate to the task at hand, and feel marginalized in their relationship with their spouse. Two-thirds of first time fathers describe having some form of "the blues" during the first four months after the birth of their first child, but interestingly, the best treatment for depressed mood in new fathers is more contact with the baby (Zaslow, 1981).
7. The British Social Attitudes report (Park et al, 2007) found that 82% of full-time working men said they would like to spend more time with their family. In 1989 only 70% of men felt that way. However, after the birth of a child most couples experience a return to traditional gender roles (Baxter et al., 2008, Dribe & Stanfors, 2009).
8. In the majority of families, fathers still concentrate primarily on breadwinning and mothers do less paid work and take more parental leave (Dribe & Stanfors, 2009). This traditional model of marriage makes economic sense because women still get paid less than men and childcare is often prohibitively expensive, but gender structures which perpetuate male dominance outside the home, simultaneously serve to exclude men from the mother-child relationship within the home (Chodorow, 1978).
9. In the British Social Attitudes report, 69% of men say that the demands of their job sometimes interfere with family life, but several men that I spoke to admitted that they spent longer at work after their children were born because it was easier to do their job - than deal with the open ended stress of dealing with young children. This could be interpreted as avoidance, but it could also reflect the fact that men feel better equipped to perform in the workplace than they do in the home. One man I spoke explained how he felt that his wife was "always watching him" when he looked after their baby as if she was "just waiting for him to get things wrong". This phenomenon is known as "maternal gatekeeping", where the mother "allows" the father to perform certain tasks that she deems him adequate to accomplish, but prevents him from developing his own unique and lasting attachment to the child, based on their mutual experience (Grossman, Pollack, & Golding,1988).
10. Research carried out in laboratory settings shows that men are perfectly competent at childcare and are as sensitive to their children's needs as mothers, (Parke & O'Leary 1976), but within the home, men need to be given more confidence, freedom and encouragement to parent. Research shows that fathers engage with their children in a more playful, more physical, and more humorous way than mothers (Belsky & Volling, 1987). It is an interactive style which has been found to be critical in teaching a child's emotional self-control. Likewise, father-child interactions appear to be central to the development of a child's ability to maintain strong, fulfilling social relationships later in life (Mosley & Thompson, 1995). Good parenting is the gift that keeps on giving.