In the period immediately before and immediately after the birth of his child, fathers are routinely sidelined by hospitals, doctors and midwives. That’s the lesson of a recent roundtable debate conducted in England and that’s reported here (The Guardian, 3/27/12).
Another lesson was that the immediately pre- and post-natal time is a “golden opportunity” for dads to not only be involved with their children but to feel that they’re important in their lives. Failure to capitalize on that opportunity can have long-term negative affects on the father’s relationship with his child and with the child’s mother. By contrast, if the opportunity is seized, the opposite may be true, with fathers, children and mothers all benefitting.
Fathers are more keen than ever to be involved with their babies around the time of birth but, despite a government push to engage men more fully in their children’s lives, this “golden opportunity” to include them is often lost, with many men ignored or sidelined in ante- and postnatal care…
The roundtable heard that although the number of fathers attending their baby’s birth had increased dramatically over recent decades, with 86% currently present at their child’s delivery, in general midwives still concentrated solely on the mother during the course of a pregnancy.
The article lists several reasons why the current sidelining of fathers needs to change.
Firstly, because a growing body of evidence is making it clear that fathers who are engaged in pregnancy and birth are more likely to remain engaged in their children’s lives. Secondly, the roundtable heard, because mothers’ levels of satisfaction with their care in childbirth is affected to some extent by how well their partner was treated by the midwife. As one participant put it: “Respecting women matters and you don’t respect a woman if you don’t respect her man.” Thirdly, because fathers provided not only welcome but also extremely effective support to new mothers, especially in the postnatal period. That support could be invaluable, the roundtable was told, not only to the new mother and her baby, but also to the hard-pressed midwifery services.
In short, acknowledging a father’s value at this early stage of his child’s life is good for him, the mother and healthcare providers. It also can set the stage for the future involvement of the father in childcare.
Both the treatment and expectations of fathers-to-be and new fathers helped set the tone for the dynamics of the new family unit, participants in the debate were told. “Getting it right at this stage is in everyone’s interests – the man’s, the woman’s and the child’s,” said one contributor. “If you establish the model of shared care at this point it pays dividends both in the short term and for years to come.”
As things stand now though, fathers are considered to be fifth wheels, little more than a nuisance to the “real” participants.
But some participants expressed concerns about existing practice. Antenatal care focused very much on the birth and pain relief options, which were mostly about the mother-to-be’s physical experience, rather than about issues around caring for the baby once he or she arrived, which would engage and include the father equally. And at the delivery itself, men were being seen as merely low-grade supporters when they in fact had huge emotional needs of their own, which were going unnoticed. At the birth, as one participant said, “fathers are expected to provide a bit of massage or to fetch glasses of water when in reality this is a moment of enormous emotional watershed for them”. If their needs were being unmet, they were less likely to feel valued in the whole process of bringing a new child into the world. “Fathers are looking for ways in, but they are experiencing feelings of detachment, or are being treated as little more than onlookers,” said another contributor. “Birth is a critical turning-point, a time when they can feel and properly appreciate that they have a baby for the first time.”
…Time and again during the debate, participants lamented the fact that what society in general, and the maternity services in particular, were missing was a golden opportunity to capitalise on fathers’ willingness to be involved in their children’s lives at this early stage. One participant pointed out that 96% of parents were in a romantic relationship at the time of a baby’s birth, and as well as the 86% of fathers who attend the delivery, 93% currently sign their child’s birth certificate. So there was ample evidence that men were far from invisible at this stage of their offspring’s life; indeed as another contributor pointed out, midwives were more likely than other professionals involved in a family’s life to have contact with the father. But despite this enthusiasm, the expectations from professionals generally about how much a dad could and should do were much too low “and the further you move away from the birth itself, the lower and lower those expectations are”, one participant commented…
In general the tone of the debate was that fathers showed plenty of early enthusiasm and engagement with their children, but that this was not being picked up on and valued by the system and the professionals with whom they came into contact. The bottom line, said one participant, was that doing everything possible to properly engage fathers at this stage would mean that fathers would be connected with their children’s lives from the start, and would be able to build on this engagement in the future.
The tone of The Guardian article is optimistic. It sees the value of fathers to mothers and children and projects an image of a future in which, having seen that value, society and the British health service change to accomodate fathers. I hope the article is correct.
But those of us who have long preached the value of involved fathers to children, mothers and society generally have seen all too often the many ways in which institutions and individuals can see those truths and ignore them. Maybe this time will be different, but there is much frank anti-father bias abroad in the land, and some of it comes from mothers and much of it comes from institutions that are charged by law and policy with knowing and doing better.
The fact is that, from the child’s conception to its reaching maturity, society consistently sends the message that fathers aren’t important to children. I’m pro-choice, but it can’t be denied that abortion rights deliver that message to fathers. We do the same at birth in the ways the article mentions. Mothers’ tendency toward maternal gatekeeping does the same as do divorce courts and those that rule on adoption, often without the father’s consent. The failure to enforce visitation rights post-divorce sends the same message as does the overwhelming preference for maternal custody. The failure of child welfare agencies to consider fathers as placement for children taken from mothers does the same.
In short, although vast amounts of social science show the value of fathers to children, mothers and society generally, somehow the institutions of society have managed to avoid hearing the loud and clear message.
But social science is one thing; the activism of the fathers’ rights advocates is another. As The Guardian article demonstrates (albeit inadvertently), that movement is gaining power and momentum that it’s never had before. The wave of countless organizations and individuals who understand what courts and legislatures don’t yet grasp has been building for years and it’ll only continue. Too many people have grown up without a father, too many women see the hell family courts visit upon their second husbands, sons, fathers and brothers, and too many men have experienced that hell themselves for this movement to do anything but grow.
It’s a slow process that I’ve watched and been a part of since 1998. The change for the better has been enormous, for the good and sufficient reason that history is on our side. The changes to women’s role in society that have occurred over the last 40 + years make equality for fathers historically inevitable. How long that will take is anyone’s guess, but articles like The Guardian’s are small markers of progress.