I was genuinely surprised by what it meant to become a father. My ‘arrival’ into this lofty status was etched on the reassuring words of other dads – statements like; “You’ll be right mate” or “It’s the best thing ever”. So when I found out this wasn’t strictly true you can appreciate my surprise! I now know what many experienced dads forget to tell us new’uns is that fatherhood can be different to what we expect, and it is more like a hike than a picnic: There are tough parts, easy parts, areas to be cautious, and spots to rest. There are long roads, high roads, low roads and rocky ones; but overall it’s generally a full journey, beautiful for the most part and memorable enough that you may want do that hike again! Maybe even a few times!
Over time and in hindsight (my son is now 18 months old) I’ve come to realise that becoming a father is a right of passage; an individual journey; but one shared equally by all fathers – regardless. It is one of the key times in a man’s life when there are clear pathways for courage, strength, and passion entwined with reflection, insight, and change. It will take lots of courage and masculine essence to step into and adjust to fatherhood – particularly raising healthy children in our fast paced and contemporary society.
One dilemma for me as a new father was working through how I wanted to be as a dad. It’s a problem I know many men face; particularly dads facing challenging family situations, separation, divorce or who may not live with their babies. All new dads can be haunted or blessed by our life experiences – usually both – and this may impact on how we will feel in this new role. It might raise fears, doubts or stresses. We might ponder our own experiences of being fathered and wonder if the great things or bad things from our dads will be repeated or forgotten? All very normal. Mostly for me I wonder how my actions or in- actions impact on how my son will be? Will I be a good role model? What will he be like when he’s older? Am I too rough when we play? Am I too tender when he’s sad? Do I say the right things? How does he feel when I can’t be there with him? What I’m figuring out is that for me it is a continually evolving process – intrinsically linked with my own experiences, the changing needs of my child, my family and to an extend my community and physical environment
Along the way, my hike into fatherhood has needed lots of tools, planning, advice and support. In my dad-pack, I’m more confident if I have a whole range of stuff to support me on the journey. My stalwart ‘tool’ has been active fathering. I use the word ‘active’ as a concept equally as an action, as active fathering is far wider reaching than being engaged with changing nappies and bath-time (both very positive and fulfilling experiences for dads to undertake mind you). And the flow on effect is entwined in healthier children, happier relationships, better homes, stronger communities. For me, being energised into active fatherhood is squarely planted in the simple fact that children are more likely to be socially, emotionally and cognitively healthy when fathers are more involved in their children’s lives. Pretty simple really…
So what is active fathering? Well most of the literature on active fathering talks about the positive ‘father’s involvement’ with their child; in a nut shell – the more involved the better the results. This is true. To me there are some key area’s which are invaluable as a focus point for dads looking to make inroads using active fathering skills. So strap on your hiking boots!
Active Fathering – The Doing Parts
Engagement: Perhaps the most important thing I can do as a father is be truly present with my child. Whether I am playing, feeding, settling or bathing it is of greatest benefit when I am really present and alive to those moments. As my son has grown I can on see in his responses that he is aware when my mind is somewhere else or I’m ‘absent’. For both parents, this can be a hard skill set; work and a busy life means that at times thoughts and actions are elsewhere. I’m sometimes stuck needing to do several things at once – get ready for work, look after our child, answer the phone, help with dinner – and it can be difficult. But I also appreciate that a fundamental level my child will feel more supported, loved and nurtured when I’m fully engaged with him. Making this effort has always been deeply rewarding for me as well.
Tip: Make one part of your day, or several things you do with your child, a time when you put aside everything else and be fully present and alive to those hear and now moments. Watch how much you child is observing you and your actions; be aware of your speech and tone of voice; enjoy the touch and loving that come from hugs and intimacy; watch how they smile, move, laugh and cry and what that feels like for you.
Being Hands-On: The simplest message I can give any new dad is get in there and do the hands-on stuff! By this I mean; changing nappies, feeding, dressing, bathing, etc. In our society, men often have less experience with children than women and for dads it can be easy to step back and allow mums to do the parenting. But it may not always be in the long term best interest of the family. There are several reasons for this:
Firstly and obviously, it is of the greatest help to new mums – enough said. Secondly, it is an important area where both dads and children get to learn about each other, grow and feel confident and secure in their new relationship together. Thirdly, parenting your child through every part of their lives is a simple way of supporting your child’s early and long term development. Last but not least, it will increase your confidence as a new father and this will be an invaluable tool in raising healthy children.
Tip: When dads aren’t as involved in parenting a pattern can be set in which the mother does more, learns more, feels more confident, and continues to take on more and more responsibility for children. There is the potential in this circumstance for mums to feel over-burdened, fathers to feel left out, and children to miss the benefits that come from having two loving, involved parents.
Learning to Care for Your Child: I feel this is an important area where dads can generate both a lot of confidence as a parent and in building a deeper bond with their child. To children, how their held by dads: our smell; the feel of our muscles; the tone of our voice and the way we parent will be different than mums. Children don’t get confused by these differences. Instead, they learn that two different people can both give them loving care. They discover that both dad and mum are able to warmly nurture and take care of them; providing for their emotional and physical needs.
Learning to care for and settle my child has felt very important as an active father. I haven’t always found it easy – it can seem more natural for mums – and it has taken time to understand what my child may need or how he wants to be nurtured. But over time I have built a much better understanding of what works for me and him in our relationship together, and I’m sure of the closer bond we have as a result of that. Now, I’m armed with a full range of intimate touch, diversionary, non-verbal and verbal cues that help him and I to stay in better connection. It has helped me enormously to feel more confident as a parent, particularly when we have time alone.
Tip: As new dads it is important to discuss with your partner what you want to achieve in developing this important skill. Getting some advice off mum about what works and doesn’t work for her in settling baby will help. Setting some guidelines and boundaries around this is vital as the reality is that babies need their mothers and mums may want take over when babies are upset or crying. However, sensitively seeking support from your partner to develop your own style and techniques in settling your child will be of great benefit to all three of you over time. Always remember: keep the focus on baby and not on either parent ‘getting their own way’ and things will be fine!
Play and Fun: Generally speaking children and dads will love playing together! One of the things that dads bring naturally to parenting is energy, strength and movement. For obvious reasons vigorous playing with your child will not happen straight after birth, but it won’t be long before there is ample room for play and fun together. Children are naturally drawn to playing with dads because play time can often be more dynamic, exciting, or even a little rough. For a child, this ‘edginess’ provides a range of physical and emotional stimulus that’s important in their cognitive development.
Tip: Watch your child to see how they play. What is stimulating for them and how they interact with their environment and others? Bring your full creative bliss to games and play. Let that little boy in you come out for a play too!
Active Fathering – The benefits
As I mentioned active fathering is entwined with whole of life benefits, impacting on our children, relationships, families and communities. Research indicates that active fathering benefits our children directly in a range of areas, like:
- Promoting healthy gender identity
- Developing important life skills
- Lowers the chance of failure in schooling
- Lowers the chance of youth suicide
Maintaining and building on a healthy relationship with your partner is also a positive flow on from active fathering. Particularly as active fathers are confident fathers and this means that shared parenting is the norm not the exception. Parenting tasks and running a home tend to be divided more evenly and there is great benefit to both parents who want to take time out, return to study, work or an interest. For mothers, knowing that dads are confident, capable and involved fathers provides greater opportunities to relax and unwind. For dads, spending time alone with their children as a confident and engaged father provides for some of the most joyful moments shared together. Importantly, active fathers will find a great many other benefits in building on healthy relationships including:
- Creating more opportunities for emotional, physical and sexual intimacy
- Generating positive support from partners and family about your fathering which will in-turn promote and sustain your active role
- Providing greater flexibility and support around each partners home-life ‘job descriptions’.
Families and communities benefit from active fathering through:
- Raising children who tend to become better at solving problems and handling frustrations, are more socially skilled, and have more understanding of other’s feelings.
- Grandfathers, brothers, uncles and other men (if they are positively involved in your life) see new parenting models and can learn how better to support you, your children and their own families.
- The promotion of caring, committed, and collaborative relationships; within the home and throughout the community.
- Greater opportunities become available for fathers to learn from other fathers and shifts in community ethos support shared parenting models
Active fathering – Getting the Balance Right
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to active fathering for most dads is ensuring the work, rest and play balance is right. This is an area for me which I have found hard and continue to fine-tune constantly. There have been some areas of my life where I have had to compromise in order to be a more active father and other areas where I have gained. That has been my choice and each new dad will have their own decisions to make in this area. Never the less, I have always had a great source of pleasure and accomplishment from being involved in life. It feels good to be an active father and partner, involved in meaningful work, leisure, social, and recreational activities. As an active father make sure you put effort into ‘all-of-life’ participation. Get the balance right that works best for you and your family.
Becoming an active father has been the best thing and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Fatherhood – friend or foe? I think it’s been both…My life has changed so much and the journey has been a great blessing; with some wins and losses along the way. On your own journey into fatherhood, I encourage you to walk sensitively and consciously in the best interest of your child and your family. Wherever you end up at the end, your life is unlikely to look the same as it does now; but on the way you will learn to love another person more than you ever thought possible.