Paid parental leave is most often framed as an issue that matters to working women. Parental leave is also critically important for fathers. Paternity leave and especially longer leaves of several weeks or months can promote parent-child bonding, improve outcomes for children and increase gender equity at home and at the workplace.
Longer paternity leaves are associated wth increased father engagement and bonding. Longer leaves mean more time to bond with his new child and more involvement in the care from the newborn period on. A father’s hands-on engagement can set a pattern that lasts long after the leave ends. One study of working dads in the U.S., those who took leaves of two weeks or greater, were more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth. This care included feeding, changing diapers, getting up in the night and taking the children to medical appointments.
There are several studies showing that increased paternal engagement leads to improved health and development for children. A young child’s earliest relationship with his parents impacts the developmental architecture of the developing brain. These relationships require care, consistency and above all, time. Better developmental outcomes means fewer behavioral problems and improved cognitive and mental health.
Fathers taking parental leave helps not just children, but mothers also. Paid paternity leave carries many benefits to the mother. A recent study from Sweden underscored that the father’s presence in the household following childbirth was associated with the reduction of stress and improved maternal mental and physical health. Studies continue to emerge showing that paternity leave benefits the relationships between parents and contributes to reducing the risk factors associated with divorce.
Fathers still face economic and social barriers that keep them from taking longer paternity leaves or taking them at all. In the United States where parental leaves are rare, cultural biases along with gaps in policy make fathers even less able to access time away from work with their children. An early study from 2004 suggests that even when fathers do gain access to parental leave they may be reluctant to take it. Some studies continue to show that taking paternity leave can damage a man’s professional reputation and affect his future earning potential.
Public policies that promote time for parents to care for and bond with their newborns and very young children without jeopardizing the ability to pay for basic necessities is sorely needed. National paid Family (and Paternity) leave will benefit the parents, their children, the entire family and the future of our country.
If fathering differs from mothering in fundamental ways, are there things that only fathers can give their children. Clearly mothers do not father. Our cultural expectation is that mothers will be the child care experts from the moment the umbilical cord is cut. So how is it that men become nurturing beings.
Both mothers and fathers have nurturing skills, i.e., the ability to be patient, loving and selfless. Nurturing skills transcend gender. And beyond gender there are historical values and emotional factors which shape us toward or away from the expression of these.
Involved fathering is male behavior which promotes the healthy development of one’s child and family in active ways. To name a few; being physically and emotionally accessible, providing material support to sustain the child’s needs, exerting influence in child rearing decisions. Fathering also means means changing diapers, feeding, burping, making trips to the pediatrician, bandaging cuts, helping with homework, knowing your child’s friends.
Research has shown that the attachment and closeness that mothers and fathers feel toward their newborn is not predicted by previous experience. Fathers and mothers equally are able to interpret their child’s behavioral cues indicating hunger, gastric distress, and fatigue and able to respond appropriately. Fathers and mothers have been found to be equally anxious about leaving their baby in the care of someone else. They plan ahead, hover and double-check, showing behaviors that are more alike than not. There is no evidence that given equal experience and support, parents of one gender necessarily excel as caretakers. Michael Lamb, a very famous fatherhood researcher has noted, ‘with the exception of lactation there is no evidence that women are biologically predisposed to be better parents than men. It is social convention, not biological imperatives that may underlie the traditional division of parental responsibilities.’
Scientific observations over time have identified several common paternal behaviors; fathers enjoy activating their children in order to interact with them. The father as play partner is one of the best known findings in the research on the role of the father in child development. The play between a father and his child has characteristics which are not ‘toy-mediated’. Even the physical child-care chores - bathing, diapering, brushing teeth, are often made more intensely physical and playful by dad. Researchers have also followed another trend in father care; the tendency of men to encourage and and support novelty-seeking behavior in their children both boys and girls.
Parental nurturance, warmth and closeness are shown over and over again to be connected to healthy child development, regardless of whether it is the mother or father at the helm.
Fatherhood is a big job and it starts with taking care of your partner during the pregnancy.
The link between dads’ involvement during pregnancy and healthy outcomes for moms and babies is powerful.
A father can communicate with and influence his unborn baby in two ways; by talking directly to the baby and by caring for the mother, giving her emotional and financial support so that she can better care for the baby. Helping your partner with household chores, attending prenatal sessions, ultrasounds, listening to your baby’s heart beat, massaging or laying on of hands on your baby’s bump if mom is happy for you to do so; feel his kicking. Your unborn baby can hear, feel, suck and recognize your voice by about 32 weeks. In fact research has shown that your baby can hear their fathers’ voices better than mothers’ because the amniotic fluid transmits the resonant low-pitched male voice more easily than a higher feminine voice. And so dad, as you sing or talk your baby listens.
Babies are not the only thing that grows during pregnancy; relationships grow also. Use the time during pregnancy to strengthen your commitment to each other. As baby grows so should your relationship. For the first time in a man’s life not only is another person - your partner - as important as himself, but a second person - the baby- becomes as important or more important. Take inventory of your relationship. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is too bring your baby intro a home built on a loving relationship. Best gift to your baby is to love your partner.
Father presence at the birth provides another window into the health of mother and child . Several important studies show that the single most important birth circumstance that protect against birth complications in the newborn was the father’s presence at delivery. This held true even when the father was less than enthusiastic about being present. A related study concluded that father’s presence reduced length of labor and overall rate of birth complications.
Father involvement during pregnancy does more than grow a baby. Nothing matures a man more than becoming a father. This may be the first time in a man’s life that he has had to and wanted to focus more on people other than himself- his wife and his baby. Pregnancy prepares a father for the real world of parenting. Often it takes a baby to make two mature adults.