The role of the American father has shifted along with changes in industry, immigration, social movements, and the emphasis on the study of child development. As familial and societal structures become increasingly diversified, so too have the expectations of the modern dad. Whether the father is married, partnered, single, adoptive, working, or stay-at-home, one thing is clear: dads play a bigger part in families and society than previously acknowledged.
Paternal Mental Health: Why is it Relevant?
While emphasis has traditionally been on the relationship between mother and child, recently dialogue has shifted to highlight the important role of the father in a child’s development. Kids embody, mimic, and react to what they see. Fathers who are physically and emotionally present predict positive outcomes for the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social health of their children. For example, when dads engage in interactive play with their children, it promotes an innate sense of curiosity, exploration, and independence.
The term “daddy issues” has come to derogatorily describe the impact of a person’s poor relationship with their father. Underneath the minimizing and offensive phrase lies the reality: there is a lingering impact from the physical or emotional absence of the father playing out in their children’s ability to trust, self-regulate, and form secure attachments.
Impact of Fatherhood on Physical and Mental Health
Becoming a parent is a profound milestone. Recent emphasis on researching the impact of fatherhood shows:
Barriers to Mental Health Support for Dads
- Lack of parental leave options: A 2021 health benefits survey found that less than 23% of people in the workforce have access to paid family leave. The study further found that many workers are ineligible for unpaid family leave benefits. This reality has serious financial and health implications for individuals and families.
- Social expectations of masculinity: Sociocultural embodied messaging creates shame triggers for men that are activated around themes of perceived weakness, not being good enough, or failing to provide. Cisgender men are less likely to seek mental health treatment or take psychiatric medication when compared to cisgender women despite anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, and suicide rates remaining prevalent.
- Access: Mental health care can be expensive, time-consuming, and not easily accessible without sufficient resources.
Tips For Prioritizing Mental Health in Fatherhood
- Seek Knowledge: Read books, attend classes, and ask questions to make you feel more confident and prepared for the baby to arrive.
- Get involved early: Being physically and emotionally present during pregnancy and delivery predicts increased levels of interest and connectedness with the baby. It is natural to feel nervous and unsure at the onset of a major life change; self-confidence and instincts in parenting will build naturally as the dad plays an active role in holding, changing, and bathing the baby.
- Co-parent: If co-parenting is accessible to you, allow yourself to rely on and support your co-parent if it is safe to do so. Healthy communication between parents is a significant predictor of the well-being of the children.
- Stay connected: We have all heard the phrase: It takes a village to raise a child. Western society has become increasingly individualistic and isolated, placing less emphasis on the ancient, communal ways of raising families. Staying connected and engaged in your communities as you navigate parenthood benefits parental mental health as well as increases the resources and support available to the child.
- Create a financial plan: If you are expecting a baby: take steps to be as accurate as you can in estimating how costs and spending will shift to prepare for birth or adoption and once the baby arrives. If you already have children, make a habit of sitting down and adjusting the budget as necessary.
- Talk about it: Internalizing experiences of stress manifests in poor physical and mental health outcomes. Do not go through this alone. Engage with people whom you feel safe to express your vulnerable thoughts with. Practice open communication with your partner or other loved ones, consider joining a group for new dads, or talk to a therapist to process fears, stressors, and other concerns. Making room for your emotions will serve as an excellent model for your children.
- Create healthy habits: Getting back to basics because it is true: you need to take care of yourself to care for your kids. Prioritizing quality sleep, balanced meals, physical activity, and hydration will promote physical and mental health. You need that energy to be an active dad for your kids; it will also model and set a foundation for healthy behaviors in the household.
As a culture, we are still learning to address and make room for the impact of fatherhood on a dad’s mental health. What we do know: more attention is needed to support and normalize talking about paternal mental health. Whether you are a new dad, a seasoned dad, an expecting dad, or thinking about whether you would like to be a dad: research supports the importance of taking care of yourself, mind, and body.