Being an active father
For My Child fatherhood expert, Sean Tonnet, a counsellor and father to one, with another on the way, active fathering is the key to having a more socially, emotionally and cognitively healthy child.
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 - at least for me - you can appreciate my response!
I now know that 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; but overall it's generally a full journey that's beautiful for the most part and memorable enough that you may want do that hike again. Maybe even a few times!
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 experiencing challenging family situations, separation, divorce or who may not live with their babies.
All new dads can feel 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? This is all very normal.
Mostly I wonder how my actions or inactions 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? This is a continually evolving process - intrinsically linked with my own experiences, the changing needs of my child, my family and to an extent 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. My stalwart "tool" has been active fathering. I use the word "active" as a concept as equally as an action, as active fathering is far wider reaching than being engaged with changing nappies and bath time (both positive and fulfilling experiences for dads to undertake, mind you). And the flow-on effect is entwined in healthier children, happier relationships, better homes and 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?
Most of the literature talks about the positive father's involvement with their child. In a nutshell, the more involved, the better the results. This is true. But to me there are some key areas that are invaluable as a focus point for dads looking to make inroads using active fathering skills. So strap on your hiking boots!
Perhaps the most important thing I can do as a father is be truly present and alive with my child, whether I am playing, feeding, settling or bathing him. 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 cooking - and it can be difficult. But I also appreciate that at 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 to those 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.
The simplest message I can give any new dad is to get in there and do the hands-on stuff! By this I mean changing nappies, feeding, dressing, bathing and so forth. 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. This is because:
- It is of the greatest help to new mums - enough said.
- Both dads and children get to learn about each other, and grow and feel confident and secure in their new relationship together.
- Parenting your child through every part of their lives is a simple way of supporting their early and long-term development.
- It will increase your confidence as a 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.
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 they are held by their dad - our smell, the feel of our muscles, the tone of our voice and the way we parent - will be different to that of their mum. Children don't get confused by these types of 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.
I haven't always found it easy to learn to care for and settle my child, and it has taken time to understand what he may need. But over time have developed a closer bond as a result of that. Now I'm armed with a full range of intimate touch, diversionary, non-verbal and verbal cues that help us to stay in better connection. It has helped me enormously to feel more confident as a parent, particularly when we have time alone.
Tip Sensitively seek support from your partner in developing your own style and techniques in caring for and settling your child. Getting some advice about what works and doesn't work will help. This will be of great benefit to all three of you over time. Setting some guidelines and boundaries is also vital as the reality is that mums may be more used to handling babies when they're upset or crying. Keep the focus on baby and not on either parent "getting their own way" and things will be fine!
- Play & Fun
Generally speaking, children and dads will love playing together! 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 fun together. Children are naturally drawn to playing with dads because playtime can often be dynamic, exciting or even a little rough, which 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 do they interact with their environment and others? Bring your creativity to games and play. Let that little boy in you come out for a play too!
The benefits of active fathering
Active fathering impacts on our children, relationships, families and communities. Research indicates that it 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 because active fathers are confident. This meansthat parenting tasks and running a home tend to be divided more evenly, greatly benefiting both parents, especially if they want to take time out,or return to study, work or an interest.
For mothers, knowing that their partners are confident, capable and involved 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.
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.
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 that I have found hard to work out and continue to fine-tune constantly. There have been some areas of my life where I have had to compromise and other areas where I have gained. For me, becoming an active father has been the best thing and the hardest thing I've ever done.
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.