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What it means to be a modern father

Father swimming with baby girl
Credit: iStock.com/romrodinka

Modern fathers are less likely to be able to change a tyre or fix a dripping tap, but more likely to be able to change a baby’s nappy and bake a birthday cake, research suggests.

Dr Anna Machin, evolutionary anthropologist and author of The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father, says a decade of research on dads shows their role is changing.

“Rather than being the wage earner and disciplinarian of the 1950s, we now see dads taking a much bigger role in caring for and nurturing their children,” she says.

“Many young fathers now want to see themselves as equal to the mum, a co-parent rather than the secondary parent.

“This has in part been driven by societal and economic changes, such as reductions in post-birth care for women and the need for two wage earners within the household.

“It is also driven by a growing understanding of how important dads are to their children’s development.”

Dr Machin highlights that when we talk about dads, besides the biological father of the child, we are also talking about stepdads, adoptive dads, uncles, grandfathers and friends.

Rather than being the wage earner and disciplinarian of the 1950s, we now see dads taking a much bigger role in caring for and nurturing their children.
Dr Anna Machin

The Australian dad

In 2013, McCrindle Research reported that 20 per cent of Australia’s population is made up of dads.

That equates to about 4.6 million dads in 2013. Of these, the report continues, 156,000 are single fathers.

The report also found that first time dads are older than previous generations with the average age of a father being 33.1 years old.

Interestingly, the report found that the average time fathers and mothers spend caring for their child per day has not changed between 1997 and 2006: four and 8.5 hours respectively.

How men spend their time with their children has changed though.

The report says that dads are, “less likely to be adept at building a cubby house, fixing a tap or a punctured tyre, but more likely to change a baby’s nappy, bake a birthday cake, wash clothes and drop the kids off at school".

The report also notes that 16 per cent of Australian men feel their work and family responsibilities are rarely or never in balance although the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has found that the number of dads using flexible working arrangements to care for their children has doubled since the mid-90s, with around 30 per cent of dads using flexible work hours to look after children under the age of 12, compared to 16 per cent of dads 20 years ago.

In addition, dads working from home, in order to care for their children, has doubled from seven per cent to 14 per cent, while dads working part-time has increased from one per cent to five per cent.

In 2015, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found an increase in fathers taking leave after the birth of their child going from 31 per cent in 2004, to 49 per cent in 2015.

While the statistics look promising for dads, Dr Machin highlights the challenges today’s dads are facing.

“As a culture, we still have a system which means dads are the primary wage earners and are offered very little leave after the birth of their child,” she says.

“Where there might be more leave, the workplace has not evolved to think that it is normal for a dad to take time off to be with his child, so men often face difficulties in asking for leave or flexible working. 

“They are forced to be the 1950s wage earning dad and the modern hands-on dad. The having-it-all idea.

“This can lead to immense stress, as they do not have the capacity to do both as well as they would like to."

What happens to men when they become a dad?

“Men are as equally biologically primed to parent as women are,” says Dr Machin.

She explains that, as with mothers, there is an increase in grey and white matter in areas of the brain linked to nurturing, risk detection, empathising, problem solving, planning and goal orientation in new fathers.

“These are all skills which parents require to care for their young and keep them safe,” she says.

There is also a drop in testosterone around the time of the birth.

“This drop, which is seen in all animals where the father sticks around and cares for his young, is vital to shift the man’s focus towards the family,” she says.

“We know that men with lower testosterone are more motivated to care for their child and more sensitive to their child’s physical and emotional needs.”

As for the type of father men will be, they just need to turn to their own dad, explains Dr Machin.

“Twin studies have shown us that around 20 per cent of fathering is inherited genetically, while 80 per cent is influenced by the environment.

“A man is greatly influenced by the fathering he encounters as a child whether it be his own father or other fathers he has knowledge of. 

“Bad fathering doesn’t necessarily cross generations and certainly one of the drivers to become a dad can be to right the wrongs of one’s own father.”

How dads bond with their babies

While mums get a head start on bonding with their newborns thanks to the hormones associated with the birth, for some dads, it can take a bit longer to develop that deep bond.

Men have to develop their bond by interaction,” says Dr Machin.

“This can be tricky initially, as babies are not capable of two-way interaction, so there can be a delay in a bond forming between dad and baby. 

“This panics some dads, but we try to prepare them for it and tell them that it will come. 

“Once the baby is developmentally able to interact, by babbling, laughing, smiling and playing, then a two-way relationship is developed and both baby and dad get flooded with bonding chemicals. 

“In the early days, one of the key behaviours which can help is baby massage but around six months babies become capable of starting to play with their dads and this is a key bonding behaviour. 

Rough and tumble play is particularly good at releasing hormones and bonding dad and baby and I try to encourage all the dads I study, to spend time playing in this way with their children.”

Dads matter to sons and daughters

While it is important to establish a bond in those first few months, Dr Machin says it is equally as important for dads to be present in their children’s lives, which is why flexible work arrangements for fathers are so important.

“Dads have a particular role in the development of language, of pro-social skills such as empathising, sharing and trust, of executive functions such as behaviour inhibition and because they have this special role in the social sphere, they have a larger role in their child’s mental health, than mums,” she says.

“They are the one to teach resilience, dealing with failure, assessing risk and confronting challenge.”

Dr Machin adds that while this is the case for both sons and daughters, dads have a particular role in their daughter’s self-esteem, confidence and assertiveness.

“They have a disproportionate influence on their daughter’s academic and career success, their relationships and their mental health,” she says.

Support dads to do their job

“Unfortunately, society has been slow to keep up with these changes in parenting and we still view dad as being a secondary, even a dispensable, parent,” says Dr Machin.

“Governments and healthcare sectors have been slow to support fathers and to acknowledge their equal role as a parent.”

So, how do we best support dads?

“Firstly, by viewing them as an equal player in the game of childbirth and parenting,” she says.

“By understanding that they have an individual relationship with their child and that they will have their own concerns, questions, needs. 

“As a society, we need to stop stereotyping dads as either inept or absent.

“Because really this is not who dad is.

“We need to understand what dads bring to their children and that the family benefits us all as we raise the next generation.”