I have spent more than 25 years writing about fatherhood, and I am a father of three grown young men. Getting into self-regulation has given me a new way of looking at fatherhood issues. I’m particularly interested in how father involvement affects the self-regulation of fathers and their partners, because I know that the partner relationship has a major impact on fathers involvement with their kids.
But first I want to touch on one of the big ideas in the fatherhood field, which is that father involvement – meaning presence, responsibility, and engagement with kids – is good for children’s development. There is lots of research about this, along with various with theories as to why and how father involvement would be beneficial for kids.
Using the Self-Reg lens it seems obvious that a skilled, caring father provides an additional interbrain to help regulate the immature brains of his children. This additional interbrain doesn’t have to be a father, of course. It can be a second mom, a grandparent, nanny or other caregiver. But, when Dad is in the picture, his interbrain activity can be very valuable, and not just for his kids. It can also help his partner.
Years ago Today’s Parent magazine asked me to write an article called “Dad’s Guide to Newborns.” I said, “Sure, as long as it’s OK if the first half of the article is about mothers.” This reflects one of my core beliefs about modern fatherhood. If a guy in a mother-father family wants to be a happy and useful hand-on dad he needs to start by understanding, supporting and honouring his partner’s parenting experience.
One of the first things I noticed in my early days of parenting was that my efforts to be involved were sometimes a source of stress for my wife. Sometimes I sort of got in her way even though I was trying to help. And when she was stressed, I found it harder to be involved. So reducing her stress seemed to make it easier for her to feel safe around my involvement. Of course, that’s not how I would have expressed it back then. But I did figure out pretty quickly, even with our first baby, that she was feeling this huge load of responsibility. I could see how much physical and emotional energy she was burning and how quickly she could become rattled (dysregulated) at times, sometimes by things I did unintentionally. She needed my general support and understanding around her experience of new motherhood at least as much or more as she needed me to be highly involved in baby care.
In today’s world, fathers have enormous potential, and a responsibility I would argue, to support the self-regulation of mothers. Fathers’ support has always been important to families. But it is important in a different way now than in the past. Historically, all cultures have understood the importance of supporting and helping mothers. Traditionally, this support, which had the effect of reducing mothers’ stress, usually came from networks of women: grandmothers, sisters, female neighbours and friends. Nowadays women are often less available to provide this support for various reasons. So, in a mother-father family, the father’s support and hands-on involvement have become key for mothers’ well-being and self-regulation.
But, as I noted, the mere fact that Dad is involved does not guarantee reduced stress for Mom. Parenting partners can add to each other’s stress. However, there’s pretty good evidence that enhancing Father/Mother teamwork and mutual support improves the parenting of both mothers and fathers.
But now I come to the point that doesn’t get much coverage in the discussion of the benefits of father involvement. Father involvement has huge potential benefits for the self-regulation of men themselves.
I logged a lot of time looking after my kids in their early years and, although it wasn’t always fun, I felt good about it. I loved the sensory experience of frequent physical contact: carrying my kids, holding their little hands or feet, smelling the tops of their heads. I also took immense satisfaction and pride from knowing how to look after the needs of little guys (my kids are all boys) who needed my help to get through the day and feel OK in the world.
I remember one time saying to my wife, “I feel like I’ve discovered this great women’s secret. Looking after kids gives you a feeling of satisfaction that you can’t get from anything else.” That feeling was very regulating for me. It buffered me, and helped me recover, from the stresses of parenting. It also helped me feel in the loop with my wife and children. I understood their experience and was part of it. Being on the outside looking in, feeling disconnected and unsure of your role, is highly dysregulating for fathers. I’ve seen it happen.
I believe that productive father involvement can also contribute to the self-regulation of communities. It is clear to me that caring for little ones – gauging and addressing their needs from minute to minute – breeds empathy. We’re born with the capacity for empathy, but fully-fledged empathy and the regulating behaviour is fosters comes from experience. The more men we can support to have these kinds of experiences the better off our society will be.
I see it happening. I see all kinds of fathers out there who are good at reading and addressing their children’s needs. But I think more could still be done to enhance father involvement and parenting teamwork in families, which brings me to my last point, or question really.
How do we help more fathers feel supported and regulated in their parenting role? Some people think fathers need to be taught more parenting skills. Sure. Parenting skills are useful. But let’s do the regulation piece first. Fathers will be much more able to connect with and learn about their kids – and use parenting strategies they’ve been taught – when they feel supported and relaxed in their parenting role and in tune with their partners and kids. When men (and women!) feel comfortable in the clothes of parenthood they are much more able to be good parents.