In December 2018 NHS England announced that new fathers were to get mental health support to help them cope with the expectations – and realities – of becoming a parent. The NHS is slowly waking up to the need to help new fathers, says Dr Jeremy Davies of the Fatherhood Institute – but there is more that can be done. We ask him how practices can better support these dads-to-be
Why is it important to engage new fathers?
Evidence suggests that fathers are quite often ignored, or allowed to feel like a ‘spare part’, rather than being dealt with as an important part of the family. The most important period for engaging with dads is when they first find out they are going to be a father. This is a crucial time for men as well as women in lots of ways. For some, it’s an emotionally challenging period where their own upbringing and family background loom large in their minds as they start to navigate their new role. Many dads want to do things differently, compared to how their own dads were.
The period of the pregnancy is often a golden opportunity to support men to make healthy choices in the interests of their unborn child, for example around smoking, exercise and nutrition, alcohol and drugs. We know that fathers’ behaviours impact on their children, as well as the mothers of their children, and that men see becoming a dad as a chance for a new start, or to ‘clean up their act’.
Also, dads’ mental health is a big focus right now, thanks to the changes promised by the NHS Long Term Plan; services should be thinking about fathers in terms of their own mental health and also their impact on, and role in, supporting, mothers’ mental health.
Could practices – and GPs – do more to support new dads?
So far our research has focused on midwives’ and health visitors’ services rather than general practice, but the same principles apply. Often it’s really simple things that make dads feel unimportant or secondary – staff not calling them by their name, not smiling at them or even making eye contact. Dads are often viewed suspiciously, or talked at as if they are not in a position to make decisions, because mum must be the ‘boss’.
The overall headline is that GPs and other health professionals should be ‘seeing’ men’s fatherhood. Lots of men are highly involved in their children’s lives – and this includes men whose children might present as being looked after by a ‘single mum’; just because they live with mum most of the time doesn’t mean dad’s disappeared…and when they’re staying with him he may be just as much ‘in charge’ as she is when they stay with her.
The first step towards supporting dads is knowing who they are – so if you don’t know whether a man is a father, ask him, record that fact and make a point of ‘checking in’ with him sometimes about how it’s going. A single dad may never turn up with his children, because they may be registered at a different practice, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a dad.
Do you think dads actually want to become as involved as mothers?
It’s still the case that mothers do the bulk of the care-giving, and dads the bulk of the earning. But dads do a significant amount of looking after children nowadays – way more than was the case even 10 or 20 years ago. If we keep addressing everything just to mum, it perpetuates the idea that parenting is fully their responsibility, and something they are naturally ‘better’ at. In fact, there’s no evidence of that being the case. We should be acknowledging that modern couples want to share the caring, and engage with both fathers and mothers on that basis.
Are there any resources practices can use to support expectant fathers?
There are various websites, aimed at new dads, which they may find useful. Examples include:
- Dad Info: https://www.dad.info/
- Dads Network: https://www.thedadsnet.com/
- Dad Pad: https://thedadpad.co.uk/.
Read more about the Fatherhood Institute at: www.fatherhoodinstitute.org.