Anna Machin: The Importance of Being Dad

Why study dads?

I am often asked why a woman would want to research and write about fathers. Well, the short answer is that I am married to one. Ten years ago, I gave birth to my first child and three years later my second. It turns out that giving birth is not one of my strong points, and the first birth in particular was a long, drawn-out drama resulting in a very sick mother and very sick baby. Following this birth experience, I was offered counselling and support to deal with my expected trauma, but my husband – who had witnessed everything while I floated around, oblivious in a sea of morphine – was roundly ignored.

Now, I have to make it clear here, or I will be in trouble, that my husband did not expect any support. He believed that the focus should rightly be placed on me and our baby. But a year on, when I returned to work and my husband still could not speak of our daughter’s birth without showing significant emotional distress, I began to get angry.

Angry that my husband, the co-parent of my child, had witnessed a trauma akin to watching a loved one involved in a horrific car crash but at no point did anyone ask him if he was okay, if he needed some help. Angry that, while we had approached having children as a team – deciding to have children together, anxiously awaiting the pregnancy test result together, attending all the antenatal appointments together – once in hospital it was suddenly just me having a baby.

My husband’s needs, questions and experiences were not relevant. So, on my return to work as an academic, I did what academics do best. I turned to the research literature to find out what my fellow scientists knew about fathers and their experiences.

The Silent Parent

The answer was: very little. Yes, there was extensive literature assessing the impact of the absent father on his children. But literature was silent about the experience of the dedicated, involved dad. The dad who changes the nappies, coaches football practice, masters the French plait and chases away the bedtime monsters. There is no doubt that there are a minority of fathers, as there are mothers, who are defined by their absence. Their negative influence on their children’s development can be real and critical.

But there is a much, much larger contingent of fathers who stick around and do their best. And they also deserve to be recognized and understood. So, I made this my mission. To research the experience of fathers who were present in their children’s lives. Tell their story from the positive rather than the negative angle.  Explore the importance of being dad.

The Science of Being Dad

Over a decade later, I and my colleagues now know so much about what it is to become a dad in the 21st century.  We have discovered that men, just like mum, go through significant biological and psychological changes to help prepare them to be a parent. 

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Their hormones change, their brains alter and they take on a whole new identity as ‘dad’. This changes how they view their world at work and at home.  Prompted by a significant drop in testosterone, they shift their focus from the outside world to their family. The areas of the brain critical to parenting expand to get ready to protect, nurture, teach and care. 

Rather than being the secondary parent, dads have an influence just as significant as mum on their child’s emotional, behavioural and intellectual development.  They even have a more powerful role when it comes to shaping their child’s ability to survive in our rough, tough social world. 

Dads come in many, many forms  – biological, step, adoptive, gay, uncle, grandfather, teacher, friend – and achieve their goals in many, many different ways but at their heart they all share a powerful bond with their children which influences them throughout their life.  As a consequence they are the parent who primarily underpins their child’s life-long mental good health.

Dads play a central part, too

In our society we have a bad attitude to dads, portraying them as useless, dispensable, disinterested when in fact they are central to the lives of their children, family and our wider society.  It is no exaggeration to say that without them our species would not have survived.

Spreading the Word and Empowering Dads

And I have written all of this down in a book – The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father – so important is it that dads know this about themselves.  That they are as biologically primed to parent as any mother and that they have a unique, special and vital role to play in all our lives.

I continue to spend a considerable amount of my time sharing what we now know with the general public and governments through talks and films. All this, because I want to change the perception about dads. I want to build a body of support for them and empower them. To claim their rightful place on the pedestal. Right next to mum.  

Dr. Anna Machin is an evolutionary anthropologist, writer and broadcaster who specialises in the science and anthropology of our closest relationships.  Follow her on Twitter @dr_aMachin or visit her website for more blogs, articles and films.

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