Six reasons why fatherhood is hard

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Happy Father’s Day!

I wish all the best to fathers around the world, and hope that all dads have special celebrations in honor of Father’s Day.

Fatherhood is wonderful and brings a lot of joy from the moment that they meet their children for the first time; however, today’s fathers are facing unique yet significant challenges that are not fully recognized even by their own family. In this article, I discuss the challenges encountered by fathers, including how biological changes affect their early fatherhood, why they experience criticism and judgement, how relationship with their partners evolves after having the first child, how gender stereotypes affect them, and why they need supportive communities.

1. Fathers do have biological and hormonal changes at the early stage of their fatherhood

Most new fathers go through biological and hormonal changes, although those are not widely recognized even by fathers themselves. “Starting a few weeks after childbirth, testosterone levels lower as prolactin, vasopressin, and other hormones increase, rewiring a man's brain to prepare him for fatherhood. Entire areas of a man's brain grow and develop in response to hormonal changes in the first year of a child's life, which equip him with crucial skills to care for a newborn. This includes an increased sensitivity to crying, a deeper capacity to bond emotionally, and a greater responsiveness to another's needs”, according to Psychology Today.

On the other hand, hormonal changes in maternal bodies during pregnancy are well known, which allows new mothers to mentally and physically prepare to become parents. Mothers experience hormonal changes from the very early stage of their pregnancy, and spend months biologically getting ready to become mothers. In comparison, men usually have much shorter time to prepare themselves as parents. Because men experience parental hormonal changes much later than women do, many of them start their fatherhood without enough preparation, which gives them hard time in their transition. As a result, many women observe – or even complain openly or secretly – that their male partners are not as ready as they expect new fathers to be.                            

There are not many children’s picture books featuring fatherhood, although mothers appear in so many children books. From “Families'“, by Star Bright Books.

There are not many children’s picture books featuring fatherhood, although mothers appear in so many children books. From “Families'“, by Star Bright Books.

2. Judgmental and critical remarks could come from their partners

Fathers are often criticized or judged on their parenting choices, which could discourage them from developing healthy and happy fatherhood. About half of American fathers in a national poll say that they have faced criticism and judgement about their parenting decisions on almost everything including how they discipline children, what they feed children, how they play with children, according to Neuroscience News. In many cases, they are criticized by their co-parents – their children’s mothers. Traditionally, fathers took less or limited roles on parenting in a family. Even though modern fathers take more active roles, majority of fathers are still marginalized in parenting roles while mothers are primary caregiver to children, resulting in the reality that fathers often need their co-parents’ approval or correction in taking care of children. Those judgmental remarks from partners often stem from inconsistency between parents on their parental vision and choices. Thus, instead of judging and criticizing each other, parents would be better off by sharing their vision and raising children in a more consistent manner.

Another page from “Families”.

Another page from “Families”.

3. Relationship changes or loss deeply affect new fathers

After a baby is born, many mothers focus almost exclusively on the newborn rather than on the relational satisfaction with their partner. New fathers are therefore left more vulnerable following the change or loss of relationship, while new mothers are busy taking care of and bonding with newborn babies. In fact, one of the major causes of marital dissatisfaction and divorce is the birth of the first baby, as stated by John M. Gottman in his book “The Seven Principle for Making Marriage Work.” Two thirds of new parents underwent a precipitous drop in marital satisfaction the first time they became parents, while some other new parents saw their marriage improve, according to the research conducted by John M. Gottman.

In my personal experience, it was quite tough to overcome the relationship changes that had taken place in our early stage of parenthood. As our first child was born in a critical medical condition and needed a lot of attention, it was difficult to keep our relationship as joyful and affectionate as it used to be for our first few years of our parenthood. Our relationship gradually recovered after we were able to comfortably leave our child(ren) with trustable babysitters while we had date nights. I seriously recommend new parents in marital status invest time and energy to keep, nourish, or improve their relationship.

4. Many fathers meet pressures to financially support their family

Men are more likely to be the single or the primary breadwinner of household, which put additional pressure on fathers. Finding a job is much tougher for women than it is for men around the world. When women are employed, they tend to work in low-quality jobs in vulnerable conditions with lower wages, and there is little improvement forecast in the near future, according to International Labor Organization. In addition, more women than men leave workforce when they have a new child voluntarily or involuntarily with varying factors such as lack of affordable childcare, pursuit of work-life balance, or unfair dismissal for pregnancy. Besides, there is still a widespread gender stereotype that men should earn money while mothers focus on bring up children.

5. Fathers are often lonely without enough support from community or family

Most men are not social animals when it comes to building parents’ communities even if they need one. There are not many supportive groups for fathers although there are plenty of those for mothers. While many mothers create or join mutual support communities (in person or on-line) to make Mom friends, men are less likely to make friends with each other through their children. In addition, men tend to suppress their emotions and are reluctant to share their feelings for fear of sounding ridiculous or looking weak to their wives, who are the primary caregivers, according to research. Such tendency makes it even harder for men to seek for help.

Also, support and attention from family members mostly go to newborn babies or new mothers, rather than to new fathers. For example, when my husband I had our first child, we were struggling to take care of our newborn by ourselves. My own mother was very worried that I might develop postpartum depression, so she even spent more than her humble monthly income to travel from Japan to USA for the purpose of assisting me as a new mother. Although she only stayed with us for less than a week, the mental support I received from her was tremendous and saved me a lot. Unfortunately, many new fathers don’t expect much emotional support from their own family members.

There is nothing like building an affectionate relationship between father and child. From a Japanese children’s book “こりゃまてまて” (meaning “Ah, Just Wait”) by Nakawaki and Sakai.

There is nothing like building an affectionate relationship between father and child. From a Japanese children’s book “こりゃまてまて” (meaning “Ah, Just Wait”) by Nakawaki and Sakai.

6. Many men suffer from postpartum depression as a result of above-mentioned factors and others

Paternal postpartum depression (PPD) is little known to public but actually experienced by a number of fathers. There are 1 in 10 to as many as 1 in 4 new dads who have postpartum depression, according to PostpartumMen.

The social ignorance of paternal PPD makes things worse. Maternal PPD is widely known and many mothers unfortunately go through PPD. However, because of the higher awareness of maternal PPD, many new mothers can emotionally prepare for distress and even take preventive measures such as attending yoga classes, engaging in meditative activities, or expanding social networks. In contrast, few men prepare for possible mental hardship in advance. Instead, they all of sudden experience overwhelming amount of changes after the arrival of their babies, without knowing that men could be affected by PPD despite that fact that any new fathers have a risk of suffering from it.


Then, what needs to be done?

Our society is moving from traditional family models to more diversified ones. A generation ago, families mostly existed in a traditional way: fathers earned money and mothers primarily (or solely) took care of children and chores. However, nowadays more women participate in workforce; more fathers take active parental roles; some fathers decide to become stay-home-parents; some same sex couples have children; and there are more single parents.

In this rapidly changing world, we need to properly understand and celebrate fatherhood as much as we do for motherhood. Also, if men go through tough fatherhood, we should make sure that they receive enough support through partners, family members, friends, supportive groups, communities, or professionals including therapists and coaches.

(cover photo by Szilvia Basso on Unsplash)