FATHERHOOD: WITH PROFESSOR RICHARD FLETCHER
Professor Richard Fletcher is the head of the Fathers and Families Research Program at the University of Newcastle and Author of The Dad Factor, a book showing how father–baby bonding helps a baby for life. Professor Fletcher examines with The Father Hood the generational bridge of fatherhood and the factors involved in fostering strong and healthy bonds between fathers and their children.
For almost twenty years, I’ve been travelling to different communities around Australia to talk to parents about a father’s role in raising healthy children.
I must have done more than 1500 of those sessions. I’ve given these talks for mechanics, police, GPs, schoolteachers—men from all sorts of different backgrounds.
And there’s one question I always ask the audience: ‘When did you make the shift from being a boy to being a man?’What’s the most common answer from all those men? ‘When I became a father.’
There have been a lot of studies looking at men who’ve had rough backgrounds—growing up in poverty or abusive families—and exploring how they can escape those social expectations and patterns. One of the ways the evidence shows they can often get out is by becoming a dad. They might be unlikely to get a really good job, they might be unlikely to go to university, but they can become a dad, and that can give them a whole new sense of self. It can give them a purpose and a pathway.
But what you do as a father can also affect generations to come. Today, we know from brain mapping that positive fathering (i.e. interacting with your baby with warmth and involvement) affects the chemistry of an infant’s brain. It builds up their neural networks and makes those pathways more solid. The networks and pathways that aren’t used wither and disappear. By bonding with their baby, what the father is doing is actually building a network of connections in that infant’s brain that will help it socially, help it at school and help it in the world. You can’t underestimate what the possibilities are there. Right now, I think it’s the most exciting time in history to be a dad.
I remember thirty-odd years ago when former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke cried in public after getting a message about his daughter’s substance abuse. There were all these newspaper articles saying, ‘Has he lost it? Is he falling apart?’ Back then, the reaction to showing emotion about your children in public was, ‘No way.’
But there’s been a really big change. We, as fathers now, have a lot more permission to see ourselves in an emotional way, in an emotional relationship with our children. We’re not just expected to pay for things, earn the money and be the disciplinarian. I think we’ve got more permission now to be emotionally involved.
The drawback, if you like, is that dads have now got to figure it all out. And there are no real blueprints for doing this. New dads, I think, are pioneers. They’ve got to figure out how to make it all work and find the right balance and they’ve got to do that without a road map. But they also have more opportunity now than ever before. It’s a wonderful time to be a dad.