Since the early 1950s affordable single-family homes, distance from traditional multigenerational families and reliable daytime child care have allowed both parents to work outside the home. As a result, many working parents also took turns to watch their children. Fathers found they could become competent nurturers who could feed, burp, bathe, soothe and diaper their little ones and, in return, discovered unconditional love and smiles. For the long hours and hard work there was gratifying adoration of "Daddy." Patience, protection and persistence are learned parenting qualities, essential and reinforced daily (Benedek, 1959).
Society today has given fathers confusing expectations: Be a good provider; be an aggressive workplace competitor; be a fearless protector; be wise, gentle and sensitive in difficult times; plus, be a considerate lover to your children's mother. For many, parenting is the emotional birth of responsibility for the survival of an important other beyond the self.
How similar are the parenting skills between mother and father? Some have said that after delivery the only real mothering and fathering difference is breast-feeding. Many will list patience, endurance, tolerating sleep deprivation, acute hearing to wake up for a crying baby, coping with messy secretions, laundry, food preparation and other details as mother's tasks. By trial and necessity, these can be learned--usually the hard way. Once mastered, a routine makes domestic tasks much easier or even a challenge for a caretaker father if easier or quicker ways are discovered.
The difference for today's fathers is a new awareness of all the stages of fatherhood. Reading materials are always of value. The Internet has abundant articles and resources (See Table).
The role of the father is rarely consciously taught from father to son. Modeling requires side-by-side daily living and observation of positive or negative behavior. A few contemporary fathers have a new appreciation of fatherhood and have written to encourage and assist fathers about the pitfalls and growth potential (Downey, 2000; Hass, 1994).
Because the mother carries the baby, the mother-child bond is usually more binding than for the father. The father-child attachment bond has been neglected, understudied and often undervalued. In the 1970s, Michael Lamb's research on how fathers contribute to their children's development showed significant positives to daughters' achievements, as well as to sons' (Lamb, 1975).Childhood Memories
Many men say, "I am trying to be for my children the father I never had, the father I wish I had when I was growing up." Fantasy is powerful, so the idea of a dream dad may frequently be the opposite of the drunk, absent or divorced father.
When past childhood resentments surface about how an individual suffered due to a neglectful, absent, mean or cruel parent, there is a useful technique to examine retrospective details of what was experienced. The exercise, a copy of which can be found online at www.psychiatrictimes.com/fathering2.html, asks the patient to recall what they liked most then least about their mother and father, then write it down. Perspective is vital for healing through understanding how current behavior may actually repeat the past, so that change and growth can proceed.
Reflex erections or sudden arousal may occur in a care-taking parent quite normally. These must be recognized, controlled instantly and expressed later alone or with the appropriate peer partner. Incest is a criminal offense, harmful to a child and also to the parent who neglects the protective parent role (Renshaw, 1982).
Making peace with one's parents for perceived neglect, oversights, unfairness, abuse and even exploitation means understanding and forgiveness for being who they were--products of their own rearing and personal weaknesses. Love is earned by each person, but forgiveness will bring peace to the individual who had a difficult or negative parent.Conclusions
Today we recognize a variety of fathers: traditional married father; adolescent father; single father; at-home father; homosexual father; divorced (part-time) father; bootcamp new fathers who decide to have a "great baby race"! The father-child attachment bond must form and will vary with individual differences between parent and child. It takes years to build trust and love. Parent-child differences, conflict and hostility should be expected and may endure for years despite underlying loyalty and care. Self-help resources and professional intervention can better prepare fathers emotionally and psychologically to be effective parents.