Psychiatric TimesPsychiatric Times Vol 21 No 11
Volume 21
Issue 11

As society and the definition of family in the West changes, fathers in the 21st century face emotional and psychological obstacles to a healthy parent-child relationship. This article examines professional interventions and other resources that can help prepare fathers to be effective parents.

Parenthood for father and mother is both a transition and a transformation, although many factors alter the roles themselves (Benedek, 1959; Lamb, 1975). As education, technology, society and the definition of family change--especially with the high divorce rate in the West--fathers in the 21st century are less assured of their impact on the lives of their children.

However, appropriate preparation for fatherhood has the potential to enhance maternal, child and family health (Gage and Kirk, 2002). Emotional and psychological obstacles can be worked through to enhance the father-child relationship. This article will examine the father's changing role in Western society and resources that can help prepare fathers to fill that role.


Throughout human history, war and the abandonment of pregnant women have left children fatherless. Before World War II, the single mother remained within her family circle, where a grandfather or uncle could become a substitute father. Today, the multigenerational family in the affluent West is rare.

A surprise result in a 1999 poll taken in the United States by The National Center for Fathering revealed that 72.2% of respondents saw fatherlessness as the most significant social problem facing America. A 1997 Gallup Poll had shown that 24.7 million children (36.3%) lived without a father. It was estimated that in 1954, 80% of children in the United States lived with both biological parents whereas in 1997 only 50% had intact families. Data from 1997 also show that approximately 58% of black children, 32% of Hispanic children and 21% of white children lived with a single mother.

Obstacles to responsible fatherhood include lack of education, training and jobs needed to provide for children (Lurie, 1992). Aside from programs that provide low-income fathers with the education and work opportunities needed to become consistent providers, to become good fathers, many men require guidance in dealing with feelings of anger or low self-esteem. Support groups can address such issues as child rearing, male-female relationships, decision making, anger control and taking responsibility for one's life (Lurie, 1992).

Another critical factor in a father's involvement with his child is the quality of his attachment to the child's mother (United States Office of Personnel Management, 2000). Lack of attachment and the emotional throes of divorce can upset the father-child relationship. Similarly, in a study of African-American fathers' involvement with their infants, fathers who reported a more satisfying relationship were more involved with their infants (The Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, 2004). In addition, adolescent parenthood has been associated with long-term outcomes of greater depression compared to men who became parents during their 20s (Heath et al., 1995). Treatment of anger and depression can help guide men to becoming good fathers.

In 1976, Goldberg's The Hazards of Being Male warned that there were problems with the "privileges" of being a man. He believed it was a form of discrimination that a pregnant woman had the total say about an unexpected pregnancy--the father could not insist on an abortion nor that she not abort. The law protected only her decision, not his. He also felt that many men stayed trapped in a difficult marriage and encouraged them to put themselves first. He devoted a chapter to 19 impossible binds in which a man was "damned," regardless of the choice he made. Goldberg felt social pressures were contradictory to a man's inner needs.

Feminine rearing of boys who were later expected to be tough men was a particular issue. The task of dis-identifying from mother is a developmental task for every boy (Greenson, 1968). Fathering, therefore, remains a key issue for single mothers and in divorced families. Male teachers, ministers, sports heroes and even gangs play a role in providing substitute father figures, for better or for worse.

Father, the Nurturer

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.


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.




Benedek T (1959), Parenthood as a developmental phase; a contribution to the libido theory. J Am Psychoanal Assoc 7(3):389-417.


Downey P (2000), So You're Going To Be a Dad. Tucson, Ariz.: Fisher Books.


The Fragile Family and Child Well-Being Study (2004), Unmarried African-American fathers' involvement with their infants: the role of couple relationships. Fragile Familes Research Brief No. 21.


Gage JD, Kirk R (2002), First-time fathers: perceptions of preparedness for fatherhood. Can J Nurs Res 34(4):15-24.


Goldberg H (1976), The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege. New York: Nash Publications.


Greenson RR (1968), Dis-identifying from mother: its special importance for the boy. Int J Psychoanal 49(2):370-374.


Hass A (1994), The Gift of Fatherhood: How Men's Lives Are Transformed by Their Children. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Heath DT, Mckenry PC, Leigh GK (1995), The consequences of adolescent parenthood on men's depression, parental satisfaction, and fertility in adulthood. J Soc Serv Res 20(3-4):127-148.


Lamb ME (1975), Fathers: forgotten contributors to child development. Hum Dev 18(4):245-266.


Lurie T (1992), Fathers and families: forging ties that bind. Ford Found Rep 23(3):3-8.


Renshaw DC (1982), Incest: Understanding and Treatment. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.


United States Office of Personnel Management (2000), OPM's Third Annual Conference on Fatherhood: Multiple initiatives help men to be better fathers. Focus on Federal Employee Health and Assistance Programs 11(2):1-2,8.

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