Fathers in the spotlight. Why this matters, and why we are looking at new fathers’ mental health

By Ranjana Das and Paul Hodkinson

The last week has seen the launch of an important new policy document by the Fatherhood Institute that highlights the importance of counting different sorts of fathers in household data, including those living apart from mothers. While the full findings of the report are available to the public, and these findings have been analysed by many others, we wished to use this moment as a springboard to thinking about why the growing recent emphasis on fathers and fatherhood matters, and connect this to some new work of our own on new fathers’ mental health and wellbeing.

From implied dad to empirical dad

This impetus to make fathers ‘count’ is evidenced differentially, but simultaneously, by (1) a host of policy documents, (2) rich sociological research on fathering and gender, fathering identities, fatherhood and masculinity, and fatherhood and parental leave policies, (3) and through the growing visibility of father’s voices on social media including the blogosphere. We suggest that this multi-level visibility – from discourse through research to policy – has begun to make the ‘implied’ and ‘assumed’ father become a real, lived, empirical agent, producing and being produced by societal structures. Amongst other things, this has highlighted the extent to which fathers’ care contributions, working conditions, parental pay, mental health and wellbeing are critical not simply for their own sakes, but also for the wellbeing of children, mothers and families, and in particular for broader gender equality in a society which continues to place massive amounts of responsibility on mothers to bear the burden of primary care. As one of us has written previously (as part of ongoing work with Rachel Brooks), countless roadblocks to this still exist, and much needs to change. But more optimistically, this movement we are witnessing right now, from implied/assumed dad to real/empirical dad offers extensive opportunities for social science, social policy, and indeed, for mothers, families and children.

Is dad okay?

This makes it timely, we think, to ask now, if dad is okay, when life changes with the arrival of a baby, considering the long history of evidence that men struggle to communicate and find support for mental health. Crucially, this should be approached as complementary to, rather than taking away from, the critical importance of maternal postnatal mental health – for we see the two as linked and mutually shaping. In the face of austerity related cuts severely impacting face-to-face provisions for mothers postnatally, rightful pressure is being exerted on the government to make better provisions for mothers, and as one of us argues, this could also include digital provisions. Although evidence establishes that men suffer from postnatal mental illnesses too, public opinion is divided on whether the terminology of “postnatal” mental health difficulties can be justifiably used for both mothers and fathers. We suggest that terminology here may be less of an issue, than the fact that we need to find a way to research and find more support for parents facing life with a new baby. This means arguing for more support for a range of issues, often dissimilar in nature, from hormone-driven postnatal mental illnesses (applying to birth-giving mothers), through isolation-driven postnatal emotional difficulties for instance (applying to mothers, but potentially to both parents), to gendered, societal impetuses on mothers to mother perfectly (applying particularly to mothers, but potentially to parents in general).

New research on fathers, mental health and digital tech

Our new work, just taking off, brings together our respective interests in, and past fieldwork with, fathers as primary and equal carers (Hodkinson, with Rachel Brooks), and perinatal maternal wellbeing and the internet (Das), as we are setting out, this year, to speak to dads who have experienced mental health difficulties after the arrival of a new baby. We aim to pay equal attention to fathers who have diagnosed and undiagnosed forms of mental health difficulties, focusing particularly on the ways in which they communicate (or not) about these, and find support (or not). But as sociologists of (amongst other things) media and communication, we are keen to focus also on fathers who increasingly speak out on social media, fathers who lurk but cannot quite engage, and those who keep things to themselves. Equally, we plan to look at lay discourse, on and offline, and on policy documents, around paternal mental health. If men struggle to communicate about mental health, if support for men is even sketchier than those for women (as researchers in Bournemouth are seeking to investigate), and if fathers’ wellbeing is directly relevant to mums, kids and families, then, we suggest, through this new work, that the time is right to ask – “is Dad okay?”.


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