The Forgotten Parent
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Happy Father's Day 2019!
Do you believe the myth that Hallmark created Father’s Day as a marketing ploy? Although it’s true that Hallmark generates close to $800 million a year in Father’s Day cards, Father’s Day celebrations actually date back to the Middle Ages. In the 20th century in the United States, there was major political and social resistance before Father’s Day was finally established as a permanent national holiday in 1972, whereas Mother’s Day was signed into law in 1914.
Father’s Day 2019 has just passed, and whether or not you celebrated the holiday, dads should be celebrated every day. Fathers must also acknowledge how important they are in the development of their children, families, and personal selves. It’s not so coincidental that Father’s Day was only signed into law in the 1970s since fathers were also termed the “forgotten parent” in the psychological literature up until that era. Mothers were generally regarded as the main caregiver, whereas dads were seen as the breadwinner; only in the periphery of family life.
Societal expectations of fathers have been ever-changing since the 1970s. Scholars have since noted the important roles dads play in early stages of infancy, and that they can form secure attachments to their child even within the first year of a child’s life. In many ways, fathers are important for the emotional, social, psychological, physical, and sexual development of both male and female children, and researchers have found that fathers are able to be nurturing, warm, supportive, caring, and responsible, just as they can be playful and activating. Researchers note positive correlations between father involvement and children’s academic achievement, intelligence scores, problem solving skills, and language development. Positive paternal care is also associated with lower levels of impulsivity and aggression, and higher ratings of inhibitory control in their children.
In today’s day and age, the abundance of familial, financial, social, academic, and religious pressures take up so much time, that fathers often have difficulty finding time to spend with their children. Scholars point out that there is a big difference between the quantity of time dads spend with children versus the quality of that time. Father involvement does not add up to the number of hours spent with children; it alludes to the degree of engagement, responsibility, accessibility, and love that a father dedicates to his family and children. A father may be very busy at work during the day, but can also provide a distinct paternal presence in his home if he is able to actively engage with his children on emotional, social, and academic levels. This is true even if it’s only for a relatively short time per day. This dad can make a bigger difference in his children’s lives than a dad who is home for many hours of the day, but fails to engage with them directly. Even taking a child along for a quick trip to the grocery store or to mow the lawn can help foster a positive relationship between the dad and his child.
Oftentimes husbands say, “I help out a lot with the kids at home.” I then ask them, “Does your wife also use the word ‘help’ when she engages in childcare?” Another term I often hear is “babysitting,” such as, “I can’t hang out tonight because I’m babysitting.” I have never heard a mother say that in regard to caring for her children. We are no longer in the 1950s where women stay at home to cook, clean and care for the children while men are the only breadwinners. Today, many women are employed as well, which shifts some of these responsibilities to the father.
On that note, one of the frustrations I hear from men is that they do want to engage in childcare tasks, but that they are often criticized by the mother for not doing things “right.” So instead of taking part, they avoid trying in the first place to avoid failure. The result of this is that moms end up taking over, leaving the dads feeling left out, unwanted, or not needed. On the flipside, researchers have found that the more that women perceive and appraise the father’s role as positive, important, and unique, the more men will identify as a father and contribute in that manner. This means that when women accept that men are just as able to engage and succeed in these activities, even if they are done differently, their husbands will live up to those expectations since it becomes more meaningful to them. The key is empowering men to embrace their role as an involved father by accepting and recognizing their efforts.
In general, men want to be good fathers and good husbands. Prospective dads often tell me how they are preparing themselves to become a father. Some start dieting or exercising, while some become more spiritually or religiously engaged. They explain that they want their child to have a good role model and that they want to change themselves for the better. In one of my research studies on fatherhood, many dads reported that their overall perspective on life changed drastically with the birth of their children. Their focus now revolved around their children and everything became dependent on this new view of the world.
Nowadays, dads are still trying to navigate the traditional roles of men versus the more progressive societal expectations of men. Many dads learned from their own fathers how to be a dad, leaving certain responsibilities for the mothers to deal with. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is important for men and women to have conversations about how they view their parenting responsibilities and sense of parental identity. Men should ask themselves, “How do I define myself as a father, and what unique contributions am I providing for my children?” It is also important for women to recognize the importance of father involvement, whether the father is living with the family or not.
Dad appreciation is not simply thanking fathers for “pitching in” and “babysitting” when available, because dads know that this is part of their parental responsibilities. It is to acknowledge that their presence and involvement is crucial and meaningful for the developmental success of their children. It is important to provide specific incidents that capture your feelings of appreciation and love towards your father or husband and that reflect the uniqueness of their role. When fathers appraise their own identity positively, and when they believe their partners and others is society do the same, they experience validation and commitment in their role as a dad. This in turn provides motivation and meaning for increased father involvement and paternal behavior. Fathers have a unique role in the family. They need to be celebrated, not forgotten.