Men and Parenting Pathways study
The millennium role model dad is quite a guy. He’s that superhero in jeans and T-shirt who confidently takes his preschooler to the park for a play date while his newborn sits contentedly in a sling across his chest. Naturally, he and his partner successfully divide child-rearing duties while both pursuing their individual careers.
In fact, reality may be quite a long way from the picture-perfect parental egalitarianism depicted in the media, leaving many men who are already struggling with the idea of fatherhood jittery long before a blip appears on an ultrasound. In some cases, these qualms can descend into full-blown depression and anxiety.
A Deakin University fatherhood study has, like studies before it, detected more than a whiff of conflict over the ability to live up to any model, let alone one that is unfamiliar and somewhat intimidating.
“So much has been added to the role but nothing taken away and so the notion of sacrifice is heightened,” notes one of its initial papers published in April this year.
The main focus of this landmark longitudinal study titled Men and Parenting Pathways (MAPP) is to drill down and detect the factors derailing men who struggle with change in the transitional years to parenthood. And, ultimately, to find ways to help them.
The team has narrowed the study to men aged between 28 and 32 and so far has 520 respondents covering men with and without children.
Research psychologist and study leader Dr Jacqui Macdonald says that while hundreds of parenting studies exist on women, few concentrate on men. “And none,” she adds, “have established a baseline by looking in detail at what is happening around the normative or socially on-time age for men to become fathers, which in Australia is 33.”
Macdonald agrees there is some evidence so far to suggest aspects of the new millennium model may make some men feel worse off than previous generations, whose fatherhood role was more clearly defined. But she argues that with any change there are not only stresses but also opportunities.
“The question is not as simple as whether or not the paternal landscape is better or worse these days,” says Macdonald. “It’s about identifying new pathways to navigate a smooth transition to improve the lives of not only men but also their partners, their children and wider families.”
The study, which relies mainly on an online survey, will interview the respondents annually for five years to measure change in patterns of behaviour.
“This should show which men are at particular risk and the strategies used by those who are doing well,” says Macdonald. “This will be critical in developing programs to support and treat men who are vulnerable to depression and anxiety, who in some cases tragically suicide.”
Macdonald says there are several health groups interested in this data who want to go beyond one-size-fits-all solutions.
The study fits with the Australian government’s push to build knowledge about men’s mental health in light of appalling suicide rates.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ general manager of population and social statistics, Dr Paul Jelfs, recently commented on the latest figures that show about 1.5 million men aged 18 and over had a self-reported mental or behaviour condition in 2014-15.
“It’s important to get more men talking about how they’re feeling, with suicide the leading cause of death for men aged 15 to 44,” says Jelfs.
“The number of suicides among men in this age bracket has been increasing over the past 10 years. We are now seeing about 3030 suicide deaths a year, of which 2297 are males, which shows a big differential between men and women.”
Macdonald says that although online survey responses so far have not yet been analysed, trends are clearly emerging. One is that mates’ support is particularly important during the MAPP study years, seemingly more so than support from family.
“When men don’t have good social support from friends their levels of stress seem to be considerably greater,” she says.
“We don’t know if it comes down to just having them around as a sounding board or if they can do something to lighten the load like mow the lawn if the parents have to take a child off to hospital. That might be something we can explore down the track.”
On the question of uncertainty there is a fear among some men of repeating their father’s behaviour.
“These men are not sensing they have control over their future,” says Macdonald. “I work in this intergenerational process area and, yes, there is repetition, but there is more discontinuity than continuity in patterns across families over time.”
Data from the study, which is still recruiting men at mappresearch.org, also shows the strongest predictor of desire to have children is from men who had a caring father. “If the paternal care was low, and quite often it was in our sample, these men had a much lower desire to go on and have their own children,” says Macdonald.
“This is something else we need to explore. Is it because they don’t feel that they know what fatherhood looks like? So again it raises the question of shift in expectations around fatherhood.
“Some are saying, ‘I can’t see how I’m going to behave and live up to those expectations, or to fill my own expectations, now that I know what sort of father I’d like to be.’ ”
These were the questions dogging first-time dad Matt Augustyn, 33, before his son, Miles, arrived three years ago. He strongly agrees that sorting out anxieties and directions before the baby arrives is the way to go.
“Initially my thoughts went back to my childhood and my father’s lack of emotional attachment, and I was a little worried about the possibility I might repeat the behaviour,” says Augustyn.
“I came to the conclusion I was my own person and I wanted more than anything to give my son the emotional connection I missed out on. But I still had to work out how best to achieve it.”
Augustyn found part of the answer in a parenting book that turned the whole question on its head, making him realise he needed to work on himself to fit the role model his child would want to emulate.
“I really like the analogy of being a ‘captain-of-the-ship’ father who leads by example by being patient, consistent and loving.”
Augustyn says that once his son was born uncertainty crept back in, particularly in the first three to six months.
“As a first-time parent it’s hard to know if you are doing the right thing, but my wife, Joy, and I supported each other through those times. Gradually we gained confidence by watching Miles quickly develop into a happy, healthy child.”
Augustyn says he has learnt to cope better with occasional niggles.
“I can’t see a time when I’ll ever sit back and say, ‘Sweet, I’ve mastered it now.’ That’s the challenge of fatherhood, but I now don’t let it overshadow the joy our son has brought into our lives.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2016 as "Dad stories". Subscribe here.