Three good character traits for Dads to cultivate

by John Hoffman

What are the character traits of a good father?  Well, you could pluck almost any word from a list of virtues and make a good argument for it. Reliability, responsibility, love, kindness, integrity, compassion, fairness, self-discipline: all are important. But I want to talk about three positive fatherhood traits that wouldn’t usually be included on lists of virtues:  curiosity, teamwork and a sense of fun.

Curiosity makes you want to understand your child. And if you want to be a good parent, being able understand kids in general, and your own child in particular, really, really helps. Curiosity helps bring you to that understanding.

I remember, so often, gazing at my boys when they were babies and wondering: what is going on inside that little head? I so wanted to understand what they were thinking and how they made sense of what was going on around them.  Sometimes I could figure it out, but at times it was a mystery, one that I never fully solved, but never stopped trying to solve. I believe that my curiosity, my passion for trying to understand my kids, helped me learn more about my kids. So much of parenting is about making judgment calls. No parent always makes the right call. But curiosity helps you learn enough about your child to make the right call more often than not.

Teamwork has always been part of parenting in one way or another. It’s even more important these days because the nature of parenting teamwork (in two-parent couples) has changed. It’s now a given that fathers are expected – or to put it another way, have the opportunity – to take on aspects of parenting that were considered women’s work 50 years ago. The challenge is that, regardless of how far we may have come in terms of gender equity, sharing the “territory” of raising children is not necessarily easy. First of all, sharing any sort of responsibility is challenging. Secondly, even though many people aspire to ideals of 50/50 parenting and father involvement, we’re still influenced by a centuries-old mentality that the child-rearing buck stops with women. So we still often see mothers doing more than their (male) partners in the parenting realm.

I’m not saying it’s wrong if one partner assumes a more primary role, but I am saying it’s important to work as a team with your partner: to support her (or his) parenting and to take on your share of the responsibility. No matter what the exact division of labour is in your house, you and your partner will both parent more effectively if you work as a team, and feel like it’s a team. When the teamwork is good, both of you will feel supported. And feeling supported helps you be a better parent.

A sense of fun helps you find the rewards of parenting.  Why are rewards important? Raising kids is a lot of work, and some of that work isn’t a whole lot of fun, but it needs to be done. Being able to enjoy your kids helps you grab onto the good moments. Those little payoffs help you build up a sort of bank account of positive fatherhood feelings and memories. That helps you stay positive and keeps drawing you back to your children when the going gets tough.

Little kids can frustrate us at times, but they’re pretty funny too. And their enthusiasm, energy and zest for life can be rejuvenating. Having a sense of fun helps you tune into all that good stuff so you can be ready to enjoy the great moments of parenting when they happen. In fact, one my key pieces of advice for fathers (or mothers) I’d say, enjoy your kids. If you can do that chances are you’ll be a pretty good dad.

Life’s Unfortunate . . .

Here is another chapter in the story of Alex and Laura.  You can find other parts of their journey here:

Part 1     Part 2     Part 3


On a beautiful Wednesday in September the unimaginable happened.  Laura went for her scheduled ultra sound at the local Nipigon District Memorial hospital for her 17 week pregnancy exam the technician found no baby’s heartbeat.

Devastation is the only way to describe how Alex and Laura felt.  Their children Angelina (11) and Justice (8) could not fully fathom the news… mom and dad were heartbroken.  The baby’s February birth was just around the corner, what was going on?

The following day Alex took Laura and travelled the prolonged highway of over an hour’s drive from their home on Churchill Street to the Thunder Bay Regional Hospital where the infant was delivered at 3:00 o’clock the next day in the cold damp early morning.  Shock, anger, despair, Laura had so many questions.  Was it because she had over-exerted herself when moving to their new house?  Was it something she ate or was exposed to?  Why now when she had had three previous successful births?  Why her?  What could she have done to prevent this from happening?  The doctor said that it was not her fault a message which her mother Karin softly reiterated.

They named the baby Jordan Rae, for either a girl or a boy.  As the child was more than 20 weeks old they went back to Thunder Bay and retrieved their baby.  A funeral home in Thunder Bay graciously took care of the sensitive cremation arrangements.  They selected a beautiful small white ceramic angel urn and necklaces to bring Jordan home. Jordon was celebrated on Saturday, December 13th in Nipigon.  The local Anglican Minister, Reverend Dianne, had a beautiful and truly moving private family service to accommodate their grief.  Candles were lit to remember those whom we love and lost… with a pause to remember the dreams we had for them.  Jordan will never be forgotten.

Both Alex and Laura now have identical tattoos with angel wings and the name of their child with the date 09-05-14 inscribed as a memory and tribute to what was and what could have been.  Their loss is sad, so very sad, small and helpless, hopes-dreams-aspirations-love forever gone.  The pain has been unbearable at times.  They find it difficult to contemplate normal life in the near future.  Both are naturally dispirited.  As a supportive family we shall have to keep watch and pray, they are not alone, there is a future ahead.

Life does carry on.  Alex will continue looking after the kids, as reluctantly Laura returns to work.  She knows she has to.

 

 


Submitted by Gordon Mackenzie, DCO Steering Committee Member and Laura’s Father.

Fathers’ Mental Health Matters

by John Hoffman

It’s high time we started paying more attention to the mental health needs of fathers.

Mothers’ mental health has been on the radar screen for many years – it often gets mentioned in the same breath as children’s development.  And rightly so. It’s clear that if we want children to be mentally well, we need to support the mental health of their mothers.  That’s a no-brainer.

Well, supporting the mental health of fathers should be a no-brainer as well.  But is it? A fair bit of research has been done on postpartum depression (PPD) in mothers and how a mother’s state of mental health affects her children’s development. But it’s really only been about ten years since people even started asking if there might be a male version of postpartum depression. It turns out there is such a thing. And, it also turns out that a father’s state of mental health can affect his children. Here are a few stats about fathers and mental health.

• About 10% of fathers will experience some level of depression in the first year after a baby is born. That’s double the rate of depression in men at other times of life, although lower than the rate of maternal PPD.

• PPD tends to start later and develop more gradually in men

• Fathers with PPD often experience disruptions in partner relationships and tend to have less positive interactions with their babies

• Several studies suggest that, as with maternal depression, paternal depression is associated with an increased risk of behavioural and cognitive difficulties in children

• Fathers with mental health problems are less likely to seek help than mothers with mental health problems

• Between 24% and 50% of men with depressed partners will also be depressed themselves. This is particularly significant since a father’s support is crucial to mothers with PPD, and partners of depressed moms often also take on a heightened parenting role.

• Men whose partners had postpartum depression have told researchers that they didn’t really grasp what was wrong until after their partners recovered from PPD.

It all points to the fact that we need to bring fathers into the mental health loop. As Nicole Letourneau, Canada Research Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health, says, postpartum depression is a family issue, not a women’s health or men’s health issue.

I am very glad to hear this from someone as influential as Dr. Letourneau.

We’ve been hearing a lot in recent years about “erasing the stigma” and talking more openly about mental health issues. This is particularly important with regard to fathers of young children since, as noted earlier, men are not only are at increased risk for depression in the postpartum period, but also less likely than mothers to seek help. And lots of mothers who recovered from PPD will tell you they didn’t find it easy to seek help.

So let’s normalize the idea that fathers have mental health needs too and that postpartum depression should be looked at as a family issue. Because, whatever else we do to support families dealing with mental health problems, we need to make it a little easier for people to speak up and say that they need help.

Dad, Your Emotions Matter

Emotional wellness comes from coping with stress and making positive contributions to the world.  Fathers play a role in this for children.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Help your child feel safe and connected to you and her environment.  A sense of belonging encourages a child’s confidence and trust.
  • Nurture resiliency. Be there to help your child face adversity and learn to handle tough situations.
  • Encourage your child to make decisions.  Making decisions and taking responsibility for them builds self-confidence and respect.
  • Provide opportunities to help others.  Teaching your child that he will influence other people and can make a difference in the world builds social skills.
  • Let your child test new abilities.  Building competence in different tasks teaches a child how to accomplish their goals.
  • Support your child’s physical health.  Healthy eating habits, physical exercise and adequate sleep help a child handle stress.

Did you know . . .

  • Looking after your own emotional health is important for your children’s health?
    Children learn to care for themselves by watching their dads. The habits they set will last a lifetime. So dads need to role model positive ways of managing emotions.
  • Emotional health is affected by our lifestyle choices?
    It is important that dads get enough exercise, eat healthy diets and get enough sleep themselves. Carefully monitoring and controlling the use of alcohol and other substances matters, too.
  • Emotional health affects everyone at different times?
    It is normal for most men to experience emotional ups and downs. Age, relationships and the environment will affect how men feel.
  • Emotional health covers a lot of things we may experience in our day to day lives?
    Emotions may become a problem when depression, anxiety, stress and anger become overwhelming. Things like work, leisure time and relationships become tough to manage.
  • There are ways to get help if you need it?
    Talking to a good friend, a counsellor or someone else you trust can be a good way to keep balance in your life.

The Five Things You Should Never Say to A New Mom

by John Hoffman

You know how they say babies don’t come with an instruction manual? Well, neither do new moms. And a really important part of being a good dad is understanding and supporting the mother of your children, a task that can be very challenging in the early days of parenthood. So, new dads, here’s a crash course. And, just for fun, I’ve built it around the five things you should never say to your new mom partner.

1. I think the baby needs changing.

Shared dad/mom care of babies should be a given in today’s dad/mom families. It’s fair. It’s good for your partner and it’s good for you because changing diapers (and doing other aspects of baby care) is not only how you learn to parent, it’s how you get to know your baby.

Here’s the thing. It is so easy for men (even guys who believe in gender equity) to slip into a backseat where Mom is doing the bulk of the work. So it’s important not only to do your share but also to take initiative: to see what needs to be done and do it, without being asked.

2. Where’s my dinner?

Recovering from childbirth is a major deal so new mothers need care and feeding. All cultures – women, at least – have understood this. Traditionally, networks of women – grandmas, aunties, sisters and female neighbours – have fed new moms, cleaned their houses and helped look after babies. Those female support networks are much less available than they once were. Fathers need to step up, and food prep (or bringing in prepared food) is a great contribution. She’ll love you for it.

3. Why is the baby crying?

She may not know. And being asked to explain something she can’t explain adds to the stress your partner is already experiencing. Nobody needs that.

Babies cry. Some more than others. And it’s sometimes hard to figure out why, even for experts. So what’s the right thing to when you can’t figure out why the baby is crying?

  • do your share of the comforting
  • give the baby back to mom if that’s what she wants
  • do as little as possible to make the stress of a crying baby worse than it already is
  • ask for help if you need to

For more tips about crying check out newdadmanual.ca.

4. Why are you crying?

Same answer. She might no know. And besides, she doesn’t want to explain. New motherhood is an intensely emotional experience. Your partner feels a lot of pressure. Hormones that affect emotions are very active. New moms may burst into tears for any number of reasons, big or small.

This can be challenging for men. We like concrete explanations and we want to know exactly what to do to “fix” a situation. But there isn’t always a quick fix (or explanation) for a crying mom. Sometimes the best we can do is summed up by something my wife said, after our third baby (when I really should have known better): “Stop trying to fix what’s wrong. Just be nice to me while I cry.”

5. But I worked all day

Don’t go there. This is absolutely the wrong thing to say to your partner (on parental leave) if she asks you to do something. She worked all day too. Some days that work can be tiring and lonely. Hey, maybe you both had tough days. Your best bet is to work as a team to make sure the necessary “home” work gets done and that you both get the breaks that you need.

 

Speaking of teamwork. Parenting teamwork is not just about getting work done. It’s also about sharing the highlights, the fun times, those little cosmic moments of bliss. Those moments are your new parent “fuel.” Sharing them with your partner is just as important as sharing the work – maybe even more so.

Dads and Stress

by John Hoffman

Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a good mood you’re a better parent? You don’t get as upset or frustrated by your children’s behaviour. You are more patient, better at solving in-the-moment parenting problems and you enjoy your kids more. When you’re in a bad mood you don’t do any of those things as well.  Right?

So what can a Dad do to make sure he’s in a good mood more often? I’ve got two words for you: manage stress.

The ability to deal with stress is one of the keys to a successful life. Seriously.

When we’re highly stressed, or stressed for a long time without relief, a big chunk of our inner resources are monopolized, trying to keep a lid on stress overload. That reduces the amount of thinking power, social smarts and emotional skills we have available to help us do the things we want to do, like exercise self-control, think clearly, make good judgments – or be good fathers.

So, whatever else you do to be a good dad, deal with your stress.

We have two ways main ways to tackle stress. Reduce and cope.

Reducing stress is not just a question of trying to avoid all stressful situations. Many of the most important things we do, like looking after children, are stressful at times. And we’re not going to stop doing those things. But we can find ways to reduce or prevent some of the stress associated with raising kids.

Here are three ways to do that.

1.Build your skills and knowledge. Any challenging situation is more stressful if you don’t have the knowledge and skill to handle it. Parenting is a skill. Sure, some people learn as they go. But lots of good parents help themselves by building skills. They read parenting books, learn about child development, or take parenting courses (no, parenting courses are not just for “bad” parents).  As they learn more, you increase your confidence and reduce their stress.

2. Watch how you behave in stressful moments. Recently I talked with a mom who realized that one of the reasons she found discipline so stressful was that she and her husband undermined each other and often argued during discipline episodes. After they discussed their philosophical differences and agreed to stop undermining each other, their stress levels went down. Changing the way you behave in a stressful situation can reduce the amount of stress you feel.

3. Adjust your thinking.  Picture a guy trying to deal with a preschooler’s tantrum. If he thinks of that behaviour as manipulative, or unacceptably immature, he will be more stressed out by the tantrum.  But if this Dad sees the meltdown as the sign of an overwhelmed kid who needs Dad’s help to calm down, the tantrum may still be stressful, but not as stressful.  And he’s less likely to do or say something that makes it worse (see #2).

Coping.

Coping is important because we can’t possibly avoid all stress. There are two parts to coping. Being able to get through it without going to pieces is the part of coping we think about most often. But there’s another crucial part – recovering. If you can’t get back to normal after stress is over, too many of your resources get sucked into the stress vortex. It becomes hard to function and stress gets worse and worse.

What affects your ability to recover stress?  Lifestyle for one thing.  If we don’t eat right or get enough rest, if we drink too much alcohol or caffeine, that exerts a kind of stress on the body which can drain our stress resources.  Taking breaks and doing things we love to do (for ourselves) help us recover too.

And let’s not forget the single most important coping mechanism we humans have:  social support. Mothers know this. That’s why they hang out together, flock to playgroups and form online communities. Men tend not to be as good as women at seeking out social support. But dads need it too. There is actually a fair bit of research to show that when fathers feel well supported (particularly by their partners) they tend to use better parenting strategies.  Why? It’s at least partly because their parenting efforts are not constantly undermined by stress.

So, if you want to be a better dad address the stress. Work as a team with your partner, connect with other dads (Saturday morning Dad programs are a good way to do that) and, generally, surround yourself with as many supportive people as you can get. It will make a difference.

Daddies Have Hormones, Too!

by John Hoffman

iStock_000011070557MediumPeople often talk about mothers and hormones. But, in the last few years we’ve learned a lot about the way hormones affect new fathers. And to cut to the chase, the story here is not just that guys have parenting hormones – which shouldn’t surprise anyone –  it’s that men’s hormonal systems are flexible and responsive, ready to support whatever kind of parenting role and activity a father needs or wants to take on, including being the primary caregiver.

First, let’s clarify the role of hormones in human behaviour. People often talk as if hormones cause behaviour. But that’s not really true. Testosterone does  not “cause” aggressive male behaviour any more than estrogen “makes” women sensitive. The hormone-behaviour connection is more a case of the brain detecting what a person needs to do, or is trying to do, and then telling the body to pump out the hormones that will help them do it.

Research has shown several ways in which this biological dynamic plays out in fathers.  Some examples:

Compared to childless men, fathers have lower levels of “guy hormone” testosterone and higher levels of the “female hormone” estrogen.

Similar to women, men have elevated levels of the hormones cortisol and prolactin in the weeks just prior to the birth of their babies.

In one experiment, fathers with experience in baby care had bigger surges in prolactin (a hormone associated with nurturing behaviour and breastfeeding) than childless men in response to hearing a recording of a baby crying.

Filipino fathers who sleep in the same bed as their babies (a very common practice in that culture) have lower levels of testosterone than fathers who don’t co-sleep with their babies.

But, for me, the most interesting findings about dad hormones comes from the work of Israeli attachment researcher, Ruth Feldman. Feldman has documented that, like mothers, fathers experience increases in the hormone oxytocin after interacting with babies.  Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone,” because it’s associated with bonding, mating and sex. In parenting, one key function of oxytocin is that it supports fathers’ (and mothers’) ability to tune into social cues.  Obviously that is very important for parents trying to get to know and understand newly born babies.

Feldman’s research shows that while interaction with babies gets the oxytocin flowing for both genders, different types of interaction turn the tap on for dads and moms. For mothers it was affectionate touch (cradling, kissing, caressing etc.) that caused increases in oxytocin. But dads it was what the researchers called stimulatory touch – moving the baby around, more vigorous pats and strokes, playfully poking the baby with a toy or other object.

Very interesting. But what does it mean? Does it mean that moms are designed to be caregivers and men are designed to be playmates? I’ve never believed that. When I first read this study 3 years ago, I assumed that the Mom/Dad differences Feldman found mostly reflected the fact that play was the caregiving context in which fathers were most experienced (and comfortable). The mothers in this study were the primary caregivers, so they spent way more time in “caring mode.” The fathers, who all worked outside the home, spent less time with the babies and probably spent more of their baby time in play mode. Therefore play became the mode of interaction they were most comfortable with (see my last blog) and unconscious parts of their brains figured that out and worked behind the scenes to support it.

Last year, another of Feldman’s studies supported this idea. In this experiment, her team included a group of fathers who were primary caregivers. They chose men in gay parent couples, because they knew that at least one of the fathers had no choice but to be a primary caregiver. In this study, which also included primary caregiver mothers and fathers who were secondary caregivers, she did brain imaging to detect where in the brain the oxytocin was going.  And she discovered that mothers and secondary caregiver fathers were using somewhat different brain pathways when interacting with babies and, to oversimplify, the brain knew where to send the oxytocin to support parenting behaviour in men and women. But in guys who were primary caregivers, brain activity was sort of in between what was happening in the mothers and secondary caregiver fathers. And their brains figured out how to send oxytocin to the right places.

So what does this boil down to?dad_son

1. We should pay as much attention to dad hormones as we do to mom hormones.

2. Male biology is ready to support a man who takes on a primary role in the care of a baby.

3. The brain is able to tell where to send hormones to support various types of fathering behaviour in men, depending on the nature of a father’s involvement and the way he and his baby interact together.

4. Involved fatherhood is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you interact with your child, the more your brain and body will support you in doing that. Thus, as time goes on, interacting with your child will feel better and more and more natural.

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