Fathers set up to fail?

Ok, maybe I’m irritated by having spent a sunny Bank holiday marking, but the views discussed in this article gets my back right up. Apparently, ‘male involvement in pregnancy can weaken the paternal bond’:

The disappointment and feeling of failure experienced by men expecting to have an intimate and proactive role as their baby gestates, only to find their function is largely one of passive support for their partner, can cause emotional shutdown, according to Dr Jonathan Ives, head of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Birmingham.


Men should instead be told that it is not their duty to attend antenatal classes and be encouraged to wait outside the delivery room as their child is born, said Ives.

Or, how about trying to do more to make sure men – or women with pregnant partners (who don’t get a mention in the report (though admittedly, I’ve not read the research referred to)) – support their partners without unrealistic expectations?

Or perhaps there’s less reason to worry about the feelings of failure after all:

Adrienne Burgess, head of research at the Fatherhood Institute, said: “That experience of helplessness that Ives is saying is so dangerous, is, in fact, the perfect preparation for fatherhood: there are times as a parent when you can’t do anything to help your baby, when it’s crying all night and can’t be soothed.”

12 thoughts on “Fathers set up to fail?

  1. It’s good of the Guardian to end with that counterpoint from Burgess, but I was disappointed that there was no link or at least a reference to Ives & Draper’s paper.

    It’s surely worth noting that Ives’ evidence in previous studies has been the opinions of fathers and other men in various focus groups (described by him as “empirical bioethics”). Not that there’s anything wrong with focus groups; but you might think that there’s plenty of other relevant evidence that should be looked at before any grand ideological claims about good parenting are proposed!

    I wonder (but I don’t know, because I can’t find the paper, and the article doesn’t mention methodology once) whether this “empirical bioethics”, focus-groupy, anecodotal intuiton-swapping was also used in the paper referred to in the article, given the tentative tone in which the results are described. E.g.:

    “Having begun the fathering role already feeling a failure *may* destroy his confidence …”

    “It *can* then be very difficult for him to regain faith in himself once the baby is born …”

    (Why not just come straight out with: “Some of the men questioned remarked that …”?)

    These observations are in stark contrast to the boldness of Ives’ comments’ e.g. that “[s]ociety must be realistic about what men can actually contribute”, or that there is a “false, modern rhetoric of equal involvement that has sprung up around parenting.” False indeed!

    And if anyone’s wondering, the studies are funded by the ESRC, not the Centre for Social Justice, as I initially thought!

  2. I think the report is very irritating, at least as I read it. The general form of the reasoning seems to be this: Doing X can have bad consequences, so don’t do X. That’s extremely bad reasoning. E.g., some people are made very sick by the medicine they take, so don’t take medicine.

    People can think they understand what went wrong, but without a lot of research we should worry that they are merely projecting from quite limited personal experience.

    So maybe too many pre-natal classes have a much too simplistic notion of what sharing a birth is, or perhaps they don’t realize that hormonal differences may leave the parents in different places after the birth and the surge of oxy-whatever the mother gets. If so, that’s not a reason for cutting the dad out.

    And then the dad is this passive character who can get his confidence destroyed. This sounds like the 1960’s. I hoped we had gotten the idea that people can rightly assume some responsibility for their reactions and change them.

    All this whinging is very un-British and it should stop.

  3. you’ve got to be freaking kidding. obviously men realize that they are not carrying the fetus or organizing their entire lives around it for 9 months. how exactly does this translate to giving men a pass on prenatal classes or experiencing the miracle of childbirth? or for that matter, this gooey idea that they need special support to be good fathers after the “failure” of not actually carrying the child?

    horse poop. the father of my children is a wonderful dad, and we have a great relationship, but i nearly whacked him on the head when he fell asleep during my all-night labor. he also needed to sit down and breathe with his head between his knees during the c-section for the other one. and you know what? he is smart enough to know that he needed to be there.
    and he needed to be there all the other times when one or both of us would have chosen to be elsewhere, except these were our kids. they are 21 and 23 now.

    an anecdote isn’t evidence, but i’d be pretty surprised to find evidence the men are better fathers when they only participate in the parts that make them feel good. it ain’t true in the world i know.

  4. on the flip side, it would not suprise me in the least if studies showed that men felt better about being fathers when they only have to do the easy and fun things. [by contrast, women who hold such views are generally regarded as failing motherhood.] rearing kids is not all easy and fun. get over it.

  5. I could see where a man could feel helpless as an almost-parent during pregnancy. I think being in an active supportive role of their partner is the closet they can do to really helping.

  6. I reckon my experiences of giving birth would have been terrifying if my husband hadn’t been here to hold me, talk to the nurses and doctors on my behalf. And, when our daughter was just born, as I was still in daze from the drugs and the pain, he’s the one who learnt how to put on a nappy and dress our baby. He taught me the next day when I felt more up to it. His experience then meant he was much more hands on with our children from day one, instead of thinking that only a mother could change, or bathe a baby without breaking it as some men do! The points made in the article quoted are wrong and pernicious.

  7. What an absolute crock! I was involved in every way I could be with my partner’s pregnancy for both of my children and, excepting my involvement with the children themselves, it is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I was part of a team, I learnt as much about the physical and psychological processes of pregnancy as I could, for both my partner and my children. It was exciting, entrancing, and terrifying from start to end, and sure, I was ground crew to my partner’s fighter pilot (sorry for the war-like analogy!) but I felt crucially involved, and massively rewarded throughout in everything I did.

    My guess is that if there are issues with parental-bonding for fathers resulting from feeling like you’re just “passive support” that has less to with problems arising from such crazy new fangled notions as (God forbid!) men being involved in “women’s things” like child-birth and child rearing, but more to do with old-fashioned ideas about men only being fulfilled by taking leadership roles. Again, I call crock!
    (Although I should probably read their research and not just Grauniad reporting!)

  8. Here‘s an earlier paper by Ives and Draper (the authors of the paper discussed, but not referenced, in the Guardian article), which gives an overview of their “empirical bioethics” methodology. A key line from the abstract is:

    “We suggest that given the prominent role already played by moral intuition in moral theory, one appropriate way to integrate empirical data and philosophical bioethics is to utilize empirically gathered lay intuition as the foundation for ethical reasoning in NPOB [normative policy oriented bio-

    In the paper, they go on to suggest (p. 255) that “[o]ne way, then, that empirical data can appropriately be combined with moral theory [as a means of testing the adequacy of moral theory] is to replace the individual philosophers’ intuitions with the intuitions of the relevant stakeholder population.”

    We should expect to get out only what we put in: how could we end up with anything *but* a reactionary “moral theory”, when congruence with unreconstructed intuitions is taken as a criterion for adequacy?

  9. As this is an academic forum, I feel able to comment.

    Much of the press coverage has not accurately represented the nature of the work my collegaue and I are doing. Please refer to the academic abstract for the paper we are presenting (Google: ‘Pregnancy and pregnancy planning in the new parenting culture seminar 5′ abstracts’) which is a conceptual discussion of the potential problems with the medicalisation of men’s involvement in pregnancy. You will see that this paper is not reporting empirical findings.

    There is no results paper to find because the ESRC study refered to has only just started (the official start date was 1st April 2010). You can find details of this study by googling ‘ESRC The moral a habitus of fatherhood’. If anyone would like further details about the study, please do contact me.

    What we will be arguing (as the abstract says) is that this is a potential problem around unrealistic expectations of birth and pregnancy, and the fact that mens initial involvement is almost always encouraged through a medicalised setting. We conclude that mens invovement might not be best mediated through a medical setting, but there are lots of other ways in which he could and should be involved. We also make a point of saying that his involvement shoud be discussed and negotiated with his partner, with due consideration given to his role as a supporting partner and advocate. This is about managing expectations and making services more appropriate, not stopping men’s involvement.

    Please do look up the abstract. We will be submitting the paper for publication once we have aired it at the conference.

  10. Thanks so much for stopping by, Jon, and for the clarifications. I’m not surprised to learn that the press coverage has been inaccurate.

  11. Indeed, Jon, thanks for the clarification.

    Jender, it might be worth considering doing another post on this. This post can be seen as about what the press thinks is a reasonable thing to ascribe to scientists. That’s one whole set of issues, but it looks as though Jon is raising a different set that deserve notice on this blog. In a way, it going along with a lot of ways in which we’ve been concerned about the medicalization of birth.

  12. Jon, I’m really glad you added your comment. The shoddy reporting of academic research in the mainstream press drives me up the wall! I look forward to reading your paper.

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