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Equal parenting campaigner Duncan Fisher talks about the long-term benefits for dads of sharing childcare from the first moments.
Duncan Fisher is the co-founder of the Fatherhood Institute and the Family Initiative, among many other things. One of his main areas of focus is getting dads more involved in childcare. Workingdads.co.uk spoke to him about his work and ideas.
Becoming a dad can be a daunting prospect and getting time off work to spend with the new apple of your eye might seem even more daunting, especially with the shared parental leave policy as it is currently constituted.
Duncan Fisher is currently working on a new campaign to get Britain a parental leave policy that works. But until the legislation is fixed, parents need to work out how to use the parental leave available to them now and how this impacts how childcare is shared in their home. For dads who are thinking they won’t take more than a couple of weeks off after the birth of their child and then go back to working full time, Fisher has plenty of arguments to persuade them and their partners to work towards the most equal split they can afford – and possibly to join his campaign.
Research has found that men who share childcare and housework have happier and healthier partners, have more sex with their partners and are themselves physically and psychologically healthier. Much of this comes from the stronger, happier relationships that are formed through a more equal relationship – and these relationships are perhaps even more important for children.
“All child development takes place within relationships,” Fisher says. “That’s the nature of human existence and the quality of those relationships define to a very large extent the future for the child. Establishing strong relationships provides a strong foundation that is a key to better outcomes for the child developmentally and health-wise.”
The importance of spending time forming these relationships with children in their early weeks and months may not be apparent to some dads, but Fisher [pictured] says research shows how important it is to kickstart the father-child relationship in the first few months.
“If it doesn’t start early, other patterns form in the family. If the mother is the primary carer for the first year or so and the father is sort of on the outside, it doesn’t work when suddenly after the child gets a bit older the father tries to come into his own – it’s kind of too late by then, the patterns have been established, with a number-one parent and a number-two. And generally that doesn’t change,” he says.
So get in early: once a dad makes that early connection just through spending time with their son or daughter, this automatically sets off positive changes for the whole family, thanks to physiological and biological processes that have developed over thousands of years of human development, says Fisher.
“The key for children’s development is that the father is holding the baby and cuddling the baby. That triggers hormonal changes and neurobiological changes in the father which sort of activate his caring capacity,” he states.
Just cuddling and changing nappies will, as it were, press a button that will change a dad’s and his child’s whole life for the better. These neurobiological changes are permanent, says Fisher.
“It’s another form of practice makes perfect,” says Fisher. “It’s a ‘plastic brain’ type of thing. If you do enough of it you do it well and you will tend to be close to the child for all time and actually closer to other babies and grandchildren as well, because you kind of adapt.”
Fathers who are involved earlier in their child’s life are involved more as their child grows up, he adds – not just because their subconscious is altered but because their eyes are opened to the delights that being with small children brings.
“It’s very difficult to reverse,” says Fisher. “Once you’ve got right in there, it’s quite difficult to back out of it – you just don’t want to. There’s quite a lot of evidence to show that fathers who take a lot of time off for their child then don’t want to go back to a 60-hour-a-week job where you don’t see your child any more. So you start changing things to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
But that doesn’t mean you need to give up a career that you love. Spending time in the evenings and weekends, if that’s all you can do, still makes a lot of difference. Some recent research on fathers addresses exactly this issue. One study showed that to have a relationship with a baby doesn’t take many hours every day, but that for fathers who only have half an hour after work, instead of playing crazily to get the child excited, it is better to spend time more quietly with the child, playing quiet games or reading as that creates a stronger relationship and better outcomes for the child. And at the weekends it’s just about spending time, playing and just being there and if possibly occasionally going solo.
“It’s a case of ‘the more, the better’,” Fisher says. “The more you spend time with a child the better you get at it and the closer you become. And so there is a benefit in taking time off work. Fathers who can’t get that are at a disadvantage unfortunately.”
He adds that it is important to be sympathetic to the mother’s feelings. Especially as there is still a general social expectation that mum should be number one. When making an effort to take a share of the early-stage childcare, Fisher says his advice to fathers is to “bear in mind that this is more difficult for the mum than it is for you”. “This is because the social permission for fathers getting involved and the messages on social media are certainly there nowadays, but the messages for mothers about letting go are not at the same level. So there’s very much the idea that mothers should be number one and all this sharing with dad can be very unsettling to that,” he says.
“But this is not a zero-sum game. It’s not like if a child has more of one relationship they can have less of another; it’s
completely cumulative. The strength of one relationship does not reduce the strength of another, it just doesn’t. Indeed the opposite happens,” says Fisher.
He adds that when a father is closer to a baby, levels of breastfeeding increase, reinforcing a very important message: “If mothers want their own good relationship with a baby they can’t do much better than making sure the child has a good relationship with the father.”
Examples of the benefits range from better family health to a mum’s ability to return to work, with a study in Sweden finding that for every month of leave taken by a dad in the first year, a mum’s long-term salary rose by 6.7%.