Dr. Rika Tanaka, Ph.D.

Stepping into parenthood with my husband has been one of the most exciting and stressful aspects of our relationship. I am deeply appreciative of the many important roles my husband plays in our family—including, but not limited to, being an active and equal co-parent and devoted and doting father. And, as we have grown into our parenting roles together, I continue to recognize the great discrepancy in resources available for fathers compared to mothers. Historically, many parenting resources have focused on supporting mothers, even though there is growing evidence to support the unique psychological and emotional benefits of father involvement on child development—and a mounting need to provide resources to support men who take on these roles. With Father’s Day just behind us, I thought it would be important to take the time to acknowledge some of the challenges of being a modern father and offer a few insights to help overcome them.

You Have Instincts, Too. It is common for new mothers to be reassured that her “maternal instinct” will at some point help guide her in interacting with her child. What can get lost in everyday conversations about the transition to parenthood is the fact that both mothers and fathers have “instinctual” ways of connecting with their children. Nevertheless, with much of the focus on mother-child relationships, the value of a father’s natural ability to care for his children can get tossed aside or lost in the shuffle. It is important, however, for a father to have the space to communicate his priorities and exercise his care for his children, as they can make a difference in a child’s social and emotional development.

You Are Needed. What I find important about understanding the “paternal instinct” is how different it can be from the “maternal instinct.” For example, studies have found that fathers of young children tend use their bodies (e.g. tickling, “rough and tumble” play, playing sports, etc.) more during play compared to mothers. The “rough and tumble” style of play displayed by fathers can have unique benefits to children—including promoting risk-taking and problem-solving. Although this is just one small example, it highlights the importance of father/father-like influences on a child’s development. There are plenty of times when my “instincts” do not align completely with my husband’s—and though the “lessons” we teach may not always be the same, they are equally important for our children to experience.

Being a Parent Is Hard Work. Whether you work full-time outside the home, are the primary caregiver for your children, or something in between, being a parent is hard work. There are few days off—and even when we are away from our children, the emotional work continues, as we work through the complex emotions that can be associated with being apart. As gender-roles becoming increasingly fluid, my hope that we can cultivate an increased sense of empathy for all parents—both mothers and fathers—who make hard choices on their unique journeys to finding the sometimes-elusive work-life balance.

You Are Not Alone. Being a parent comes with many emotional highs and lows—and having a healthy social support network can make all the difference. While it can be scary at first, opening up to friends, family, other caregivers, and healthcare team, and other professionals about the challenges that can arise with through the parenting journey can do wonders for a person’s mental health.

Whether you are expecting your first child, a seasoned grandpa, or a person who has taken on the responsibility of “father-figure” roles for loved ones, I encourage anyone interested in working with a therapist for support and counseling to reach out to a mental health professional to learn more about how therapy can help.

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