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It’s time to shift the paternal paradigm

Victor Paul Borg says there is a revolution in the way fatherhood is being perceived.

Fathers’ involvement in parenting serves to uniquely boost their children’s education attainment, psychosocial development and life achievements.

Fathers’ involvement in parenting serves to uniquely boost their children’s education attainment, psychosocial development and life achievements.

It may be a truism to say that the intimate and abstract relationship between mother and offspring begins in the womb before birth. What is less known is that fathers’ protective roles in the lives of their offspring also begin before birth: research in the US found that children born to women who did not name the father in the child’s birth certificate – an indication that the father was a transient figure who would not be present in child’s life – were susceptible to lower birth-weights and higher infant mortality.

It’s a rigorous piece of research that took into account other possible modifying factors and, although it’s offbeat and perhaps peripheral to the theme of this article, it reso­nates with the emergent picture in fami­ly studies of the past two decades. For the long-running exaltation of mothers as chief nurturers of children has led to the temptation, which particularly predominates among women, to think of fathers as dispensable, or at least substitutable. This view is now being upended or corrected in science: growing recognition of the benefits of shared parenting of children after marital separation has generated concomitant research about the crucial role of fathers in children’s lives.

The findings are revolutionising the idea of fatherhood. In a dossier of scientific papers published last year by the highly-respected Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, two research psychologists summed up the emotionally empowering role of fathers that have been underappreciated until now: “Researchers are beginning to demonstrate ways in which different dimensions of father involvement are linked either directly or indirectly to childhood outcomes. Among seminal attributes, warmth and sensitivity as a construct appears to impart similar influences on childhood development across societies. Along with economic resources and educational attainment, the primacy of paternal warmth and sensitivity in shaping childhood developmental trajectories cannot be overstated.”

Fathers’ involvement in parenting serves to uniquely boost their children’s education attainment, psychosocial development and life achievements. In fact, children’s partnering skills develop mostly out of their interaction with their father, something that shapes the partnering (future relationship with spouse or partner) and parenting dynamics in their adult lives.

Paternal engagement also reduces boys’ social problems (such as delinquency) as well as girls’ psychological issues in early adulthood. The father is particularly essential in the child’s first five years, a critical period for forming secure attachments, promoting social and emotional development, and nurturing school readiness and success.

And it’s not just any male figure that will do: reams of research papers have shown that stepfathers put less effort and time in children not of their own, and stepchildren are more likely to suffer from emotional and behavioural problems than children residing with biological fathers.

Far from being mere breadwinners and handyman about the house, as fathers are still primarily thought of in Maltese society, the essentialness of biological fathers in children’s emotional nurturing is now beyond doubt.

Studies have drawn a direct relationship between children’s sense of wellbeing and the proportion of fathers’ involvement in their lives after separation

This is not to belittle the role of mothers – both mother and father have their unique, overlapping contribution in nurturing their children. The current research on paternity just serves to rectify the previous predominant focus on maternity. The point I want to posit is that it’s time for a paradigm shift in our understanding of paternity for the sake of our children.

This new paradigm on paternity is in need of being embraced most urgently in the Family Court system, which, when it comes to setting post-separation care arrangements for children, tends to relegate the father to a complementary role to the mother. The parlance employed in Family Courts reveals such fallacy: the talk is about the father having “access” to the child, or the father’s deservedness in “enjoying his children” – you hardly ever hear anyone speak of the centrality or essentialness of the father as a parent.

Many social workers and psychologists are also stuck in this outdated way of thinking in which paternity is diminished.

This is reflected in the wider societal sensibility in which mothers are held as natural carers of children, and fathers as playing second fiddle. It’s a perception as old as the Bible: the Madonna kept vigil on her son until his death, but St Joseph is nowhere to be seen, dropping out of Jesus’ life after early childhood.

So the court and wider society are caught up in a cycle of mutual reinforcement of the idea that women are the primary nurturers of children before and after the separation. Breaking this cycle entails greater societal awareness and legal reform – the experience of other countries that have advanced towards the shared parenting ideal (the model of post-separation care arrangement that is now advocated by virtually all experts) has shown the necessity of legislative reform to catalyse change in courts especially, and society more widely.

And, given rising rates of separations in Malta (the annual number of separations is now equal to around a third the annual number of marriages), we cannot afford to allow a large number of children of separated families that, following custody litigation in court, are put in arrangements in which paternity is diminished.

It’s a public health issue, making it incumbent on the government to act. For the absence or diminutiveness of fathers from children’s lives has been associated with a raft of compromised outcomes in children, even poorer physical and mental health. (Exceptions have to be made in cases where fathers’ ongoing presence may be detrimental due to destructive relationship with mother or child prior to the separation.)

All things being equal, studies have drawn a direct relationship between children’s sense of wellbeing and the proportion of fathers’ involvement in their lives after separation. One large study found that the quality of the relationship with the father was proportional to the number of nights the child slept over at the father’s – the higher the number of nights, the better the relationship – the consensus among experts is that a child ought to sleep at least 35 per cent of nights with the parent who has the smallest post-separation presence in a child’s life.

Strikingly, children in shared care have a better relationship with their mothers than children in sole maternal care.

There has long been the popular perception of strong affinity between a child and parent of opposite sexes, and this has been found to be more strongly the case among fathers and daughters in a review of 220 studies conducted in 22 countries scattered around the world two years ago.

The research psychologists at the Ameri­can University of Connecticut investigated the correlation between psychological adjustment and acceptance by mother and father in childhood (it is established in psychology that psychological wholesomeness partly relies on acceptance by people close to us, particularly by parents during childhood). The review found that boys’ psychological adjustment was correlated to being approved of by both parents, but most strongly by the mother; and girls adjusted more fully when they were approved of by the father.

On balance, taking boys and girls as a statistical aggregate, being approved of or accepted by the father has a greater bearing on psychological adjustment than acceptance by the mother.

Victor Paul Borg, a freelance writer and activist who is spearheading a campaign for shared parenting, can be contacted at [email protected]. More details about the studies mentioned here can be viewed at www.facebook.com/sharedparentingmalta.

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