Public Policy Issues

Policies Affecting New Fathers

This article, which examines policies affecting the circumstances of new fathers, is a chapter in FIRA's Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement.


An area of increasing interest among researchers and policy makers in recent years is the changing role of fathers and the explicit desire to support father involvement as a way to enhance children's health and well-being. Although scholarly interest in fatherhood emerged in the early 1970s and 80s, the bulk of studies and policy work on fatherhood is very recent - much of it dating from the mid-1990s onwards.

This article is a chapter in the recently released Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement which is a collaborative document which has benefited from the ideas and suggestions of others. It is supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC - CURA). For a full copy of this document see our home page.


New Fathers. by Lynda M. Ashbourne

Specific Issues and Policies

First-time fathers are entering into the world of being a father. The professionals and institutions with which they generally find themselves interacting are typically physicians, public health nurses and hospital staff, midwives or childbirth centres, and adoption services, as well as early parenting programs. These institutions have an opportunity to play a primary role in setting the stage for beginning and ongoing father involvement. Physicians, hospitals, birthing centres and public health programs can provide education about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting to fathers as well as mothers. Their practices can engage fathers and encourage fathers’ involvement in childbirth and early childcare. Educational initiatives for mothers and fathers can provide preparation and support for the transition to parenting, as well as for significant post-natal or post-adoption challenges that some families may experience (e.g., circumstances involving maternal postpartum depression or care for premature infants or those born with significant health problems, or attachment/bonding challenges with adopted children). Workplaces also have an opportunity to support father involvement for new fathers through workplace policies and practices that allow for time away from work, without economic penalty, for participation in childbirth, adoption and early child care activities. Community programs designed to provide education, stimulation and support during infancy and early childhood can include fathers specifically in their programming design and implementation, and address the particular and unique needs of fathers in addition to the more traditional focus on mothers.

Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

The experience of being an expectant parent is different for fathers and mothers. Mothers have physical changes to contend with that remind them in very real and concrete ways that a baby is growing and developing, and eventually being birthed. Men can feel outside of the whole experience (Behvilainen-Julkunen & Liukkonen, 1998; Draper, 2002, 2003). They can also be uncertain about what to expect during labour and delivery, and rely on childbirth classes and other sources of information to plan for this experience. Fathers state that they can be made to feel unwelcome or marginalized by physicians, midwives and other personnel, or that they can feel supported in their role by these same professionals (Draper, 2003; Persson & Dykes, 2002). Traditionally, men have been viewed as “labour coaches” for their partners during childbirth, rather than as having their own particular needs during this event (Draper, 2002). In fact, it may be that they experience a specific directive to keep their own emotional experience out of the delivery room if it is going to upset the mother (Draper, 2003). Prospective adoptive parents also are going through a time of uncertainty and preparation, and support for both mothers and fathers is important during this period. This preparation is often less ‘visible’ to others, and there are unknowns such as time of arrival that can make this process less predictable for parents. In addition, prospective adoptive mothers and fathers may also be continuing to deal with the impact of a period of infertility or loss and the challenges and complexities of medical interventions.

Men have unique and particular experiences related to being expectant fathers, prospective adoptive fathers and new fathers. They talk about often feeling as if the focus of childbirth preparation classes ignores that unique experience and focuses solely on mother and baby (Steinberg et al., 2000). When asked to reflect on their own experience, they often identify the difficulties associated with the feelings of powerlessness they experience in the face of the pain that their partners endure during childbirth (Steinberg et al., 2000; Vehviläinen-Julkunen & Liukkonen, 1998). They also identify experiences such as going home alone to an empty house after the birth of their child, without mother or baby, and the associated emotional impact of such events (Draper, 2003). There are cultural expectations attached to the “new” father – such as presence in the delivery room, and involved parenting (whether as biological or adoptive fathers), that some men feel unable to define clearly for themselves, and which shape their own expectations of themselves and their partner. These cultural expectations include being a “good provider”, with a consequent emphasis on not letting parenting interfere with career progress, as well as expectations about the degree to which fathers will be involved in family care. In addition, contemporary fathers are often attempting to approach fathering in ways which are quite different from the ways in which they experienced their own fathers performing this role. Such expectations, if they are not coupled with external support from extended family, friends, or paid care-providers, can lead to emotional and physical exhaustion for both mothers and fathers (Steinberg, 2000).

Draper (2002, 2003) discusses the value of orienting parents, and fathers in particular, to rituals and “body-mediated-moments” to help physically mark transitions and significant moments during pregnancy and following childbirth. She encourages attention to the change of status that accompanies the confirmation of pregnancy, experiences such as listening to fetal movements and witnessing ultrasound procedures, the transition to biological fatherhood while being present during childbirth, and the more gradual transition to social fathering as a new father (Draper, 2003). Midwives and other professionals involved in childbirth are encouraged to pay particular attention to men’s individual abilities to manage the overwhelming emotions that can attend being present during childbirth, and to provide support to their partners while also negotiating their various roles during labour and delivery (Hallgren et al., 1999). As well, it is important, when supporting fathers’ inclusion in childbirth planning to attend to their perspective and follow up with respect to their interpretation of what has been discussed or demonstrated (Hallgren et al., 1999). Prenatal education can also include the potential emotional impact of the post-natal period so that both parents are able to recognize signs of maternal post-partum mood disorders, and are prepared for the emotional toll that can be experienced by fathers as well. In addition, the transition to parenthood can have an impact on marital relationships, and knowledge and preparation for this change can help couples navigate potential challenges more readily.

Post-partum wards (Holtslander, 2005) in some Canadian hospitals provide an opportunity for fathers to learn parenting skills, provide support for their partners and develop attachment to their infants while staying with mothers and newborn infants. Nursing care in such a setting focuses on the whole family, rather than on individual patients. Holtslander suggests that this can provide a challenge to nurses who perceive that they lack both time and specific skills for working with this family focus, and she suggests some ways in which brief interviews with both parents can become therapeutic conversations of benefit to the whole family.

Men identify the process of “trial and error” that accompanies their learning to be fathers with newborn infants (Steinberg et al., 2000). Community-based programming for new parents is often directed at mothers, either implicitly or explicitly. The names of such programs – “Moms and Tots”, for example – may indicate that fathers aren’t welcome. Even if program names are more inclusive, the fact that most participants are mothers rather than fathers may lead men to feel uncomfortable attending early parenting programs or parent-child activities. A recent study of California fathers who had been involved in Head Start programming with their children, suggested that these fathers were more comfortable attending programs which included both their partners and their children, and that they didn’t feel that it was essential to have male staff involved with program delivery (Turbiville & Marquis, 2001). Although these findings may be unique to the parents being interviewed and the particular program in which they were involved, they point to the importance of asking men what they want prior to putting programming in place based on assumptions about what fathers are looking for. Turbiville & Marquis noted that several programs had cited the lack of male staff for not including fathers previously; however it seemed that this was not a critical factor for these fathers.

There is some value as well in considering the needs of men who are not yet expectant fathers, but who may be considering parenthood in the near future. Peterson and Jenni (2003) explored men’s decision-making about becoming parents. They acknowledge that some men see becoming a parent as a logical progression as an adult man rather than a conscious choice, but they point to some of the salient contributors to this decision-making for the men with whom they spoke. They also identify the potential value of providing counselling opportunities for men to explore and unpack this experience for themselves, and of working with couples to see this decision as a shared one, rather than the particular domain of women. Adoption preparation programs can also intentionally include fathers’ perspectives as distinct from mothers’.

Information that is directly applicable to men’s experience can be shared in a helpful way with fathers and men planning to be fathers in the future. The Regional Municipality of Niagara, for example, has compiled a fact sheet for male workers and prospective fathers regarding potentially hazardous workplace materials and basic information about how these materials can influence sperm development and the implications of damaged sperm for fertility and birth defects. This fact sheet includes the risk to sperm production of second-hand smoke and smoking, and the impact of smoking around a pregnant mother, as well as emphasizing the value of being healthy for three months prior to conceiving. This public health agency states that it is often difficult for men to talk about these issues with human resource or health provision staff in their workplace, and that they are often unaware of risks and uncomfortable asking for special considerations when planning for a family (Regional Municipality of Niagara, 2004). Workplaces that pro-actively address these concerns, provide information for prospective mothers and fathers, and implement workplace practices such as flex-time that can allow expectant fathers to attend prenatal visits, can encourage men to be involved fathers at a very early stage.

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

The critical questions that arise in considering the needs of new fathers centre on their inclusion and involvement from pre-pregnancy and pre-adoption stages, through the transition to parenting. Traditionally, programs that consider health implications prior to pregnancy, prenatal support, childbirth and early adjustment to newborn and newly adopted children have targeted women and mothers. The questions of how men are supported in beginning to be involved as potential and new fathers influence how programming and supports are designed and delivered to parents. Paternal leave and benefits, both state and employer-provided, and workplace practices and a father-friendly workplace culture can provide a base from which men can begin to construct their roles as economic and care providers in their families. Educational and health care programs that address fathers’ unique experience as prospective and new fathers can enhance and inform the choices that fathers make about these roles, and the joint planning that mothers and fathers enter into prior to and during pregnancy or adoption. In order to provide an atmosphere conducive to healthy babies and parents, a father’s role as a support to his partner during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as his experience in his own right of the transition to fathering, need to be taken into account by healthcare providers, with a focus on working with the couple to build parenting skills and provide support for the whole family.

Key References

Draper, J. (2003). Men’s passage to fatherhood: an analysis of the contemporary relevance of transition theory. Nursing Inquiry, 10, 66-78.
Draper, J. (2002). ‘It’s the first scientific evidence’: Men’s experience of pregnancy confirmation. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 39, 563-570.
Draper, J. (1997). Whose welfare in the labour room? A discussion of the increasing trend of fathers’ birth attendance. Midwifery, 13, 132-138.
Hallgren, A., Kihlgren, M., Forslin, L. & Norberg, A. (1999). Swedish fathers’ involvement in and experiences of childbirth preparation and childbirth. Midwifery, 15, 6-15.
Holtslander, L. (2005). Clinical application of the 15-minute family interview: Addressing the needs of postpartum families. Journal of Family Nursing, 11, 5-18.
Persson, E.K. & Dykes, A. (2002). Parents’ experience of early discharge from hospital after birth in Sweden. Midwifery, 18, 53-60.
Peterson, A. & Jenni, C.B. (2003). Men’s experience of making the decision to have their first child: A phenomenological analysis. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 11, 353-363.
Regional Municipality of Niagara. (2004). Facts for male workers / prospective fathers (revised October 07, 2004). Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Steinberg, S., Kruckman, L. & Steinberg, S. (2000). Reinventing fatherhood in Japan and Canada. Social Science & Medicine, 50, 1257-1272.
Turbiville, V.P. & Marquis, J.G. (2001). Father participation in early education programs. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 21, 223-231.
Vehviläinen-Julkunen, K. & Liukkonen, A. (1998). Fathers’ experiences of childbirth. Midwifery, 14, 10-17.