Last night F and I were chatting over dinner about his colleague who recently had a baby. He and his wife are navigating all the questions of life with a newborn. Should she sleep in the bassinet or in her own crib? Do we need the fancy monitor that tells us she’s breathing or are her wheezy snores enough? The joys of a new baby are many, but the questions are, too.
In the midst of our conversation, I put down my fork and made a declaration: “You know, we really don’t have enough support and resources for new fathers in our culture, do we?” Which elicted a laughing “DUH” reaction from F. (I can be really insightful over enchiladas.)
But an interesting discussion of the problem followed. We had both recently read an article about how today’s fathers are more involved in the day-to-day raising of their children, but struggle to know what this redefinition of gender roles entails since their own fathers parented differently. I had read another article about the phenomenon of male postpartum depression – perhaps the result of the challenges newly involved fathers face in balancing family, work, and marriage, as women have struggled before them.
I noted how F was lucky to have so many co-workers who are young fathers, with whom he can compare notes, commiserate, or simply chat about all the questions that come with being a new dad. He said he feels lucky in this respect, but that it simply happened that there are many young employees at his company who are entering into this phase of life right now. Circumstantial and certainly serendipitous, but not a structural support network.
As a new mother, I have found support and new friends through our community’s Early Childhood Family Education classes and through groups like La Leche League. These are groups that tend to meet during the day and focus on the needs of mothers. But where does my husband go for support, to learn about what it means to be a father, to meet other men who share his concerns, values, and questions about raising children? Outside of informal conversations with co-workers, these opportunities simply don’t exist for him.
I believe it’s part of a bigger problem in our society: the lack of support for family life in general. Take the issue of maternity and paternity leave, for example. Some European countries offer 1-3 YEARS of paid leave for mothers, as well as several months for fathers. (Check out this chart for an interesting comparison of countries’ parental leave policies.) Certainly there are many reasons that different nations are able to approach this issue differently (socialism being one prime factor!), but there is still much room for growth in our paltry average of 12 weeks unpaid leave for mothers (usually more like 6-8 weeks) and zero for fathers.
If we don’t support family life on an institutional or national level, if we don’t encourage the raising of children through community programs and company policies, if we don’t start to help this generation of fathers understand what it means to parent today, families will suffer greatly in the long run.
There is certainly a call for churches to support families and fathers as well. We speak freely about God as father, but do we help fathers to understand what it means to embrace this image in healthy ways for their own parenting? How do we support men’s “fathering spirits” and invite them to explore the intersections between their faith life and their family life, their parenting and their spirituality? Sadly, in my experience, we don’t.
My reflections on the challenges facing new fathers have issued their own challenge to me. My interests in theology as well as spirituality naturally tend towards women’s issues, of which mothering plays a large part. But what can my work say and do about God’s Fathering Spirit as well as God’s Mothering Spirit? How can my concerns within our church and within our community embrace fathers as well as mothers?
My prayer this morning is for an open heart to keep dwelling on this complex problem.
as truly as you are our father,
so just as truly are you our mother.
We thank you, God our father,
for your strength and goodness.
We thank you, God our mother,
for the closeness of your caring.
O God, we thank you for the great love
you have for each one of us.
Julian of Norwich
(taken from My Baptism Book by Sophie Piper. A personal favorite of S for morning prayer.)