In praise of modern fathers

The observance of a Father’s Day in the US, and subsequently in Canada as of the 1920s, started because of tragic events. One woman’s memory of a mine explosion in West Virginia in the early 1900s, which left over 250 widows and more than 1000 children fatherless, and another woman’s memory of her father, an American Civil War veteran who kept his family together after his wife died of childbirth, led to years of concerted efforts to commemorate fathers.

That all happened over 100 years ago, and during this past century the role of fathers has undergone major changes. In contrast to the past, when fathers were essentially breadwinners and disciplinarians, the modern father wants to be a co-parent providing care to the children and be as important to the children as mothers are. Not an easy task.

In Canada, expectant fathers started to appear in labor and birthing facilities in hospitals in the early 1970s. Though they do not have a clear role, being at the birth is a foundational moment for the bond that forms with the child. Dads are then involved in diaper changes, attending doctor’s appointments, setting up the car to accommodate the new infant, and are generally more involved in a child’s life than in the past. There is some evidence that this increased connection is associated with children’s increased self esteem, self control, social competence, and educational success. Involved male parents report joy about getting their kids ready for school, making after-school snacks, or going to after-school activities and games. A bit of rough and tumble play is almost entirely a dad’s role. This in turn starts to build skills of empathy, risk assessment, and overcoming challenges. A bond with their kids during the teen years is a foundation for good mental health into adulthood. Daughters with attentive fathers reach higher educational attainment, career success, and healthy future relationships. 

Another important social and cultural change is that a dad does not have to be a biological father. Gay and trans fathers can be everything their kids need. The role of the modern-day father can look quite different from family to family, including the introduction of stay-at-home dads. There is some evidence that fatherhood is instinctive; fathers are biologically prepared to parent. Some studies have shown that fathers experience a lowering of their testosterone level around a birth. This chemical change permits removal of the inhibitory impact of high testosterone on bonding hormones such as oxytocin. However, some fathers still find it difficult to become involved, to be active and hands-on in a child’s life, and need support from the mother who may provide examples and encouragement to create connection with the child. 

To all modern-day fathers, thank you for being hands-on! And have a wonderful Father’s Day.
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading
DT Next. Parenthood: Societal expectations and the father’s role. 29 January 2020. Accessed 16 June 2023.

Jessee V, Adamsons K. Father involvement and father-child relationship quality: An intergenerational perspective. Parent Sci Pract 2018;18:28-44.

Lam FT. Father’s Day: Its origin, its meaning. The Tyee. 17 June 2011. Accessed 16 June 2023.

Machin A. In praise of fathers: The making of the modern dad. The Guardian. 19 June 2021. Accessed 16 June

Miller T. Dermott E. Contemporary fatherhood: Continuity, change and future. Families, Relationships and Societies. 2015;4:179-181.

Scatliffe N, Casavant S, Vittner D, Cong X. Oxytocin and early parent-infant interaction: A systematic review. Int J Nurs Sci 2019;6:445-453.

Szasz G. On Father’s Day: A look back at fathers in the birthing room. BCMJ. 17 June 2022. Accessed 16 June 2023.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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