This blog post reports on an article that uses data collected as part of the evaluation of the Dad and Partner Pay scheme (2011-14), funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Social Services (previously the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs). The views expressed in the article are those of the authors Michelle Brady, Emily Stevens, Laetitia Coles, Maria Zadoroznyj and Bill Martin and not necessarily those of any funding body associated with the research.

Are fathers ready and willing to bond with their young infants? Or do many fathers prefer to defer bonding until their child is older? New paternity leave schemes that have been introduced in OECD countries not only aim to increase fathers’ involvement in practical childcare they also explicitly aim to increase the strength of fathers’ emotional bonds with their infants by increasing the amount of leave they take in the immediate post-birth period (Fletcher, 2013).

Overall our findings paint a very positive picture of Australian fathers’ willingness to engage in early bonding and suggest that most Australian fathers with young infants would strongly disagree with the idea that there is “nothing” for them to do while at home on paternity leave.

As noted by Penelope Rush and Richard Fletcher a key aim of Australian’s new paternity leave scheme (the Dad and Partner Pay initiative), which was introduced in early 2014, is to promote early paternal bonding. Policy makers argued that the provision of up to two weeks of government funded pay would provide increased “opportunities for fathers to bond with their newborn” [emphasis added].

Just over a year ago the UK government made legislative changes that allowed fathers to share up to 39 weeks of Shared Parental Pay which is paid at the statutory rate (UK Government, 2015a; UK Government, 2015b). The responsible Minister Jo Swinson argued that due to these changes “fathers and partners will be able to spend more time bonding with their children during the precious early stages of their development“. The argument was that this early bonding time would lead to increased paternal care over the child’s life, and ultimately better child outcomes, which is what some research suggests happens when fathers take leave.

While these politicians and policy makers have been optimistic that paternity leave will result in fathers’ increased emotional involvement in their infants’ lives, some popular media commentators have persistently mocked these aspirations. Tom Sykes, a columnist for the broad circulation newspaper The Daily Telegraph, has argued that “Not being in possession of a pair of lactating breasts, there is absolutely nothing for [new dads] to do – except get under [their] wives’ feet“. More recently Quentin Letts wrote in an article in the conservative tabloid the Daily Mail “My wife opted for breast-feeding. My man boobs may be corkers in their own right but they were never up to that task, so I had little to do“.

Both commentators challenge the policy narrative that fathers have an important role to play in the immediate post-birth period, arguing that fathers would be better off deploying their efforts elsewhere suggesting “If a man can go and earn a few bob to help pay the flurry of bills, is he not better thus employed?“. These commentators do not reject the ideal of involved fathering but suggest that the early weeks of an infants’ life are not the time for father-child bonding; “You will have a whole life ahead for bonding with your lovely new child. Stay just long enough to show affectionate interest.” or that it is the “wonderful ones, the terrible twos, the thrilling threes and the fearsome fours” when fathers require such leave and support.

What should we make of such claims? Are these simply sensationalist tabloid claims? Or do the views espoused by these commentators articulate an experience that is widespread amongst fathers? Our research with 100 Australian fathers of young infants (born in September 2012 or March/April 2013), as part of an evaluation of Australia’s new paternity leave scheme entitled Dad and Partner Pay, suggest that only a minority of fathers express similar views. When we interviewed 100 fathers when their infants were 6-8 months old to investigate their experiences of bonding, 75 percent of these fathers told us that they believed they were capable of playing an active role in the early weeks and months of their child’s life. Furthermore, the majority of fathers who had taken leave around the birth had used this time to engage in bonding. For example, one of the men who took significant leave around the birth of his second child told us “I think he’s bonding with me, the same way [our older child] bonded with my partner… it’s the time that you spend.”

Less than a quarter of the fathers we interviewed expressed views that were similar to those articulated in the popular commentary described earlier. One of these 25% of fathers was Tom (his name has been change to protect his identity) who worked as a police officer and had taken three weeks of leave around the birth. Tom told us that during this leave he had spent no time engaged in infant care and that when the baby “whinged” during this time he “just picked her up and gave her to her mother.” Tom also rejected the idea that paternity leave had helped him with bonding telling us that during the early weeks it is “mainly mother and baby bonding with the breastfeeding. Yeah, so I probably wouldn’t start bonding with her ’til a bit afterwards, a bit later”.

These 25% of fathers who expressed views similar to Tom’s suggest that policy makers or politicians should not assume that paternity leave, which enables “time off work”, automatically translates into “helping them bond with their new child and be involved in their care from an early age.”

To the extent that one of the aims of paternity leave schemes is to help fathers develop early bonds with their infants our research suggests that many fathers may benefit from greater access to information about how they can physically engage in bonding activities. While mothers currently receive advice on bonding activities, such as breastfeeding, this information is often not provided to fathers (Ives, 2014). One simple way of making such information more accessible would be to provide a link on paternity leave application forms to websites such as the Australian Government funded Raising Children Network (2012). While some fathers may ultimately decide that they prefer to engage in a ‘helper’ role during the early weeks of their infants’ life and defer bonding until their infant is older, such information may help some fathers to build earlier emotional connections with their infants.

Overall our findings paint a very positive picture of Australian fathers’ willingness to engage in early bonding and suggest that most Australian fathers with young infants would strongly disagree with the idea that there is “nothing” for them to do while at home on paternity leave.

This article is based upon a recent Journal of Social Policy article by Michelle Brady, Emily Stevens, Laetitia Coles, Maria Zadoroznyj and Bill Martin which is available free of charge until the 20th of October 2016 here.

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