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'Sidelined' fathers face unmet emotional, sexual needs after baby arrives, study finds

SINGAPORE — Singaporean fathers want to be actively involved in parenting their newborn babies, but they face roadblocks in doing so, a new study has found.

'Sidelined' fathers face unmet emotional, sexual needs after baby arrives, study finds

Fathers of newborn babies often feel they are left to do "back-end" tasks such as buying diapers, the study found.

SINGAPORE — Singaporean fathers want to be actively involved in parenting their newborn babies, but they face roadblocks in doing so, a new study has found.

In the first longitudinal study observing paternal involvement and the challenges Singaporean fathers face, researchers found that new dads here had inadequate information and training by healthcare professionals, who still tend to focus on mothers.

Many fathers are also “sidelined” owing to social norms — as mothers and older members of the extended family such as the couple’s in-laws believe that they are better equipped to take care of the newborn child.

This was particularly “unique” to Singaporean and Asian fathers, said the study’s principal investigator Dr Shefaly Shorey from the Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies. The study was released on Saturday (July 27).

“One unique thing in the Asian context is that we have extended families, or confinement nannies coming in during the confinement period. We found that with the in-laws being there, fathers were discouraged to be part of baby care, because everybody else seems to know what's going on with the baby,” said Dr Shorey.

DEARTH OF STUDIES ON FATHERS

There is a shortage of documentation on paternal involvement during infancy in the Asian context, she added.

“There has been a lot of studies and literature done on mothers, but people forget that with changing society norms, fathers are also increasingly involved in taking care of their new-borns.”

The study, funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), surveyed more than 200 fathers between the ages of 21 and 52.

Between October 2016 and March 2018, researchers also conducted qualitative surveys with 50 fathers at their child’s first week of infancy and at six months after the birth. This included in-depth interviews and house visits.

FATHERS GET THE BLUES TOO

Issues such as the lack of emotional support and unmet sexual needs of fathers surfaced later on, researchers found.

At the six-month mark, at least one father was reported to be at risk of depression, the study found.

Fathers were also found to have unmet sexual needs, with several dads having questions about when they could start having sex with their spouses again.

TODAY spoke to several fathers who did not participate in the study. Some said they found it difficult to express their emotional needs due to societal norms which expect men to be strong.

In addition, these fathers said that they were often tasked with “back-end” duties such as buying diapers, milk powder and groceries — another common experience among dads that researchers identified in their study.

Mr Richard Chong, a 40-year-old property manager, said that the emotional needs of fathers are discussed less because “our society still sees men as being strong”.

Recounting his experience as a new father, Mr Chong said: “In the first few months after (my wife gave) birth, sometimes… I felt quite alone. Because (all the) focus is on my wife and baby.”

“I felt like we’re not recognised in looking after the baby, we're mostly doing back-end support like getting groceries, diapers and milk powder… that are not that important,” said Mr Chong, whose son is now four years old.

Another 33-year-old father, Mr Richie Lee, said that he did not face many issues in discussing his emotional needs with his wife.

However, he recognised that it can be difficult for most fathers to broach the topic of emotional needs.

“Traditionally, the topic of emotional health in men is something that is not well-defined and is not talked about. The only time it is talked about is when men are among themselves,” he added.

INADEQUATE TRAINING

Besides the unmet emotional and sexual needs of fathers, the study also found that fathers were stressed as their infant’s needs evolved.

Six months after their child is born, fathers in the study reported that the lack of assistance from healthcare professionals, incessant infant crying and sleepless nights contributed to fatigue and stress.

Dr Shorey highlighted that fathers tend to have “theory” knowledge, but often face difficulties when it comes to the “practical” — tasks such as holding a baby, and changing diapers.

This was the case for Mr Chong, who told TODAY: “When I tried to change my baby’s diapers, the more I wiped, the more mess I made.”

He said his failure at simple tasks made him “demoralised”. “I experienced low moods at work but I chose to put my wife and baby first,” he said.

Dr Shorey said that fathers reflected that they are not given practical skills, and healthcare professionals are using “dummies and dolls to teach”.

She said that there could be more practical infant care teaching during the period immediately before and after birth.

MAKE RESOURCES MORE ACCESSIBLE

Currently, there are resources for fathers seeking help. Non-profit organisations such as the Centre for Fathering conducts workshops and provides information online for new dads.

The NGO also started Singapore’s National Fathers Movement, Dads for Life, in 2009 to promote active involvement of fathers in parenting.

However, Dr Shorey said that such resources could be made more “visible” and accessible.

“We found that advertisements for antenatal classes are not there, and only a small group of people will see them... I was surprised that some fathers were totally unaware (that these courses exist),” she added.

While courses are available for parents who have yet to give birth, Dr Shorey said that antenatal classes should be more “father-inclusive”, instead of being women and infant oriented.

This can be in the form of having father-specific courses, where at least one lesson is taught with fathers as the focus. “Experienced dads can come in to share their experiences and challenges, and even set up focus groups and support groups after,” she said.

“People may feel it’s less macho, but it is really not,” said Dr Shorey.

At the end of the day, Dr Shorey said that it was fundamentally important to create society-wide awareness and normalise the notion that a father’s needs are equally important as a mother’s.

“Fathers need to feel that they play a key role in infant care and are not just a sidekick,” she said.

CORRECTION NOTE: This story has been edited to clarify how and when the qualitative study was conducted.

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baby father parenting

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