When it comes to fathers, we’re often quick to peg them as a certain “type”: the nice dad, the fun dad, the workaholic dad, the absent dad. But what if dads don’t fall into distinct buckets and instead—like moms—are just complex human beings who are trying to figure things out as a parent with varying degrees of success?
That’s the very perspective that Family Paths, a nonprofit in Alameda County, California, has taken with a new program for fathers. Over six weeks, it provides dads in the local area—many of whom are facing numerous socioeconomic challenges—a safe space to express their thoughts and emotions, and the mental tools they need to succeed as a parent.
For each session (currently over Zoom), the men meet to discuss a range of topics guided by the character strengths of empathy, purpose, reliability, and gratitude. Some are still young men; others are old enough to be the dads of those dads. Some voluntarily sign up; some are mandated by the court to attend. Many are no longer in a relationship with the mother of their child. The program acknowledges that dads—all dads—can benefit from some support and evolve as a parent.
“The mix of participants is what creates a recipe for learning. It’s what makes transformation happen,” says Julianne Rositas, Family Paths family support manager/parent education. That, she says, and the facilitators, both of whom have deep experience in mental health counseling and are themselves local-area fathers who’ve undergone their own challenges and understand where the participants are coming from.
Showing up every week for over a month may seem like a hard sell for men with complicated lives, much less taking part in role-playing and journal-keeping. And yet most participants say they wish the program could go on for longer. As one explained, the program made him feel confident about expressing his thoughts. “It helped me communicate with my son,” he said. “It also helped me release some of the anger I had toward his mother. I thought I’d come here and do the hours, but it ended up being something bigger than that.”
Family Path’s fatherhood project gives participants the attention they deserve yet never realized they needed. It recognizes the special challenges they face as parents and the gifts they’re capable of bringing as dads. In turn, this opens them up to new strategies for raising a happy child—strategies that all parents can use, no matter what their life circumstances.
The truth about parenting—and co-parenting
Shortly after their child is born, many of the unmarried dads in the Family Paths program say they want to raise the child together with the mother. As Rositas noted, “I can’t think of any time where someone said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of my kid’s life.’”
So what then pushes them away? The truth is, parenting is hard. Providing for yourself and your family while tending to the demands of a small child (who often requires attention now) is stressful and exhausting. A whole body of research has suggested that men and women without young children report having higher marital satisfaction than those with young children.
Co-parenting—especially when a romantic relationship has dissolved and you don’t live under the same roof as your parenting partner—can be challenging. Resentment between parents makes it hard to negotiate who does what with the child, when and where.
Poverty (which affects about a quarter of solo parents), joblessness, and a lack of education add to the challenge. “[Parents] can be impatient or irritable,” says Carolyn Pape Cowan, UC Berkeley adjunct professor emerita who has co-directed three longitudinal studies about couples, including those transitioning into parenthood. “The kids get frightened, and it’s not just the loud shouting that scares them, but the stony silence.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Rositas says the men want to be present, but they don’t know how. “They feel they don’t have the resources to help their children,” she explains. “They can’t find a way to get along with the mother, and they think their child shouldn’t need to hear them arguing. They think [their child] is better off without them.”
With multiple stressors chipping away at the dad’s original intention to be involved with his child, Family Paths’ fathers series isn’t the typical parenting program styled after mommy-and-me classes. Nor is it a lecture, reprimanding men for not fulfilling court-ordered expectations. Rather, it’s part small-group seminar, part support-group meeting—a rare opportunity for dads to learn more about themselves and others. The men are taught the science behind the father’s role in child development. They explore what parenting could ideally look like for them, and they tune into helpful scripts for better communication. In the last session, they also receive guidance in navigating the child-support system.
With this knowledge comes an alleviation of some of their stress, an improved relationship with their parenting partner—and, in turn, a better environment for their child to grow and thrive.
Recognizing dad’s special role as a co-parent
Among the first and most important things that dads learn in the program is that, when it comes to the development of their child, their presence matters. Dads play with kids differently than moms do. Dads are particularly good at fostering industriousness, explains Rositas. Research has also suggested that if dads are emotionally present and embrace their roles as fathers, they can have a positive influence on their child’s behavior, both indirectly (because that’s good for the mom) and directly. A recent study suggests that a dad’s involvement can nurture a child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being. Another report found that behavioral problems were less prevalent among kids whose dads took time off work to be there during infancy.
Many men don’t realize this, in part because social and cultural conventions tend to emphasize only the “provider” aspect of being a dad and not much else. This exacerbates the stress from poverty, given that many fathers simply don’t have the resources to be that provider people expect them to be, explains Marilyn Coleman, Curators’ distinguished professor emerita of human development and family science at the University of Missouri. They don’t realize that “it doesn’t have to be monumental,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be Disney World. They could simply take a walk. They could share a popsicle.”
But many dads—especially those who never had father figures in their lives—seem to take an all-or-nothing approach. Beyond that, they don’t know what to do with their kids other than putting them in front of a TV, says Coleman. And society isn’t much help. Dads aren’t given nearly as many tools to navigate their role as a father, while moms often have a network of support to turn to once the child is born—sisters, friends, and their moms—not to mention volumes of self-help books, an army of Facebook groups, bloggers, and mommy-and-me cohorts, and even government agencies specifically named for them, such as the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
Family Paths facilitator Juan Cuba points out that some of his participants often feel that women are treated differently in family court. They feel that as dads, they’re not given the opportunity to be involved, even if they want to be. “Some of them say, ‘Why should I try? At the end of the day, I’m still the bad guy,’” explains Cuba, who leads groups in Spanish.
Facilitator Michael Lewis adds that the system doesn’t seem to value the dad’s relevance to the child’s life compared to the mom’s. When it comes to co-parenting and dealing with the system, “all dads have a level of trauma,” he says. The group offers permission to vent, but also to expand their social network with other dads going through similar experiences—something that’s difficult to do in most parenting classes, which are attended mostly by women.
The experience makes dad feel relevant. “Dads really like to find out they have a clear impact on what the child’s development looks like,” Rositas says. “It gives them purpose as a dad.” Or as one participant (who, in fact, had doubts signing up at first) put it in a letter of gratitude after the program: “It simply feels very human. You have given me a sense of compassion and an approach to being. It’s something I feel great about living life forward as a parent.”
Five strategies that help dads co-parent better
For families facing hardship, approaches to understand and provide services for them often come from a deficit perspective, focusing on what’s missing, what’s not right. But Family Paths’ approach to co-parenting comes from a place of strength. “It focuses on the processes that facilitate positive interactions between co-parents,” says Velma McBride Murry, professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University and the scientific advisor to Family Paths’ Fatherhood & Co-parenting program.
Until these parents have access to higher-paying jobs, affordable housing, and other additional resources that are key to alleviating the stress of co-parenting, cultivating resilience can help moms and dads co-parent better, regardless of the circumstances. To help do that, the program’s participants learn many of the skills and practices below, which can also enhance the parenting experience for dads in all kinds of families.
Practice empathy. A particularly powerful exercise that the dads tackle in the program is putting themselves in the mom’s shoes. Each takes turns being the mom, while the other dads say what they might often say to her. It’s an exercise that helps them empathize with their parenting partner and communicate in a more mindful way (such as listening actively and expressing how they’re feeling, rather than blaming). By practicing empathy, says Cuba, you can de-escalate your level of rage and develop a better relationship. “At the end of the day, even if you disagree on things, you are both there because you want the best for your kid.”
Press pause. It’s easy to tune out or get angry when disagreements arise, but dads in the Family Paths program learn to give themselves time to think things through. They learn to say, “I need to pause right now. We need to discuss this. Give me 15 minutes and then let’s circle back and meet,” explains Rositas—and then they commit to that. Once the dads are able to do that, they start to discover they feel less stressed out. “They realize that it’s not only about taking care of yourself so you can take care of your kids, but also about taking care of the relationship you develop so your kid is OK,” she says.
Ask yourself what you miss from being a kid. Or what are the things you would have liked to have received from your father? By asking these questions, says Cuba, the group is able to think through their own childhood experiences, put those into the context of their current situation, and figure out the specific things they can do to improve matters for their child. “They say things like ‘My father was a good guy, but he wasn’t there when I needed him.’ Or ‘I couldn’t talk to him when I had a problem.’ These conversations allow those a-ha moments to happen,” says Cuba.
Focus on creating memories. Understandably, just being present with your child might feel awkward if you haven’t spent much time with kids in the past and are unsure what to do with them. Research by Coleman has found that closeness and affinity is often built on activities that interest the child, not necessarily the father. “So, if your child wants to play catch, do it, even if you’re bad at playing catch,” she says. Helpfully, she points out, many things that kids actually want to do with their dad don’t require spending a cent.
Keep a gratitude journal. Rositas believes that being thankful for what you have is fundamental to good co-parenting, and that dads can be grateful to the mother of their child, no matter how the two get along as a couple. “You’re grateful for her because of the child you created together,” she explains. At first she wasn’t sure if the dads were too “macho” to keep a journal, but, with the positive influence of the facilitators (cool dads themselves), they turned out to be completely on board. Ultimately, they’d come to realize that taking a positive perspective just feels better and it’s better for their child, too. “You have to be the change you want to see,” Rositas says.