Fathering through a pandemic

Parenthood is often the most significant journey a human being makes. There is no right way to father – it’s a role that must be undertaken instinctively and responsively, responding to circumstances and to the individuality of yourself, your child and your family. Current circumstances, under the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic, can make finding a favourable approach even more challenging.  

Men often excel at pushing their children’s boundaries – so they go higher, speak more fluently, play an instrument more expertly or game like a pro (for example)! Children are intuitive and when you have belief in their abilities, their confidence tends to increase, and with it their competence. With schools closed, throwing yourself into the responsibility homeschooling is a great opportunity to help your children, to bond – and to distract your household from the tumultuous situation that we all find ourselves in.

My partner and I find that, while the lessons sent home from our school are good, it’s necessary to supplement our days with lessons of our own devising to keep our sons enjoying the homeschool experience and actively learning. Our youngest boy loves performing science experiments so I am continually noticing what’s in our cupboards and performing web searches to discover whether what we have in stock can be utilised for such purposes!

We’re an arty family, so that’s integrated into every day – and my partner is musical so he’s giving regular guitar lessons. We’re also blessed with a fairly substantial garden so plants are being tended and tree bark is being rubbed during nature studies. Work with what you have and what your skills are – and most importantly what you’re passionate about because enthusiasm is often infectious! But don’t expect too much from yourself or your children, we’re all adjusting to a new normal and every minute spent on a productive and engaging activity is a little victory, every fruitless moment quite understandable! 

Learn from your successes and mistakes, don’t despise yourself when your approach doesn’t work (or if you miss your aim entirely). It’s easy to fall into despondency and self-loathing for not being the perfect parent, but it’s not useful. Do what your children do when they stumble, dust yourself off and forge ahead, onwards and upwards, ideally a little bit wiser! Learn from your parents’ successes and mistakes and those of others – but always bear in mind that what works for one parent and child isn’t necessarily transferable to others because we’re all unique. And bear in mind now that, we’re living through a historic moment that nobody is quite sure how to navigate and nobody is likely to sail through entirely unscathed. 

Pursuing good mental hygiene is something we should all do, all the time, but it’s not always at the top of everybody’s list of priorities. For populations living through this moment, though, it’s never been more critical than it is now. Crucial civil liberties have been suspended and families are isolated in boxes (of varying sizes) to suffer each-others habits (of varying annoyance) incessantly; many victim to uncertainty and stress regarding work and finances, not to mention concerns for vulnerable loved ones or even bereavement… We all need to optimise our resilience – and modelling how in front of our children could prove an enormously beneficial investment in their futures.

Challenge negative thought patterns where you can, if they’re related to the behaviour of those in your household please talk to them (as calmly, generously and honestly as possible). Distract yourself with activities that you enjoy. Plan goals – not for the fleeting sense of achievement when you meet them but for the sense of vitality as you progress towards them. Spend meaningful time with your household and maintain contact with other loved ones as best as you can. Ask for help and/or support if you need it. And attend to your vulnerability factors – that means eating, sleeping, taking your medication, taking your health and wellbeing as seriously as we all take our children’s. 

While fatherhood can be the making of the man, in our societies, for too many men their vital relationships with their children are denied. Each case where a loving father is denied the opportunity to fulfil his responsibility to father his children is a tragedy and a profound injustice. In a significant number of cases the tragedy and injustice are compounded by parental alienation that can poison a child’s mind against a victim parent and leave lasting damage both on the relationship and the parent and child’s health and wellbeing. Because each case is unique, my advice is broad: never, ever give up.

What this means for any given man suffering from being separated from his children will vary. Some may have the resources never to give up fighting through legal channels, some may have been awarded meaningful access – after significant harm has been perpetrated through parental alienation – and face a complex and challenging repair job, some may be devastated by the closing of contact centres, others may have to accept lack of contact and commit themselves to living the best life they can without their children, never giving up hope that they’ll be returned to them.  

I am concerned that after this pandemic there will be a spike in divorce after reports of a spike the same in China in the immediate aftermath of Covid-19 and the words of Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia who shared the opinion of U.K. divorce lawyers in Westminster that “following self-imposed confinement it is very likely that the divorce rate will rise.” The psychological consequences on individuals and the damage done to inter-personal relationships by Covid-19 is unquantifiable. What is somewhat more quantifiable is the impact on children if we, as a society, allow parental relationships to break down: 

  • Single parent families are nearly twice as likely to be in poverty as those in couple parented families1. 
  • Of >2.8million single parent families10, 92% of non-resident parents are fathers in the U.K.2 
  • Less than half of non-resident parents are awarded staying contact with their children3. 
  • Day visits (without overnight stays) are ordered in 20% cases4. 
  • No contact, indirect or supervised contact is ordered in 31% of cases5. 
  • Almost equal caring occurs in 3% of cases at best6. 
  • Father’s involvement with children is linked to higher educational achievement and occupational mobility, and increases a boy’s chances of escaping poverty in particular7. 
  • Father’s involvement is associated with fewer child behavioural problems8 
  • Father’s involvement is associated with lower criminality, 76% of children and young people in custody had an absent father9 as compared to the <25% national average10. 
  • Father’s involvement is associated with less substance misuse and addiction11. 
  • Greater father involvement is associated with higher levels of self-respect and self-regulation12. 
  • Father absence is associated with earlier sexual activity and teen pregnancy13. 
  • Children with single parents show increased risks of psychiatric disease, suicide, and attempted suicide14. 

 I advocate that plans be made and provisions ring-fenced to support parents enduring relationship crises to receive support that could assist them in reconciliation. According to The Centre for Social Justice research published in 2017, 89% of adults say they would support public money being spent on strengthening families – in the wake of Covid-19 it is more important than ever that it isIn our lifetimes, these experiences are unprecedented, these restrictions astonishing, these fears novel. I wish you and your loved ones well and hope that you manage to father your way ably through this crisis and beyond.

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