Dad, distanced:  The turbulence of new fatherhood amidst a pandemic

Dad, distanced: The turbulence of new fatherhood amidst a pandemic

Ranjana Das and Paul Hodkinson

For International Fathers Mental Health Day 2020, we reflect on findings from our forthcoming book on new fathers, mental health and digital communication – and on recent research by one of us on the experience of new mothers in the pandemic – as we connect these findings to the trying conditions faced by those becoming new fathers amidst COVID19.

Our findings about new fathers’ mental health difficulties
In our forthcoming book we present findings from our fieldwork with new fathers, to suggest, broadly, that a gendered positioning of new fathers in the period before and after a baby’s birth can contribute to lasting and complex impacts for their own wellbeing and mental health.

Becoming a father is a life-changing process whose potential for joy is balanced with the likelihood of considerable disruptions and challenges, from traumatic births to transformed responsibilities, from exhaustion and loneliness to supporting a struggling partner. Whilst  invited in as partners in antenatal appointments, classes and during labour, fathers rarely are directly addressed or informed about their own experience or wellbeing during the process and can be forgotten during the post-natal period. This forms part of a consistent, wider positioning of fathers as ultimately marginal to processes of pregnancy, childbirth and infancy, where their role is largely that of a supporter, and not someone who might require support themselves. In addition to rendering fathers as peripheral and rarely addressing their experiences directly, this positioning also can mobilise ideals of masculine stoicism and strength, as part of an expectation to become rock-like pillars of support for their children’s mother.

As a result of their peripheral positioning, the weight of expectations emanating from fixed supporter roles and minimal preparation, struggling fathers in our study often found it difficult to come to terms with, or even recognise and label their own mental health difficulties as legitimate, making support-seeking particularly fraught. We traced such fraughtness through their modes and practices of engaging with digitally mediated communication, where we saw the numerous strategies, hesitations, hopes and anxieties with which they attempted to connect and disclose their difficulties.

New fatherhood amidst a pandemic
In this blog, we reflect on the possibility such positionings and experiences might get exacerbated, manifold, amidst conditions of a pandemic and resultant social distancing norms under COVID-19. Drawing upon recently launched findings from a project conducted by one of us (Ranjana Das) on the experiences of those becoming new mothers during the pandemic, we reflect on some of the sudden and significant changes new fathers might now be facing, based on what mothers said about having a baby during the pandemic.

In the project on mothers, pregnant women spoke about how their partners were no longer allowed to attend antenatal scans or appointments and how they often waited anxiously for a phone-call to be told that the baby is safe and healthy. Ellen’s thoughts on the restrictions on partners attending antenatal scans invite us to consider an expectant father’s position, when distanced from such significant moments –

“Obviously he hasn’t been able to come.  So … and it’s also … I feel a bit sad that he’s missing out on you know hearing the heartbeat for example and some of these checks that, OK they’re very standard but it’s nice … it does bring reassurance that everything’s going well, yeah.”

Those giving birth spoke of partners being asked to stay away till the final stages of labour, and to leave shortly after giving birth, including in one instance, where a new-born baby needed resuscitation and the father did not know if his baby was alive, after all. Nearly half of the mothers in this study experienced significant birth trauma, but social distancing norms meant that opportunities for debriefs or emotional support were scant for mothers themselves, leaving even less support for fathers present for such births and required to leave immediately afterwards. Bianca, for instance said –

“my husband was with me when I was in labour and then two hours after birth he was asked to leave, and baby was taken away, resuscitated at birth, we didn’t know if she was alive and he was asked to leave.”

Though the exclusion of fathers from appointments and post-natal wards may be difficult to avoid, such measures mean that fathers can find themselves rendered dispensable, potentially exacerbating feelings of marginality, separation and anxiety amidst so life-changing a period.

At the same time as often carrying a dual load of increased childcare owing to a partner being away for work, in most cases new mothers were in a heightened state of anxiety and social-distancing induced isolation. Evidence shows already that maternal and paternal depression can often be linked and enhanced pressures on mothers during COVID-19 might further exacerbate struggles for those supporting them. COVID also made post-natal life more difficult for new fathers themselves. For example, those, designated as key workers, were not furloughed during the pandemic and needed to travel back to work under stressful and anxiety-inducing conditions amidst heightened virus-related anxiety about partners, babies and themselves bringing back the virus into the home, generating arguments, stress and added tension. Arfaana noted –

“when this pandemic started… I was kind of … hoping that my husband would get the holidays, not holiday, because he can’t work from home, he works in a supermarket.  So I was thinking that they might send him home….He couldn’t … he didn’t get a chance to spend the time with the baby … that didn’t happen, his supermarket remained open”

In one case, a new father had ultimately admitted to struggling with his own mental health, following incessant arguments at home, and a significantly struggling new mother coping with an infant amidst lockdown. Trisha said –

“he basically turned around at the weekend and told me that he’s struggling with the situation at the moment, which is fair enough, I totally understand, and said that there’s not enough support for new dads”

Moreover, numerous mothers spoke of intense anxieties around not being able to get the baby weighed, or to find support for infant-feeding – and little is known, yet, about the impacts of these sorts of infant-related anxieties as experienced by new fathers amidst a pandemic.

Windows for legitimacy?
The social-distancing guidance and measures of the lockdown impacting pregnancy and maternity are of course in place, for good reason, to protect hospital staff, midwives, other mothers in a ward. In light of this, what might realistically be done then to ensure new fathers, facing such unprecedented and trying conditions, might be supported better?

We found in our work with new fathers, that, at core, there was a problem with what we called repertoires of illegitimacy – where men struggled to even recognise as valid, their own problems – and this connected quite directly with their positioning as supporters and the lack of preparation and support for them. Amidst greater distancing during COVID, it would be beneficial to find ways to meaningfully involve fathers in those aspects of the perinatal process where their presence is feasible, including online classes and some online appointments with health care professionals.

It is equally important that antenatal and postnatal communication to new fathers specifically addresses heightened COVID demands, and opens up a space for fathers to speak about their struggles at such a time. Alongside valuable practical guidance on changed conditions of birth and beyond, what would be valuable for fathers might be an upfront recognition and articulation of their expected struggles, and a window to voice their feelings and address the internal scripts of illegitimacy that might otherwise prevent them from speaking about difficult feelings.

Opportunities by video or phone-call to offer those becoming fathers the chance of a debrief, particularly amidst their exclusion from post-natal wards, might prove valuable, to give them a space to speak about how they feel. Struggles in recognising difficulties as legitimate may lead to significant problems seeking help, but if help, in the form of a debrief might be built in, that could go a long way. We recognise, though, that given re-deployment of staff for the pandemic and the scantiness of support at times for mothers, resources for such additional paternal support might be restricted.

As societies, practitioners and families, we need to recognise that COVID-19, then, is resulting in a generation of new fathers who have suddenly been asked to stay away from key events in the perinatal process. Their prior roles of peripheral supporters, witnessing struggles, but not expected to be struggling themselves, are now likely to be rendered even more liminal and at-a distance. Pressures to provide rock-like support are liable to remain, yet living up to them may become even more challenging when rendered so apparently marginal and non-integral. Missing scans, absent from post-natal wards and, sometimes, parts of births, fathers may witness significant birth trauma and then be asked to leave, before experiencing the struggles of postnatal life amidst social-distancing and lockdown, their own isolation and loneliness, coupled with the very heightened demands on their partners and the external threat of a virus.

Pandemic conditions cannot be changed. But, finding ways to allow these feelings to be voiced and articulated, to make sure they are not brushed aside, and to offer windows for legitimacy to those experiencing having a baby as a peripheral, distanced supporter, might go a long way.


Ranjana Das is Reader in Media and Communication at the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey. Her research focuses on the social uses of communication technologies, with a particular focus in recent years, on technologies, parenthood and mental health. Her monograph on maternal mental health and digital technologies was published in December 2019. Paul Hodkinson is Reader in Sociology at the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey. His work focuses on fathers and fathering, youth cultures and digital social media spaces. His new book, co-authored with Rachel Brooks, on equal and primary caring fathers, is due to be published in July 2020.