The 3 monumental shifts transforming modern fatherhood

And how understanding their connection can help us all be better fathers.

The New Fatherhood is a newsletter from Kevin Maguire exploring the evolving nature of being a father today, with tools, tips and hacks to help you be better dad, and a community of modern dads who are looking for something more. You are one of the 600 dads (and curious mums) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.


"Fatherhood changes you."

It's what every dad-to-be will hear. It's such a trope that it's almost lost it's meaning. Any dad—young or old, brand-new or lifer—will tell you some variation of the same thing: "you've never known love like the first time you hold your child in your arms."

For some of us it’s true right away. For others, the road is a little longer, but we get there eventually. So it's a given. Fatherhood changes you.

But that's not the only thing that’s changing. I want to talk about the meta, existential changes happening in, around, and to fatherhood. The way I see it, there are three fundamental areas of change:

  1. Fatherhood is changing.

  2. Fatherhood changes you.

  3. You’re changing fatherhood.

Through better understanding these, and how they interact with each other, I believe we can unlock the secret to becoming (and helping others become) better fathers.

1. Fatherhood is changing

Of course it’s changing—just ask your dad. Does he think fatherhood today is the same as it was for him? Probably not.

The modern father is more present, literally and emotionally. He's no longer expected to be the primary breadwinner or disciplinarian. He could be single or married; gay or straight; biological, adoptive or a step-father (or all three). He might be back at work, or staying at home as the primary caregiver. He'll spend more time with his newborn child, taking advantage of better parental leave schemes provided by his employer and/or country. He's more fluid in his responsibilities, and takes a more equal workload with his partner (but is aware that there's still a long way to go).

You might say fatherhood has changed suddenly. For many, it’s been unexpected and scary. But for some of us, it has felt inevitable.

So how did this change happen? Did we change fatherhood? Or is the change due to the cumulative effect of external factors—the drive towards sexual equality (both at home and in the workplace), an increasing acceptance of male vulnerability across society, the much wider definition of father to include genders and sexualities that were previously excluded?

In this wonderful article from Esquire back in 2014, writer Stephen Marche pinpointed the one thing that kickstarted the change (apologies for quoting so much here, the article is so great that it was hard to keep it just to these three):

A single small but vital fact distinguishes men of the past fifty years from all other men in history: Most of us see our children being born. It's one of those changes to everyday life that we take for granted but that have the most radical consequences. Up until the mid-1960s, the mysteries of birth were mainly the preserve of women. Then, suddenly, they weren't. Men insisted on being with their wives as they gave birth, and with their children as they came into the world.

How did that change everything?

The new father is an engaged father by instinct. Witnessing birth was the beginning of a widening intimacy. The new father holds his babies. He bathes them. He reads to them. The new father knows that the role of the father is not merely to provide food and shelter. The role of the father is to be there, physically and mentally.

Is this change for better or worse? It depends who you ask. Put me in the camp that strongly believes it’s for the better ... and if you've signed up to this letter, I'll hazard a guess you do too. I'd argue that less engaged fathers, or who reject the new level of responsibility that's required of them, would say it's for the worse. 

The changes in fatherhood across society make it easier—or at least, more palatable—for us to make decisions based on a different set of criteria than generations before us. Where we're not just looking for the highest paid / most senior job, but putting family—and not career—first:

The problem of work-life balance isn't just for women anymore, and the father who works eighty-hour weeks because his job is so important is no longer seen as something to aspire to. He's pitiable. Even men who have power are finding new strategies. Sigmar Gabriel, the vice-chancellor largely responsible for dismantling the nuclear-power industry of Germany—a big job—has decided to take Wednesday afternoons off to spend with his young daughter. "The only luxury is time, the time you spend with your family."

2. Fatherhood changes you

In the first issue of this newsletter I shared this article about how being a father changes your brain. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but for those of you without 15 minutes, I want to call out this part in particular:

When human fathers come into contact with their offspring (in our experiment, through a photo) it activates the dopamine hub and the motivational system in the midbrain. The more the midbrain was activated, we found, the more involved the father was in caring for the child. This could mean that fathers who were more rewarded by their child became more involved in caregiving, or it could mean that, as fathers became more involved and formed stronger bonds with their child, they came to find the child more rewarding. Viewing pictures of their child also activated a number of other brain regions not included in animal models of parental brain function. These areas, including the anterior cingulate, the thalamus and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, all play a role in empathy. In humans, and likely many other species, parenting involves not only the motivation to deliver care but also the ability to perceive and understand the needs, feelings and mental states of the offspring.

I’m going to be talking a lot about empathy over the next few weeks. I strongly believe that empathy, along with vulnerability, are the emotional yin and yang to unlocking better your relationships across your entire life, and especially with your children and partner. Empathy helps you understand their perspective, while vulnerability makes it easier for them to understand yours.

It seems that actually becoming a father, and forming stronger bonds with your children, can actually make you more empathetic in the rest of your life. Which can only be a good thing—although it means you’ll probably find yourself crying at more Pixar films than you used to.

A better capacity for empathy means being more impacted by things that happen in your life. You'll feel higher highs and lower lows—a very common concept for new parents. But through building a robust mental wellbeing toolkit—which we'll talk about more in the weeks to come—you'll be able to spend more time at the joyful end of the scale.

3. You’re changing fatherhood

So fatherhood is changing. And it's changing you.

But I want to finish by talking about how you're changing fatherhood. Right now.

When you think about it, it’s simple logic: every generation of fathers is an evolution of the one before it. Our grandfathers changed fatherhood for their sons. And our fathers changed it for us. But I’d argue that the pace of change has accelerated faster for us than for them—at what’s starting to feel like an exponential rate.

Graeme said something that resonated with me in the comments last week: “We still have a residual notion from previous generations of 'the done thing', and men sharing their emotions simply wasn't the done thing. This really needs to change. Mainly for our sanity.”

Last year I came across this clip from Kier & Them, a vlogging husband and wife. I was kicking around what would eventually become this newsletter, and Kier put into words something that I'd been struggling to articulate on my own (if you click only one link in this newsletter today, please make it this one.)

Today, every decision you make is changing the next generation of fatherhood for those around you. Your friends, nephews and sons. When they see you tackle a difficult situation admirably, it’ll inspire them, and will help them build a better model of what a father should be. And on the flip side, when they see you lose your shit over something that’s not really all-that-important, they’ll pick up those bad habits too.

And I'm not just talking about the men and boys in your life. Daughters will see the type of father you are, and will influence what they will expect—and tolerate—from their partner (that’s if your daughter ends up with a man, which is far from a given, and there are plenty of other ways to have a child today.)

Putting this all together

What I hope to do with this newsletter is explore how these three monumental shifts are transforming modern fathers. But it's important not to view them in isolation. I see them tied together, creating what I'm calling the Virtuous Circle of New Fatherhood.

We owe a lot to the fathers that have come before us. Many have taught us a better way, inspiring us to be better parents ourselves. These fathers might have been ones you knew very well — your own father, grandfather, uncles, or other male role models. They might have been ones who inspired you from afar: real dads likes Jamie Oliver, John Legend or Barack Obama; or fictional fathers like Atticus Finch, Phil Dunphy or even Mrs Doubtfire. It could even have been a random dad you saw do something wonderful on the street, many years ago, that has seared into your brain as something that a great father should do.

Those fathers have laid the groundwork for us to push fatherhood forward again. But in order to do that, we need to fully understand the changes happening to fatherhood; be aware of, and lean into the changes happening to each of us personally; and then it’s up to us to change it for the next generation of fathers to come.

Or as this Life Pro Tip from Reddit perfectly put it last week:

Do not try to be the man your father would want you to be. Be the man you would like your son to be. It more clearly defines your own convictions, desires, goals, and motivates you to be your best.

3 things to read this week

  • Douglas Emhoff, Kamala Harris’ husband and father to two children, will be the first ever Second Gentleman and tweeting under that handle. Some insecure men aren't dealing with it all that well. The rest of us are quite enjoying it. It's an inspiring message for all of us, as Jamia Wilson, executive director of the Feminist Press, touches upon: "We need to show boys more multidimensional examples of what it means to be a woman and what it means to have power. That, I think, is what's most exciting to me about Douglas Emhoff: that he has had periods of taking a back seat, although he has his own very powerful career—to understand that listening, following, is also an important way to lead."

  • The pandemic has been tough for all of us who are struggling to manage employment and parenthood. But—of course—women are taking the brunt of the blow at work. The Guardian reported that 71% of working mothers were refused furlough while schools were closed and in the US women accounted for 111% of the 140,000 job losses in December (for those maths geeks wondering how there can possibly be 111% of job losses: "women lost 156,000 jobs overall during the month, while men gained 16,000 jobs.") The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Wondering why is everyone talking about sea shanties all of a sudden? Climb aboard ladlubbers (and if you're not ready for some boat puns, walk the plank and skip this paragraph now.) Well, a Scottish postman posted a video to TikTok then crew full of buccaneers used the duet feature to join in. Before you could say "Avast me hearties" the whole world was getting involved. A Bristolian sea shanty band who happened to have the top Spotify result for "Wellerman" (the shanty in question) are now climbing the UK Charts, amassing around 10 million plays in a week—which netted them a catch of around £34,000. A somewhat insignificant bounty for all that hype, showing you just how little those scurvy dogs at Spotify are paying per stream.

Good Dadvice

Vids for the kids

Nike are trying to make the most sustainable shoe ever, and have made a range of sneakers/trainers (just ignore the word you don't like, please) made from the waste lying around their factories. Want a pair? Tough shit, they've already been sold out forever.

Hey! Listen to this!

Every week I'm going to drop a recommendation for something to listen to. Sometimes it'll be a podcast, other times a playlist or an album. Sometimes it'll be for you, other times for the kids.

This week, I want to point you in the direction of Dadwell & Co, a podcast sharing stories of fathers who are raising the creative bar while simultaneously raising small humans. Antonio is a perfect example of living The New Fatherhood, creating a safe space for other fathers to share the joys and struggles of their lives, whilst balancing his own passions with being a parent. I particularly enjoyed this episode featuring a vulnerable and emotional discussion with Michael Kisner, who talks about searching for replacement father figures and channelling negative self-talk into powerful motivation.

(I'm especially happy recommending this podcast as Antonio is, like me, very intentional about sharing a wide and diverse range of voices, having previously been the head of Diversity and Inclusion for AIGA Chicago.)

Previously on The New Fatherhood

Last week we talked about help: how to get it, and where to ask for it. Here's a few of your best comments:

  • "This struck a chord with me in that I wonder if I am doing more harm than good by taking a sideline approach to fatherhood when compared to my wife." Hunter

  • "The number of times that I've given wifey the old "really" look when her phone is buzzing with notifications, but actually it's just proof that she's got conversations going on, and I emphatically don't. It's something that lockdown has really made me aware of, although to be honest I've always been conscious of it and have lazily chalked it up to 'being a bloke'. Which is just bullshit when you think about it." Graeme

  • "We all need to somehow get over the fear of talking unless someone else initiates a discussion with a specific purpose or agenda." Adam

I also asked you on Friday: What’s a part of fatherhood that brings you joy?

  • "Making pour over coffee most mornings with my 4.5 year old daughter. It's a daily ritual that began long before we had kids, and one that's now become how we start most days together. Filled with curiosity and questions as we talk about everything from coffee beans and filters to PAW Patrol and Magna-Tiles." Mike G

  • "My 3yo and I are starting to develop a ritual around shopping errands on weekend mornings. We go to the bakery, grocery shop or supermarket, usually to grab breakfast. It is amazing to walk around with her and talk about any random topic she picks." Daniel

  • "Last night, my kid Oscar’s delaying tactic was to keep starting the book again. It was so brazen and ridiculous I was just pissing myself in my head. Needed to get him to sleep, but was bringing total joy. Because I was in the moment with him, not thinking about some other bullshit. It’s a privilege to have the time and space to feel like this and I hope I keep it going." Nic

Thank you for being part of this conversation. I’m honoured you feel comfortable sharing these things here. Expect another question in your inbox this Friday.

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Header photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.