“It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father” -Barack Obama
Every Canadian family has been affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic. The public health regulations and restrictions aimed to protect us have impacted our work, our childcare, our kids’ school and sports activities. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and many of us count on our parents, friends, and neighbours along the way. However, with the social distancing measures in place, many families were cut off from their support networks. The impact of this unexpected change on the health and well-being of men and fathers was under reported in the research and media landscape. The Men’s Initiative, at the Faculty of Medicine with the University of British Columbia, began to study the experience of Canadian fathers during COVID-19 to fill this gap.
We collaborated with the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation on a series of studies and recently spoke to 45 Canadian fathers from a range of backgrounds about their experiences. We were interested in hearing about how their roles as dads changed, and how they felt about their time together with their partners and children in the home. We wanted to know what they said about their performance as dads, and we asked if their relationships with their partners had changed. But ultimately, we were interested in how they felt they were doing.
Our programs work with men in high stress environments (police, fire, sports) and we understand that it’s harder for guys to talk about emotional challenges, which can make them less resilient when the going gets tough. We also know that most guys have activity buddies instead of deep friendships, and that men really don’t like to ask for help when they need it, especially when it comes to their mental health. Guys are also more likely to cope with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviour such as smoking and alcohol abuse. Tragically, we also know that domestic violence, including violence towards children, increases in times of crisis.
Yet we also know that engaged fathers have happy families, and that their children generally do better at school, are more socially adjusted, and have a healthier outlook on life. And other COVID-19 related studies show that some men are levelling up their engagement and connection with their partners and families.
Before COVID-19, the fathers in our focus groups say their normal family life was rushed and busy. Besides work, fathers had long days, many had long commutes to their work, and evenings were an Amazing Race of eating on the run, getting their kids to sports and activities, and then home for bedtime. Fathers with older kids said that family members had different schedules and it felt like everyone was in their own silos.
We found, that as the pandemic evolved, fathers had more time together at home with their partners and their children. Many had regular family meals together, and shared activities such as games, movies and hobbies with their children. Four distinct themes emerged from our focus groups with fathers who shared their experiences of the public health measures and restrictions of COVID-19.
Through our analysis of the results, there was a clear silver lining amid the COVID gloom: Many fathers feel closer to their children during the COVID-19 pandemic, and expressed feeling tension about shifting back to the “old normal” when COVID-19 wanes and their families return to their previous lives of work, school, and activities.
Although fathers say they are relieved that some of the stress caused by the pandemic (e.g. loss of employment, school, health concerns) is easing, they also expressed a desire to create a “new normal” going forward that includes more family time and stronger engagement with their children, among other shifted priorities.
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“…Yes, we were a family and would spend time together and do things together, but the vast majority of time was spent apart siloed away in our own little worlds. And then we came together that usually led to chaotic mornings…you rushing them along to get them ready. And then by the time you see them in the evening, you are rushing them along to try and get them to bed. That experience of fatherhood felt so cheap and not like I wanted. So here we are in this time …even though everyone laments the loss of outside social interaction, as a family we’ve landed so much closer to how my wife and I talked about how we wanted our family to look. In a way, we are disappointed in our past selves and proud of current selves”
-Justin, 34, father in Victoria,