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Daddy dilemma

ANN/THE STAR – Hidden behind the smiles of many fathers today lies a modern struggle that is increasingly common yet often overlooked. In the past, fathers were primarily tasked with being the breadwinners, focusing solely on financial support. 

However, contemporary expectations now demand that fathers not only provide financially but also actively engage as nurturing and involved parents. 

Balancing these dual roles is exacting a toll on their mental well-being, intensifying stress levels and leading to a range of psychological challenges.

Joshua Hong, chairman of Better Dads Malaysia, a non-profit organisation dedicated to advocating for healthy and responsible fatherhood, elaborates on the evolving nature of fatherhood.

“Fatherhood today is shaped by the era we live in, influenced by social and cultural dynamics, parental expectations, and each father’s unique abilities, aspirations, and intentions,” Hong explains.

“Today, fathers are increasingly expected to be actively involved in all aspects of their children’s lives, including caregiving, emotional support and household responsibilities.”

But while expectations have changed, work and the world have yet to catch up, at least in Asia. Fathers don’t have much support to carry out familial duties thanks to a lack of family-friendly working policies, and they even lack avenues to reach out for help to thrive psychologically.

PHOTO: ENVATO

DYNAMICS OF WOES

There are several social factors and trends that contribute to the elevated stress levels experienced by fathers today, centering on their role as the breadwinner, says Hong.

“With increasing globalisation and technological advancements, many fathers find themselves grappling with longer working hours, higher job demands, and the pressure to excel in competitive environments.

“In addition, economic factors such as rising living costs, housing expenses, and financial instability add to the stress burden experienced by fathers.”

Hong says the pressure of being a provider while having to be constantly present to lend emotional support to the family is difficult to bear.

“This can often lead to a constant juggling act between work responsibilities and family commitments, causing stress and exhaustion.”

At the same time, shifting societal expectations and norms regarding fatherhood have added another layer of pressure.

“While there’s a growing emphasis on fathers being actively involved in their children’s lives, there’s often a lack of supportive policies and cultural recognition to accommodate this shift.

“Fathers may feel torn between traditional provider roles and the desire to be present caregivers, leading to feelings of guilt or inadequacy when they’re unable to meet all expectations,” says Hong.

He points out that the breakdown of traditional support structures within communities and families further compounds stress levels for fathers.

“With more families living away from extended family members and support networks, fathers may feel isolated and overwhelmed in their parenting journey, lacking the emotional and practical support that previous generations may have relied upon.”

Better Dads Malaysia adviser Jason Leong says instances of fathers suffering from mental health strains, including anxiety and depression, were seen during the pandemic.

“The Covid-19 pandemic brought about a lot of changes, stress, anxiety, and depression for fathers. We were engaging with a lot of men through our programmes during the pandemic years and we noted a significant uptick in the cases of men suffering from depression.”

Leong says according to studies by the Health Ministry and the police, men were at least three times more likely to commit suicide than women between the years 2020 and 2023.

“Many men feel they are failing today. They are lonely and isolated without any close men friends they can talk to about their emotions. We need to promote a more flexible and compassionate understanding of fatherhood to alleviate the pressures faced by fathers today.”

Faltering duties

High levels of stress and anxiety are common among fathers who feel that they are failing in their roles as both caregiver and breadwinner, says Universiti Sains Malaysia’s gender and leadership expert Dr Zaireeni Azmi, who also specialises in sociology and psychology.

“This is especially true for those of the lower income group. They often feel greater stress due to financial instability, which can directly impact their overall wellbeing and also the ability to engage with their children.”

Worrying about finances can cause anxiety and, “An anxious person can be irritable, have difficulties concentrating, and experience an increase in heart rate and muscle tension.

“There is also depression and sleep disorders, all part of the psychological impact of being burnt out, overwhelmed, and emotionally drained. This can lead the affected person to be detached from his family or isolate himself.”

Such setbacks can deter fathers from fulfilling the duties that they had committed to earlier.

“A father might have wanted to be involved in their children’s lives but could not be due to the burden of psychological impacts.”

The lack of interaction between a father and children in a family can lead to the latter suffering from stress and anxiety too, according to a study done by the University of California. The absence of parents during “critical developmental stages” may lead to feelings of neglect and insecurity in children, the study found.

At the same time, social media plays a huge role in adding to stress levels, says Zaireeni.

“The rise of social media leads to a culture of comparison. Some people like to upload pictures with their children, leading to some fathers feeling pressured to meet the standards of parenting displayed on social media.

“This constant comparison increases stress levels, spurred by unrealistic expectations of how fathers should behave or carry themselves.”

Zaireeni says there are studies in the United States that link fathers’ mental health and child maltreatment; she is not aware of similar research carried out in Malaysia.

Among the key points of a systematic review titled “Fathers’ Mental Ill-health and Child Maltreatment” that was published on Feb 1, is that there was “stronger evidence for the association between paternal depression and child maltreatment.

This indicates that fathers suffering from depression may be more likely to engage in behaviours that can be classified as child maltreatment”.

“However, the evidence for the association between paternal post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and child maltreatment was found to be weak or non-existent.”

Zaireeni says there is mixed evidence for the association between fathers’ mental health and child maltreatment.

“The study is not conclusive on the matter. At the same time, there are varying degrees of stress and not all parents who suffer from high levels of stress will end up maltreating their children.”

Extending aid to fathers

Hong says several types of psychological support and interventions could be effective in helping fathers manage stress and improve their overall mental health and well-being.

From parenting support groups to workplace support programmes, such facilities can mitigate the burden of mental stress.

“Establishing parenting support groups specifically for fathers can offer valuable peer support and camaraderie. These groups can provide a platform for fathers to share their experiences, exchange tips and advice, and offer emotional support to one another.

“Being part of a supportive community of fellow fathers can help reduce feelings of isolation and enhance overall well-being.”

He also says stress management workshops or seminars can equip fathers with practical skills and strategies to navigate stress more effectively.

“These workshops can cover topics such as time management, anger management, setting boundaries, assertive communication, and problem-solving techniques tailored to the unique challenges faced by fathers.”

As for workplace support programmes, Hong says employers can introduce employee assistance programmes, psychological first aid, and flexible work arrangements and initiatives to promote a successful balance between work and life.

“Providing a supportive work environment that acknowledges and accommodates the challenges faced by working fathers can help alleviate stress and improve overall well-being.”

Malaysia can also emulate father-friendly policies practised by other countries such as Iceland, Japan, and Sweden.

“One notable example is Sweden’s robust parental leave system, often considered one of the most father-friendly policies in the world.

In Sweden, parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave per child, which can be shared between both parents. Notably, 90 of these days are specifically designated for each parent, incentivising fathers to take an active role in caregiving from the early stages of their child’s life.

This policy not only promotes gender equality in parenting responsibilities but also supports fathers in bonding with their children and participating more fully in family life.

Hong says Sweden also offers a generous allowance for parental leave, typically providing 80 per cent of salary replacement during leave periods.

“This financial support enables fathers to take time off work to care for their children without facing significant financial strain, enhancing their ability to prioritise family commitments without sacrificing their livelihoods.”

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