Men's Mental Health: Fatherhood and Psychotherapy

By Madsen, Svend Aage | The Journal of Men's Studies, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Men's Mental Health: Fatherhood and Psychotherapy


Madsen, Svend Aage, The Journal of Men's Studies


The average father's participation in his child's birth and subsequent caretaking is a rather recent phenomenon. In fact, the current increase in men's active participation in the delivery room and in subsequent infant care can be thought of as a revolution in contemporary men's behavior, in gender relations, and in men's relations with their children. Currently, fathers attend 95% of all births in Denmark (Madsen & Munck, 2001). Danish men take an average of three-and-a-half weeks of paternity leave. Among other Nordic countries the average is even higher, with fathers in Iceland taking an average of 12 weeks and in Sweden and Norway an average of six weeks (Dansk Ingeniorforening, 2006). In the report, "Can Men Do It?", prepared for the Nordic Council of Ministers, Oystein Holter (2003) states about Nordic men today, that

   most men want an extended care period for fathers, and there is
   gradual movement toward that goal ... the majority of men want a
   caring and family-friendly development both in the workplace and at
   home, where men and women cooperate more, are less segregated, and
   interact on a more balanced basis. (p. 62)

Fatherhood has been central to changes in masculine perceptions in Denmark and throughout the Nordic region. The aim of this article is to discuss two aspects of fatherhood in the Nordic countries--men's experiences of fatherhood and, specifically, men's depression related to fatherhood--and to illustrate how this "new fatherhood" is an important element in the study of masculinity. This is accomplished through a presentation of three Danish psychological studies investigating the subjective aspects of this transition from three different perspectives of the modern father. The first study focuses on changes in fatherhood from generation to generation by analyzing the relationship between contemporary men's images of their child-rearing with their experiences of their own fathers' parenting. The second examines men's reaction to becoming fathers through a study of postpartum depression in Danish men. Finally, some preliminary results of a third study will focus specifically on psychotherapy with men suffering from postpartum depression.

Men's Images of Themselves as Fathers and Their Images of Their Own Fathers

The fact that so many Danish fathers today are present at the birth of their children is the result of an evolution that started in the early 1970s when hospital births first became common. While at first these fathers were present mostly to support their partners, studies show that today they also participate to a large degree in order to specifically bond with the babies--i.e., to meet their children as fathers, not merely as "partners" or "relatives" (Madsen, Munck, & Tolstrup, 1999). There are several indications that recent decades have seen more new fathers engaging with their newborn and infant children. This evolution is connected to a general development in fatherhood, from the authoritarian father of the tail end of the last century, through the breadwinner and the "dad," to the "new father" of the present day (Lamb, 1995; Madsen, 2003; Madsen, Lind, & Munck, 2002). Many aspects of this evolution have been elucidated, for example, the questions of what fathers mean to their children (Belsky, 1999; Lamb & Oppenheim, 1989; Trowell & Etchegoyen, 2002) and how fathers interact with their children (Lamb & Oppenheim). The Danish research program Fathers' Relations with Their Infants (1) (Madsen, Munck, & Lind 1997) focused on the subjective aspects of becoming a father and how men experience their child and how they relate with him or her.

One approach to examining what it means to become a father and which changes a man undergoes, is to study men's images of what kind of fathers they want to be and can become. We assume that the men's wishes and images are determined in part by their own experiences of care and attachment, for example, with their fathers and mothers, as well as by cultural norms, their partners' attitudes and the collaborative development of the couple's image of themselves as parents, and the influence of friends and acquaintances.

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