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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Isn’t it time that paternity leave was increased?

Sarah Rasmi says support is essential for fathers
Fathers play an important role in bringing up children.  Silvia Razgova/The National
Fathers play an important role in bringing up children. Silvia Razgova/The National

It is now common to see dads dropping their kids off at school, taking them for a walk around the neighbourhood or enjoying a treat with them at a local cafe. Research consistently shows that children with involved fathers have better outcomes. Unfortunately, however, there are still some barriers to involvement by fathers. Lifting these obstacles will result in healthier families and societies.

A large obstruction to father involvement is the assumption that only mothers need support. There are so many wonderful resources for new mums across the UAE. A quick Google search yields dozens of community groups and events specifically targeting mothers, babies and young children. A similar search for father-orientated support yields almost nothing.

Similarly, there are a number of companies in the UAE that provide parenting support. Fathers who sign up for these services quickly learn that the target audience is mothers. Many of these service providers use the terms “parenting” and “mothering” interchangeably, without acknowledging the fathers in the group. I have spoken to and worked with some of these fathers. They have told me that these experiences made them feel overlooked.

For decades, family research focused solely on mothers. This bias occurred because early parenting theories were shaped by the dominant family structure, which from 1830 to 1970 characterised fathers as providers and mothers as homemakers. Fathers were viewed as distant and incompetent, whereas mothers were considered to be the superior parent. The father’s sole purpose was to provide for his family.

This idea has changed – at least somewhat. Shifts in family roles, structure and dynamics have prompted researchers to re-evaluate these conceptions. For the past 50 years, research has shown that fathers influence their children above and beyond their economic contributions to the family. This body of work shows that fathers play an important role in their children’s psychological, academic, behavioural and social adjustment.

We now know that involved fathers positively influence their children’s development. The question is: how can we best support them? There are changes we need to make at a familial and societal level to facilitate father involvement.

The first thing we can do at the familial level is to expect and allow fathers to be involved. Many mothers expect very little from their partners because they believe that fathers can never care for children the way that mothers can.

A better approach would be to encourage our partners to regularly bond with and care for their children. Research has shown that mothers who have a positive attitude towards father involvement are more likely to have involved partners.

Fathers also need support at work. Sheikh Khalifa, the President, recently doubled paid maternity leave to 90 days. Paternity leave is currently set at three days. Many fathers have the option to take paid or unpaid leave to supplement this time. We should encourage them to do this because fathers need more than three days to connect with their children.

Unfortunately, many fathers do not take time off because they are afraid that it will make them seem uncommitted to their job.

Countries that have generous paternity leave and social support for fathers – such as Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland – are consistently rated the happiest and best places to live. This is not a coincidence: strong social bonds are the foundation of a healthy and happy society. This is why the UAE Government has identified social cohesion as one of the Vision 2021 National Agenda items alongside improving happiness.

Let's work to support fathers. It will make for stronger families and a happier society too.

Dr Sarah Rasmi is a social psychologist and professor at United Arab Emirates University

On Twitter @DrSarahRasmi