Women in OECD countries spend, on average, 4.5 hours per day doing unpaid work such as cooking and caring for children. This compares to about 2 hours for men. Even if the division of unpaid labor has become more equal over the years, women are still doing more, and this results in unequal health outcomes for everyone.

“Women, even full-time working women, spend fewer hours on average doing paid work than their husbands or partners do. That may be due in part to the fact that there’s this expectation or default arrangement where they are doing more of the child care or housework.” – Kim Parker, Pew Research Center

When I attended WABA’s Global Breastfeeding Forum in October 2016, I was a struck by Duncan Fisher’s (Family Initiative UK) enthusiasm towards fathers’ role in advancing breastfeeding progress globally.

In this year’s International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) Congress, I was pleased to see that Fisher was invited to a plenary session on women’s rights where he spoke about engaging fathers in maternal and newborn health, and the impact this has on advancing gender equality. Because, as Fisher put it, “the unequal sharing of caring roles is a major global driver of gender inequality”. And we know for sure that gender inequality damages both the physical and mental health of millions of women and girls worldwide.

Fathers are interested, they want information and they do want to be close to their children. Why then are women still the ones taking on the majority of the responsibility, and what consequences does this have? According to Fisher, there is a lack of public information and services directed at the fathers. They simply don’t know about all the benefits of engaging in caring for their children.

The evidence is out there – and it’s abundant!

Everyone wins when fathers engage, both in the short and long-term:

  • a father’s testosterone levels drop after the baby is born if he is physically present with the baby (i.e. cuddling!)
  • his oxytocin levels rise and so does the baby’s
  • breastfeeding rates increase
  • maternal mortality rates reduce
  • the mental health of mother and child improves
  • access to services improve
  • violence and abuse decrease

Fisher spoke about the neurobiological impact involvement has not only on the father’s brain, but also the mother’s. Caring for babies changes the brains of both parents, and the change lasts for the rest of their lives. And the more a parent cares for their baby, the more their brain changes. As if this wasn’t evidence enough: the more the parents’ brain changes, the better the child’s social skills are when they reach school.

Fisher also stressed the importance of midwives in fathers’ engagement, and said that midwives play an imperative role in encouraging fathers to cuddle skin-to-skin with their babies within the first few hours of life, and in informing men of the benefits of their involvement.

The unequal division of the responsibility of caring for, managing and educating children is unsustainable, and it undeniably affects mothers’ and babies’ health. Mothers should not be solely responsible for caring for their families – fathers must engage in order for us to achieve optimal health for women and children, as well as gender equality.

I am certain that the redistribution and reduction of unpaid care work and improved gender equality at home will improve quality of life, not only for women, but also for children and men. It most certainly is a win-win situation.

Family Initiative UK have launched an online course delivered by midwives and trainers which explores these issues. If you’re present in Toronto at this year’s ICM Congress, make sure to visit Family Initiative UK’s booth and learn more about the course! 

Girls’ Globe is at the 31st ICM Triennial Congress in Toronto, Canada. See all of the Girls’ Globe LIVE coverage here

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Category: Maternal and Child Health    Parenting and Child Development
Tagged with: #ICMLive    Fatherhood    gender norms    Maternal Health    Midwives    Newborn Health    parenthood

Mia Ydholm

Mia is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Global Nutrition & Health at Metropolitan University College in Copenhagen, where she specializes in Public Health Nutrition & Food Policy. She is passionate about maternal and infant health, often putting her focus on breastfeeding matters. She lives in Malmö, Sweden, with her daughter and husband.

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