What defines a father in the United States has changed over the years as each generation of dads adapted to their time’s unique struggles and opportunities.

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As more and more dads are raising their biological children, entering into a family as a stepfather, adopting a child, or stepping into a stay-at-home parenting role, the characteristics that define a dad in the United States continue to change with the times.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are an estimated 72 million dads across the country; 29 million of them are also grandfathers. Plus, in 2020, an estimated 70% of U.S. children lived with two parents, about 20% with the mother only, about 5% with the father only, and 5% with no parent.

As a result, the definition of what a father is — and his responsibilities, priorities, and duties — vary, not only from generation to generation but also from dad to dad.

In other words: You get to decide what kind of dad you want to be, based on your own experiences and circumstances.

The role of a father can begin even before their child is born.

The pregnancy stage of fatherhood can be a time to bond with your partner and support them throughout their pregnancy by attending doctor checkups and discussing a birthing plan and parenting styles ahead of the new baby’s arrival. You can also research your baby’s weekly development and what your pregnant partner is experiencing week to week.

While many of these actions may seem small, they can go a long way in building a foundation between parents that can carry over once your baby arrives.

In fact, a recent study showed that among partners with a higher rate of marital conflict, their children often reported lower feelings of secure attachments to their fathers. Taking the time early in pregnancy to build trust with your partner and focus on your relationship may reduce conflict and later improve your child’s attachment to you.

Building trust and strong attachments

“Fathers are one of the first attachments that young children make,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, a child psychologist and The Help and Healing Center director in Glenview, Illinois. “This early attachment helps form the basis for future relationships in the child’s life. Through their earliest relationships, children learn that they can trust and depend on others.”

Children start to look for stablity and build trust with their parents at a very early age. By showing your child that you are present and reliable, they can begin to form bonds with you that will last into their adulthood. Building this trust early in their lives can also influence how they perceive the world and how they approach relationships with other people.

Modeling healthy relationships

“When a father is active in a child’s life, particularly when they have a healthy relationship, that child grows up with a more positive identity and greater self-esteem,” says Nicholas Hardy, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Houston. “When a father is very present, this offers consistency and gives a child much-needed stability.”

Hardy continues, “Conversely, when a father is absent, the opposite effect occurs. Their ability to forge healthy relationships is impacted, and their subconscious beliefs about relationships are influenced in unhealthy ways.”

“The role of fathers has certainly shifted over time,” explains Myszak. “Where decades ago, fathers were less involved in the household tasks and primarily contributed to the family through their work, households are now more likely to have two parents working, requiring more division of labor in the household.”

This shift has also created positive changes for many fathers in their family relationships and marriage. Dr. Helen Egger, the co-founder and chief medical officer of Little Otter in San Francisco, explains that “science and experience have shown that shared parenting and gender equity supports marital satisfaction, parenting satisfaction, and the raising of healthy children.”

In addition to doing more child-rearing tasks such as diaper changes and bottle feedings, fathers have also taken on emotional support roles, especially if they stay at home more and work less.

Still, changes to these traditional gender roles can be challenging for some dads to process right away. Breaking out of older norms can cause stress for fathers who may see their inability to be the primary income earner as a failure despite their strong desire to be more involved in parenting.

A 2018 study turned the focus onto the needs of some new dads who reported wanting to participate more in co-parenting and creating a father-child bond with their new child, even if it caused signs of increased stress at the moment.

The increased focus on fathers as emotional caregivers has also led to more open discussions about how the birth of a child can impact a father’s mental health as well. While the signs of postpartum depression are commonly discussed for mothers, it’s only recently being discussed with new fathers.

“It is less known that dads also experience postpartum depression,” explains Egger. “Estimates are that 10% of men experience depression during the 3- to the 6-month postpartum period. Dads and moms need to know that this can happen so that dads can get help for their depression.”

Overall, one of the most significant responsibilities for a father is to set a good example for your children so that they can model your positive traits and actions. Children are incredibly observant, even at a very young age, and research shows that they will begin to copy and mimic the actions that they see around them.

If they see you react with empathy when they fall down, they will learn to show compassion to others. If they see you frequently respond with anger, they will learn to rely on anger more often when faced with frustrating situations.

“Just like with mothers, fathers who are loving and responsive to their child’s needs, and engaged with their children from the earliest age give children the secure foundation that will support their child throughout their lives,” says Egger. “How they care for and treat their children will have a huge impact on their children’s development, experience, and lifelong physical and mental health.”

Get to know your kids

As your children grow up, they will discover new hobbies, learn new things at school, and want to share it all with you.

“Children are hungry for engagement and attention from their parents,” says Egger. “Dads should be proud to be the expert about their child: what foods do they like, who are their friends at school, what are they afraid of, how they show you how they are feeling with their behavior.”

If your child knows they can open up to you about everything in their lives, they will feel more comfortable opening up to you later when they encounter more significant fears and obstacles.

Let your kids get to know you

Children are curious and want to learn about the world around them. One of the best ways for them to learn is to introduce them to your world.

This can be with small things like letting them help put gas in the car before a short drive, showing them how you cook your favorite dish, or taking them out to a baseball game or museum you like. By opening up about the things that you enjoy, it will help you to not close yourself off from your kid emotionally.

Think back to your childhood

As we grow up, we can more objectively look back on how we were raised and our parents’ techniques.

“Our parents were learning, too, and being in touch with positive and negative experiences we had growing up can help shape our practices and philosophies around parenting,” explains Hardy.

Treat your partner and family with kindness and respect

Your child will learn what it means to be a father by watching the kind of father you are each day.

If you often talk down to their other parent or talk badly about your family, your child will think that behavior is acceptable and expected.

Conversely, if you treat your partner with respect and kindness, they will likely treat their future partner the same way, thanks to your character modeling.

Forgive yourself for mistakes and seek out professional help if you need it

Becoming a father can be incredibly stressful, and no one will get it right all the time. If you make a mistake or lose your temper after a long day, work to correct yourself but don’t beat yourself up.

However, if you are struggling with a more significant issue like anger management or addiction, you could consider professional counseling if you feel you need it. It is very admirable to improve yourself for your children, and you should not feel ashamed of seeking help when you need it.

A father figure can come from almost anywhere, and a genuinely great father is willing to dedicate themselves to helping raise a child. Adoptive fathers, relatives, even older siblings can be role models for a young child.

And while the role of a father is important to a child’s development, it isn’t a requirement for a child to grow, develop, and lead a fulfilling life. The most crucial element to raising a child is making them feel secure and supported as they learn and grow.

“Children need to see their fathers operating with integrity in their daily life activities and see their fathers’ function and express themselves differently,” explains Hardy. “For instance, it is important for children to see their father be a hard worker, but also, empathetic to the social and emotional needs of those they love…This sets a standard that will impact generations and positively influence the world around us.”