Mum, what are we getting for dad on Fathers’ Day?

Two years ago, whilst I was working with the World Health Organisation (WHO), I visited a shopping mall just five days to Fathers’ Day 2015. To my utmost surprise, many of the gift hampers in the shops were leftovers from the Mothers’ Day celebration with bold notices of massive sales on them. In my quickly-assembled, barely-comprehensible French vocabulary, 

I asked the attendant why there were no Fathers’ Day sales. Typical of Genevoises, she merely smiled and said nothing – maybe she did not even understand my “terrible” French or she had no explanation. I began to ask myself many questions: “What have fathers done so wrong to society? Why don’t fathers deserve to be celebrated? Is it true that even children do not appreciate their fathers?”

But is it the fathers’ fault? I recalled my experiences in Kintampo (rural central Ghana). We conducted the Newhints Intervention Study that trained community-based health volunteers (called CBSVs), who were predominantly males, to make five focused home visits to pregnant women - 2 in pregnancy and 3 in the first week after birth. They, among other things, encouraged facility attendance for pregnant women, assessed newborns for key “danger signs” and referred them to health facilities for care.

In my supervisory visits, I encountered families where immediately the CBSV introduced the purpose for the visit, fathers referred us to their wives and in-laws because “pregnancy and childbirth were issues for women to handle”. Our trained CBSVs convinced them to join the discussions and they did so, reluctantly to start with and then started enjoying the discussions. They joined because CBSVs explained to them that men have roles to play in the physical and emotional support of women during pregnancy, decision-making around what to do to get the best outcome from the pregnancy, emergency preparedness (saving and arranging transport) and the rewards in knowing their contribution pay off in adding a precious member to the family. Fathers then started consulting CBSVs (“village doctors”) to come and “check” their babies even after their scheduled visits had ended. Over 86% of women whose babies were found to have danger signs sent them to health facilities for care – more than three times the prevailing postnatal clinic attendance rate.

I have learned empirically that when men are made to understand their roles as fathers, they can be reliable “partners” in securing the best outcomes for mothers and babies. But do they need to be made to understand their roles? That is why there are no Fathers’ Day hampers! The answer is NO!

As fathers, we should be men who plan and make every effort to support our women through pregnancy and childbirth; we should vow that none of our women should die or become disabled when pregnant or giving birth; we should be bold to stay in the delivery suite with them, share in their pain, provide that hand of support and smile with them when the healthy baby comes.

This outcome requires fathers’ involvement during the pregnancy to get the best care possible. And then, when the first cry of the newborn baby is interspersed with the voice of the father in the background, the bond is established to chart the course to a truly happy Fathers’ Day. Fathers should support mothers to care for the child in the crucial first four weeks when the babies are most likely to die than any other time, support to seek care when they are sick and then on Fathers’ Day, our daughters will ask, “Mum, what are we getting for dad on Fathers’ Day?” and fathers shall receive gifts borne out of love that they will be convinced they truly deserve. A woman and a child must first survive birth to ask this question. The CBSVs in Ghana were men and they did it for their communities; the poor farmers in the villages did it! 
Real fathers need to begin to stand and be counted as they join hands to ensure that every pregnancy and every newborn life counts. Men and fathers as partners in maternal and newborn health, I wish us a very happy Fathers’ Day.

About the author

Dr Alexander Manu is a father and a Senior Clinical Research Associate at the Centre for Maternal and Newborn Health, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, with interest in newborn health, health systems strengthening for quality of care and child development as well as equity issues around these.