Parents’ emotional responsibility is the “ability to recognize where care is needed and the actual physical work of caring” (Doucet, 2001, p. 337) and implies an ongoing and fluid relationship of interdependence between children and their parents. This view of emotional responsibility as “response-ability,” i.e., the ability to respond, is in contrast to the more conventionally understood definition of responsibility, i.e., having obligations to meet. Our study explores whether men’s transition to fatherhood may be a particularly generative time for developing capacity for emotional responsibility, and thus offer an opportunity for efforts to support men’s growth in this important area.
Twenty-five qualitative interviews with fathers-to-be were conducted at a university health clinic. The interviews took place immediately after a routine ultrasound appointment, at approximately the 20th week of pregnancy. Interview questions probed for men’s responses to the ultrasound itself, their readiness to be fathers, and sources of support they receive or need in order to be prepared for fatherhood. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and then coded using Dedoose. The authors moved back and forth in a gradual process of open and then more focused coding. Themes developed through iterative coding, exchanging memos, and researcher discussions.
Our analysis suggests that the transition to fatherhood appears to be a time when men begin to develop more emotional responsibility. Men’s accounts indicated a growing recognition of the need to deemphasize personal concerns or priorities to meet the physical and emotional needs of their partner and their anticipated child. This recognition emerges in descriptions of their tasks of caring they provide during the pregnancy (i.e., setting up the crib, changing their work hours), and the responsibility for caring demonstrated through self-development (i.e., seeking higher education, altering social networks). Some respondents attributed other men’s lack of such responsibility to gendered social norms that keep men on the periphery of care-work or to a view that care-work is not compelling to men. Their own accounts gave voice to a view of fatherhood as a more selfless act of connection.
Attendance at the ultrasound appointment itself seems to cultivate emotional connection. Fathers connect with their hoped-for children through the visual reality of the growing child and often the disclosure of the baby’s sex. This, in turn, enhances recognition of where care is needed and the demands of the physical work of caring. The visual ultrasound images not only encourage connection with the baby, but connection with the pregnant mother. Fathers’ narratives demonstrate that the time of pregnancy, as a whole, inspires tasks of caring and response-ability for caring.
Our findings support the continued revisioning of fatherhood to be inclusive of men’s development of emotional “response-ability.” Our respondents openness to discussing these issues also suggests that the ultrasound appointment itself may be a particularly opportune moment to offer space for reflection on the transition to fatherhood, and to offer supportive services that can enhance men’s capacity for emotional responsibility.