Book Review: Why Dads Leave

Why Dads Leave: Insights & Resources for When Partners Become Parents.
By Meryn G. Callander; Contributions by Jack W. Travis, M.D. Mullumbimby, New South Wales, Australia: Akasha Publications, 2012. www.whydadsleave.com. US $19.95. 335 pages. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Australian social worker and wellness expert Meryn Callander has written a truly fascinating and valuable book. Why Dads Leave: Insights & Resources for When Partners Become Parents stemmed from an original idea by Callander’s ex-partner, John W (Jack) Travis. Full disclosure: Travis and I are both activists in the same non-profit cause and have been colleagues in this work for well over a decade. Callander and Travis were two of the principal cofounders of the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children (ATLC), and through ATLC as well as through the wellness center they created together, they worked hard to make the world a better place as well as to effectively and lovingly co-parent their daughter together.

Many things can be said about Why Dads Leave. On the positive side, the book is jampacked with ideas, analyses, and insights I don’t ever remember seeing elsewhere. There must be easily five books’ worth of openhearted, original thinking about gender and family issues in this book. The book opens with an initial discussion of the reasons why fathers leave their families that in itself is powerful enough to fill a book. Jack Travis contributes a number of passages courageously and with admirable honesty recounting his own participation and limitations, warts and all.

As happens with many fathers, the arrival of the child signaled the transfer of much of Meryn’s attention and affections away from Jack to their child, resulting in depression for Jack. Jack also notes that a child’s arrival can often be painful for the father as he is forced to confront the sad fact of what he did not receive when he was a child. The “father’s primal pain” can often lead to him rejecting his family and leaving.

This discussion leads in to an extremely helpful explanation that I am sure I have never seen in print before about the importance of nurturing a romantic partnership following the birth of a child. The difficulty of this task is heightened, the author points out, by the fragmentation of society into nuclear families rather than multiple generations living under one roof. This often results in new parents being forced to “seek from their partners the emotional connection and sense of belonging that earlier generations got from the immediate presence of an extended family and community.”

The need for fathers to be present in their children’s life is explained passionately and learnedly. “Mother and father,” Callander notes, “contribute in unique and complementary ways to their children’s wellbeing, and children thrive when they experience these different styles throughout all developmental stages” [italics in original]. The many elevated risks—early sexual activity, behavioral and emotional problems, sexual abuse, and so on–suffered by children growing up without a father present in the house are spelled out. Three fascinating primary indicators of involved fathers are explained: a man’s experience of the fathering he himself received, a man’s satisfaction in his relationship, and his partner’s attitudes and expectations about fathering. Regarding the last factor, a mother who even inadvertently acts as “gatekeeper” of the father’s interactions with his children, for example by repeatedly correcting his fathering, can chill the father’s participation level and can eventually promote his departure. Two key factors affecting the woman’s ability to support her partner’s fathering are her own fathering and her relationship with her partner.

I always find it enthralling to read books—rare though they sadly are–not penned by men’s rights activists that nevertheless, through simple intellectual rigor and the old-fashioned value of fairness, reach many of the same conclusions to which we have come.

Ultimately, Why Dads Leave proves to be one of those books that is an absolute must read for the strength of its positives while probably trying too hard to do too many things. The book’s title only accurately describes the first 100 pages though the sub-title is more descriptive of the book as a whole and its offerings of resources to parents.

A third of the way into the book, the author delves into an analysis of marriage, childbirth, and adapting to the presence of the new, supremely needy family member. There are definitely interesting parts of the discussion, as when the author provocatively mentions that “becoming a father will be most men’s first experience of sexism…. he may be ignored in the prenatal clinic and matronized [I love it!] in the prenatal class.” For all its arguably overblown rhetoric, I greatly appreciated a simple suggestion that a lot of our ability to experience love stems from our openness to it: “We can attune to the frequency of love, like tuning to the frequency of a radio station. When you feel unlovable, imagine adjusting the dial back to the frequency of love.”

But more typical are comments that are hardly likely to be new to most readers such as, “Drugs interfere with, or destroy, nature’s exquisitely composed orchestration of a natural birth.” Alarmingly, even some of the holistically oriented experts quoted in this section such as Michel Odent suggest that men’s presence in the delivery room is typically negative and that “labour can only progress well after the husband/partner has left the room.” A useful suggestion is made that the father have a support person present as a resource in case it is needed.

Then two thirds of the way through the book, it veers away from gender issues and delves into a whole range of loosely connected topics and therapeutic options. Coincidentally, I happen to be familiar with some of these—for example, re-evaluation counseling (RC)–but many readers will be lost at this stage especially as Callander does not explain RC! Still I thank the author for arguing forcefully, contrary to much convenient popular wisdom these days, that “good enough” and even fairly conflictual marriages are better for the child than divorce. “Those [children] from an unhappy marriage that stayed together brought more guarded hopes and expectations. They may have had a hard time deciding to marry, but they also had experienced a model of people who stayed together ‘through thick and thin’ to protect their children.”

I also appreciated the light-hearted yet serious attempt given to analyze relationship conflict. “By far the most dominant [pattern of conflict] is the Protest Polka, wherein one partner becomes critical and aggressive, the other defensive and distant.” “The facts of a fight aren’t the real issue. The issue is the strength of a couple’s emotional bond. It’s about accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement.”

I read with interest the discussion of five kinds of shame that men experience, and what women can do to help reduce shame in men. Many conflicts are in the end not truly resolvable but how we respond to them is much more important than the literal issue the conflict is supposedly about.

There is much that is very, very good about this book, and no reader should miss it. It may be disorganized, it may pack in more diverse topics than any one volume can coherently hold. But this stems from the author’s ambition and dedication, and the same qualities shine through in the numerous pearls of wisdom provided by Why Dads Leave. Highly recommended.