Doug Edwards, Director of Real Dads Forever, a Fatherhood Strategies Development organization, is a firestarter. Inside every father is something of value, an ember, as Edwards describes. Edwards sees it as his mission to clear away any ashes so that the embers can burst into flames, to become energy and atmosphere, to help fathers come into the space where they can truly radiate.
“I want to change the world!… More realistically and substantively I want to get dads to understand their unique and specific value and articulate it and change behavior so their relationship is meaningful to their child,” Edwards said in a 2013 interview.
Paternal involvement positively affects child development and wellness; further when fathers are positively involved in their infants’ lives, mothers’ stress decreases.
Edwards was propelled into this work nearly three decades ago when he volunteered with a development center working with teen parents.
Since then, he has worked with over 20,000 men.
When he started this work, Edwards says the national focus was on deficit and absent fathers; today, he sees more awareness and an understanding of the importance of fatherhood as it relates to the needs of the child.
Real Dads Forever boasts an impressive list of clients including Centering Pregnancy, UCONN, public school systems and departments of public health.
About a decade ago, Edwards found through a father-friendly site survey, that only 30 percent of programs enrolling new parents–whether that be at a school or through a maternity program, etc.– asked for the father’s name.
“We don’t encourage [fathers] to step up and then we wonder why they don’t show up,” Edwards commented in a 2013 interview.
In many cases, this continues to be the trend today.
Recently, Edwards conducted a Fatherhood Friendly Site Assessment with Connecticut WIC. He investigated: Were fathers included in their policies? If so, was this being translated into their practice? Was the physical environment welcoming to fathers? Were fathers pictured in their educational and promotional materials? Edwards found that fathers literally had no chair at the table. When consults were held, there was often no chair for the father to be included in the discussion.
Edwards helped the organization implement changes specifically through staff training and professional development. The training included sensitivity training on how to respectfully ask the question : “Where is the father?” when he is not present, taking into account many of the realities that families may be dealing with: death, incarceration, deployment, abuse, and absence under other circumstances.
Edwards suggests that those working with young families take stock of our biases as well as acknowledge and address any systemic barriers present.
Fathers are often forgotten in the experience of infant and young child death too. Through his work with the Fetal and Infant Mortality Review in Hartford, Conn., Edwards found that fathers were getting little to no support after the death of a child.
He recalls one father who shared that he listened to the heartbeat of his baby, felt his baby’s movements, sang to the baby, and attended all of the prenatal visits. Around eight months gestation, the family was involved in a car accident. The baby was born prematurely and ultimately died. The father shared with Edwards that he lost the ability to become the father he didn’t have. “My fetus knew her dad,” the father told Edwards.
It was this poignant story that led Edwards to create the curriculum, “Paternal Prenatal Early Attachment”. The program is designed for expecting couples with a focus on strengthening fathers’ capabilities to enhance their support of mothers and babies during pregnancy beyond. He has facilitated the program in Connecticut and with 17 different states for National Institute for Children’s Health Quality (NICHQ), which provides Technical Assistance for National Healthy Start.
Prenatal education offers the “biggest bang for your buck,” Edwards says of fatherhood advocacy.
“This is when [fathers] are keenly aware of something outside of themselves that’s going on,” Edwards comments. “They want to do a good job… Guys like jobs… I turn that into more than a job; I turn that into a relationship. I want them to fall in love with their unborn child and fall in love with [the mother of their child]. That’s a great setup for the child to thrive.”
Edwards’ work challenges fathers to explore and feel their own childhoods.
“This is an eye opening experience for them,” Edwards comments.
He calls it “backing into empathy.”
Edwards has watched the transformation of self described “thugs” and “black hearted” individuals to softened men when they go through the “magical epiphany” of becoming a father.
Edwards explains that fathers gain new insights and experience out-of-body sensations due to the flood of oxytocin during the birth of a child. Skin-to-skin contact deepens this bond between father and child. [More at Facilitating the bond between children and fathers or male-identifying partners]
Reflecting on the course of his work, Edwards says “It’s just getting better with time. We didn’t have these discussions years ago.”
He highlights fatherhood legislative work in Conn., the first state to pass legislation on fatherhood.
“The Connecticut Fatherhood Initiative (CFI) is a broad-based, statewide collaborative effort led by the Department of Social Services, focused on changing the systems that can improve fathers’ ability to be fully and positively involved in the lives of their children.
First implemented after the passage of legislation in 1999, state and local partners have been working together … to make changes to policy and practice in order to better meet the needs of fathers…” [Read more here: https://portal.ct.gov/Fatherhood/Core/The-Connecticut-Fatherhood-Initiative]
Edwards was previously featured on Our Milky Way in Unsung Sheros/Heros in maternal child health.
Edwards also recently completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC).