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Pacific fathers cultivating the future

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It takes a village to raise a child, so the saying goes, and in traditional societies this much is true. But, in modern society the notion of family and parental roles are constantly changing.

Dr El-Shadan Tautolo, an HRC Postdoctoral Fellow at AUT University, was raised in New Zealand and is of Samoan and Cook Island heritage. He understands first hand some of the challenges of bridging cultures and lifestyles; balancing the old with the new and ultimately the impact that this has upon family.

Drawing from this experience, in 2012 Dr Tautolo – a father of two – completed his PhD entitled Pacific fathers cultivating the future, which examined how Pacific fathers impact and influence the development of their children. Dr Tautolo was motivated to explore Pacific men’s, and specifically father’s, health due to a dearth of information and support available.

“It is increasingly recognised that fathers and their involvement have a significant impact on the development and well-being of their children; both positively and negatively. Being a father myself drove the realisation that there isn’t enough evidence for this very important part of the population.”

According to Dr Tautolo, Pacific men’s health is a significant priority which, in recent years, has become largely neglected, and yet it’s an important area for policy makers in New Zealand to consider. His research forms part of the larger Pacific Island Families (PIF) longitudinal study based at AUT University, which has followed over 1,000 Pasifika children since birth in the year 2000. The wider study examines health, development and social implications for Pasifika children and their families.

“Parenthood can be challenging enough, but for some of the fathers that have migrated to New Zealand from the Pacific, it was about realising they had to adapt to a new culture and society. Another challenge they identified was that in the islands there were more extended family around or living close by to assist with childcare, but in New Zealand this was less readily available.”

Pacific fathers in the study – comprised of up to 800 men from Samoan, Cook Islands, and other Pacific backgrounds – reported high levels of engagement with their children. Further analysis revealed that this increased father involvement was significantly associated with a lower risk of child behaviour problems.

“To a small extent, the fathers I spoke to mentioned that during their upbringing their own fathers had not been as engaged with raising them, and therefore they were conscious of being more involved with their own children. In terms of influences of fathers upon their children, many of the fathers spoken to mention that becoming a father had also caused them to modify their risky behaviours such as drinking and smoking, particularly around their home environment and their children.”

In addition to some of the challenges associated with migration and acculturation, fathers also identified their inability to spend more time with their children as a major challenge. Provisions concerning flexible work hours and fathering support services may help to address this, says Dr Tautolo.

In today’s fast-paced world, parental roles are constantly changing, with stay-at-home-dads becoming increasingly common. And yet, Dr Tautolo’s research has found that society’s views of men can be a challenge within itself.

“To some degree there has been a lot of emphasis on the mother as caregiver, perhaps due to societal perception of men as providers and not necessarily nurturers. For a lot of the Pacific fathers I spoke to there was a definite sense of conflict between providing for the needs of their children and their desire to be more involved in raising and caring for them.”

Dr Tautolo hopes his research will help drive the development of necessary father-specific support services, and advocate for more recognition of fathers and their role in care of mothers and children.

“There are some support services available such as The Father & Child Trust, and the Just 4 Dads group at the Glen Innes Family Centre, as well as programmes offered by groups such as the Parenting Place in Auckland. But generally, I think there still needs to be more done, and this is really just the tip of what needs to be happening and encouraged within the sector.”

For his postdoctoral fellowship, Dr Tautolo plans to continue his research in the area of Pacific fatherhood and male health issues as part of the PIF study, as well as helping to nurture the next wave of Pacific researchers coming through.

“Now that I have completed my studies, it’s important for me, as one of the few Pacific researchers here at AUT, to do my part to support the next group coming through. Building that research capacity is not only vital to the future of the PIF Study, but also for ensuring our work can make a significant contribution to the betterment of our Pacific families and communities”.

Check out the latest issue of HRC Pacific News for more articles related to the Pacific health research community.