Give Dad a Chance!
by Susan Miller, BScN
Most new fathers today want to be “involved fathers” and provide practical and emotional support to their baby’s mother, and share in the nurturing and care of the new baby. This ideal of shared parenthood is what most families strive for, and there is wide acceptance of the equality of parental roles in the modern family. It therefore comes as quite a surprise in the early weeks and months of parenthood when these best laid plans are not panning out. It is not uncommon for today’s modern dads to feel confused, bewildered or disappointed when life with the new baby is not turning out quite as they had imagined. The majority of new-parent couples admit that they have times when they are emotionally exhausted and have difficulty relating to and communicating with each other. Right at the time when both Mom and Dad need each other’s support the most, they may be feeling alienated and misunderstood by each other.
In the early post-partum, a new mom can feel conflicted and emotional due to significant hormonal changes, physical fatigue and an overwhelming sense of responsibility in caring for her vulnerable newborn. Moms often have a strong protective instinct toward their infants and even when exhausted, have difficulty trusting anyone else to care for the baby. Attempts by Dad to help with the baby or give suggestions may be rebuffed, and Dad can become discouraged from trying to offer further help. Dads need to remember to make allowances for Mom’s emotional state in the early post-partum days, and to not take it personally or become resentful when their best efforts are not appreciated.
In these early sensitive weeks Dad can make a tremendous contribution by being the “protector and provider” while Mom works on developing more confidence caring for and feeding the baby. New moms need plenty of nutritious and satisfying food. This means that Dad needs to keep the fridge stocked and prepare most of the meals. The new family needs as much rest and privacy as possible. Dads are often the gatekeepers ensuring that there are not too many visitors, outside distractions or interruptions for the new mom and baby.
In the beginning, feeding the baby takes up most of Mom’s and Dad’s waking hours. When the feedings are going well, everyone is more relaxed. If feedings are a worry, it is imperative that parents consult with their doctor, midwife, lactation consultant or public health nurse to get timely guidance and support. Attending appointments with Mom and baby is another way that fathers support their partner and learn valuable information about feeding problems or other concerns.
Fathers often assume that the mother will be more attuned to the baby because she gave birth to this baby. This assumption is simply not true! Men are just as capable as women in caring for a baby, but it takes time to develop a relationship with the baby. The only way that anyone learns to care for a baby is to spend time with that baby and to get to know the baby’s particular cues and behaviours. It does not matter whether you are a man or a woman!
Once those bewildering early weeks have passed, everyone looks forward to smoother sailing ahead. In many cases everything seems to fall into place very nicely and family life flows along in a comfortable way. In other instances things are not always as easy. Have you ever heard of the term “The Mothering Double Standard”? This term describes a dynamic within a family where the mother wishes that her partner would do more to help in the home and with childcare, but in reality does not let him do it! The mothering double standard is not something that the mother does intentionally or even consciously, but the dynamic develops over time (usually with the birth of the first baby). Once the mothering double standard is entrenched, it is hard to dislodge. Many women admit that they want things done a certain way and consequently fall into the habit of saying “It’s just easier to do it myself,” or “It has to be done my way or not at all.” Neither of these approaches serves the family well because when a mother perceives that she is carrying the whole load of the chores and childcare, resentments begin to build.
Household chores and childcare are the two areas where couples can work as a tag team so that tasks get done in a timely (but probably not perfect) manner, and the children benefit from the care and attention of both parents. When Mom learns to be more relaxed and flexible she will find that her partner is more willing to help out. It soon becomes obvious that Dad does some things quite differently than Mom does. This is perfectly fine, and babies soon learn that Dad has his way and Mom has her way. If health and safety are not an issue, it does not matter which way baby is cared for or how the tea towels are folded!
When Dad is looking after baby, he is not only giving Mom a break, but he is also building his confidence in baby-care tasks and, more importantly, building a stronger foundation for the father-child relationship. Mom needs to recognize this and give Dad some space. There is nothing more discouraging to a father than a hovering “mother-expert” coaching and correcting his every move. Mom, leave the house and let Dad do his thing. Take the cell phone and he will call you if you are needed. Find activities that Dad and baby can enjoy alone together on a regular basis. Dads need to have fun with their babies too!
Parenting is a partnership, and one of the family’s greatest sources of strength is this mother-father partnership. Couples who have shared the parenting in the early months and learned together through trial and error, go on to have a more satisfying parenting and family experience. Each parent has valuable insight and talents that they bring to their new role. Recognizing and appreciating these qualities in the other parent is one of the greatest gifts you give to each other and to your children.
Go for it, Dad! Happy Father’s Day, 2008!
Susan Miller R.N. BScN is a Perinatal Educator and Certified Breastfeeding Counsellor. She works with prenatal and post-natal families in the Greater Victoria area.