Note: This article is part of a larger feature on supporting your partner, originally published in Today’s Parent Pregnancy. To read more, click on the following links:
What you need to know about new parenthood
A guy’s guide to new moms
5 things dads can do to help build a good mother
5 things moms can do to help build a good father
Lesson 1: Your partner has to work harder at becoming an engaged, connected parent than you do
As a new mom, you’ll have tons to learn and you’ll often feel unsure of yourself. Still, parenting behaviour tends to kick in more automatically for mothers than fathers.
Men get less of the social and biological experiences that prime women for parenthood. Dads also spend less time caring for and touching babies in the early weeks (very important for bonding). Studies have found that fathers sometimes feel excluded from the mother-baby world, and feel less supported in their role as parent. As a result, fathers have to make more of a conscious decision to become involved in parenting. As Neil Horne, dad of 15-month-old John, puts it, “as a man, you’re never as ready as the woman to become a parent.”
It also tends to take men longer to develop a relationship with their baby. Lee Harris, father of one-year-old Fiona, says that it took about six months for him to feel fully comfortable caring for her. “At that age, she felt a little more like a person,” he says. “We could play and laugh together, and I didn’t feel like I was going to break her every time I picked her up.”
In other words, Mom, you have a head start at parenting and your partner will have some catching-up to do.
Message for moms: Don’t assume he will fully understand the support you need. Your growing competence as a mother may fool him into thinking that you’re doing fine on your own. Enlighten him.
Lesson 2: You have a big impact on your partner’s development as a father
In early parenthood, you will affect your partner’s parenting more than he will affect yours. Numerous studies have shown that a mother’s attitudes and behaviours have a measurable impact on the father: how involved he is, his relationship with his children, even his sense of competence as a father. Yet the reverse has not proven to be true.
Harris says his partner, Naomi, really helped him bond with his daughter. “I always tried to be involved in things like diaper changes and baths,” says Harris. “But Naomi pushed me to spend other time with Fiona so we could build a strong father-daughter bond early on.”
Naomi suggested skin-to-skin contact after baths and “kangaroo care,” which in Harris’s case meant spending a lot of weekend hours with Fiona (often sleeping) in the sling, while Naomi got some much-needed personal time. “If Naomi had not been so encouraging, I’d have probably treated child care like a job — something that needed to be done, but not necessarily enjoyed,” says Harris. “I enjoy every minute I spend with Fiona now because of this bond we have.”
Important point: This does not mean it’s your fault if your partner does not become a hands-on dad. In fact, research also shows that a father’s motivation is a prime driver of his involvement. But your encouragement and support can help him become the competent, confident father and parenting partner you want and need.
Message for moms: Share your knowledge and experience, and if you want something specific done, be specific with your directions. But expect a bit of “lemme do it myself” and don’t take that personally. It’s a sign he wants to forge his own path as a father.
Lesson 3: His parenting mind works differently; he’s just not going to see the big picture the way you do.
“John is about as close to perfect as a new father can get,” says Michelle Chesser (mother of six-month old Indigo) about her husband. “I can leave Indigo with him for four or five hours at a time and I wouldn’t leave her with anyone else for that long.”
You just know a “but” is coming.
At first, Chesser says the “but” is John’s inability to multi-task during baby care. Then she corrects herself: “No, it’s that he doesn’t multi-think. When I’m changing Indigo’s diaper, I’m also thinking about how many clean clothes she has left, how her skin is looking, and whether her nails need to be trimmed.” (Indigo had severe eczema and was liable to scratch herself.) “I’d ask John how her skin was, but he tends to focus on the task at hand, so usually he couldn’t tell me.”
This lack of “multi-thinking,” while frustrating at times, can have an upside.
“We wanted to deal with Indigo’s eczema naturally,” says Chesser. “We tried oatmeal baths, potato baths, every natural remedy we could find. I didn’t want to use cortisone.” When it became clear that natural remedies weren’t working, Chesser was still reluctant, but she was also becoming increasingly upset about the problem. “John, who was less emotionally embroiled in the situation, simply said, ‘Look, we tried all these things and they didn’t work. It’s definitely time to call the doctor,’” says Chesser. “His calm thinking was just what I needed at that point.”
Horne has noticed the difference between Claire’s “mom thinking” and his own. “I think guys see it as problem solving,” he says. “What is the exact thing I need to do right now? Claire does that too, but she’s also thinking about what’s coming down the pike.”
That problem-solving approach can backfire when women are looking for support, not solutions. “In the early months, every once in a while, something would just sort of hit Claire, the tears would start, and my reaction was, ‘Oh my god, what can I do?’” recalls Horne. “I’d ask her what was wrong, and she’d say, ‘I don’t know. Everything’s fine.’ But I want to know what’s wrong so I can fix those tears.”
The bottom line? Don’t get frustrated expecting your partner to see what needs to be done the way you do — just tell him what you need. (Guys hate having to guess.)
Message for moms: The baby won’t fill up his world quite the way she fills up yours. That doesn’t mean he’s not a committed parent, but it may mean he will experience the change in your relationship more acutely than you do. As one new dad joked, “You feel like you’re fighting for relevance at times.”
Read more from this series of articles:
- What you need to know about new parenthood
- A guy’s guide to new moms
- 5 things dads can do to help build a good mother
- 5 things moms can do to help build a good father
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