One of my pivotal moments as a new father was the time I wouldn’t let a succession of women wrest my baby
I was trying to calm our fussy six-week-old at a family gathering when, one by one, my wife, sister-in-law and mother-in-law appeared at my elbow, offering to take the baby for me.
Each offer of help was well intentioned and, to their credit, these women respected my determination to see if I could soothe my first-born son. But I doubt they had any idea how much pressure I felt to give him up, especially when my wife was the one holding her arms out.
To me, this story illustrates an important gender inequity that both men and women need to understand if fathers are to become competent, involved caregivers: Mothers have a huge influence on father-baby relationships.
The reverse is not true. A helpful, supportive father can enhance the relationship between mother and baby. But he’s not part of it. The mother-baby relationship is a sort of island, separate from Dad. If there’s such a thing as the Dad-baby island, Mom’s on it much of the time. If a new father is trying to snake a tiny arm through a sleeper sleeve while Mom is in the room, he feels the watchful eyes upon him.
Fathers watch mothers too, but they’re thinking, Wow! Look at what she can do with the baby. Moms tend to think, What’s he doing to my baby? And they are primed to step in with helpful hints about what he should do and exactly how to do it.
I exaggerate, but I usually get giggles and nods of agreement from mothers when I talk about this dynamic. I’m not dumping on mothers; new moms are biologically primed to obsess over a baby’s every grimace and gurgle.
But if you want your guy to be hands-on, and I think you do, you need to understand that you play a big role in how his relationship with the baby unfolds.
It’s not all on moms, of course. Dad’s part is realizing that, as number two, he has to try harder and nudge his way into the picture in a way that respects your bond with the baby and supports your mothering.
Your job is to create openings for him to get the experience he needs. Looking after kids is something we all learn by doing.
Let him know that you need him to be a caregiving partner — not a helper. Give him some space with the baby so he gets the chance to work out his own way of doing things. Try not to bail him out at the first sign of difficulty. Just as you did, he needs to learn how to problem-solve and improvise when a first-line strategy doesn’t work.
Here’s the hardest one: Don’t over-correct. Nothing discourages a guy more than getting Ashley all ready to go to the beach only to have Mom come over, whisk the sun hat off and reposition it at the “perfect” angle.
Forty years ago we didn’t have to worry about this stuff because everyone agreed that little kids were Mom’s territory. But these days, families are much better off when a father develops a real understanding of what his kids need and feels good that he can meet those needs.
That requires men to take a leap to get in there and get involved. It also requires a mother’s support, encouragement and, sometimes, backing off. If you back off early, when it’s hard to, it should be easier to back off a few years from now, when you’ll really want to.