I’ve been researching and writing about fathers for more than 20 years and I’ve learned something about dads that I think all parents need to know — particularly moms.
Mothers have a substantial effect on the type of father their partner will be. And while fathers influence mothers too, the levels are not balanced in early parenting. What a mom says and does while her partner is holding or bathing the baby, for example, can have a big impact on the way he gets comfortable (or not) in his fathering role.
I’ve been pondering this for years, since I was a new dad wanting to get right in there with our first baby. At times, it was harder to get at little Riley than I expected. Women, often my wife, seemed to be in between me and him. My classic personal example is what I call the “thump, thump, thump” story. I was trying to keep six-week-old Riley asleep, or at least quiet, so my wife, Holly, could grab a desperately needed nap. After a couple of peeps that I couldn’t believe she’d even heard, she came tearing down the stairs (thump, thump, thump!) as if the house was on fire (or the baby was shrieking in agony) to take him away and soothe him herself. She didn’t do anything wrong. She was just being a new mom, but I was unprepared for the intensity of Holly’s response to the baby and how territorial it seemed to make her at times.
Numerous research findings reveal myriad ways in which mothers affect a father’s role. The various characteristics or attitudes of the mother — her views about the importance of the fathering role, her openness to co-parenting, even the quality of a marriage (although that’s not just about the mother) — predict fathers’ levels of involvement and how positively they interact with babies and toddlers. Yet, a dad’s characteristics and attitudes and marriage quality don’t tend to predict the mother’s involvement.
What does this mean to the average mom and dad? First, it doesn’t mean that men are helpless knobs whose ability to parent is totally determined by mothers. Actually, some studies have found that highly motivated fathers were less affected by maternal influence (true in my case).
If you’re a father, it means you have to make an intentional effort early on. You need to keep going back to the baby, even if your partner seems to be handling things on her own, even if it sometimes feels as if she’s pushing you away. Carve out time alone with your baby; encourage your partner to go to the spa or have coffee with a friend.
For mothers, it means recognizing you have more influence than you realize on how your partner’s fathering role unfolds. So be aware of that power and use it positively. Give him space to spend time with his kids, to interact in the way he wants to interact, to hold the baby the way that feels right to him (which may be different from the way you do it). It also means doing and saying little things that show him you are confident in his parenting ability. Let him know you love seeing his closeness with his child and you feel that your little one needs to spend time with her daddy.
I really don’t want to lay another load on mothers or suggest that if a guy has trouble embracing fatherhood, it’s mom’s fault. But if we ignore this heightened influence of mothers on fathering, if we pretend that there’s automatic equity in early parenting, we’re kidding ourselves. Both parents have to work at it. Dad’s job is to push a bit, and mom’s role is to support and welcome his pushing.