I have been thinking a lot about fatherhood lately. As a woman and a mother I have been hesitant to write about it, but I repeatedly come back to the importance of fatherhood. Not only on the development of the child, but also on the development of the man and, subsequently, on the development of the partner and the couple. Families are intricately woven patterns of feedback loops with each person having a direct impact on all the other members. Our foundation as individuals and as a couple sets the parenting stage and can mean the difference between barely surviving and thriving as a family. And while this may be a work in progress for all of us, I can’t help but think that in this day and age, with all the changing rules and expectations, it may be especially tricky for fathers.
So what does it mean to thrive as a mother, as a father and as a couple? Is there a formula for success?
Studies have found that fathers who feel more self-confident about their parenting skills when their infant is three-months-old are more involved with their children later on. Interestingly enough, a father’s self-view of his ability to parent is directly related to how much autonomy and support the mother gives him to parent. Additionally, mothers may experience less depression and stress the more involved the fathers are. What does this mean? Mothers feel more supported and happier when fathers are more involved and fathers feel more secure in their relationships with their children the more they are involved. This results in happier mamas, happier papas, happier couples.
And, we recognize the value and importance of a father’s relationship with his children as they grow up. Fathers’ roles in childcare have been changing over the generations. Fathers today do more than they ever have in terms of childcare. Our culture is slowly changing our values. We encourage and reward men for being involved. We even expect it. Long gone are the days of Ozzie and Harriet when the dad came home from work, patted the kids on the head and went to his chair to smoke a cigar. Now, working dads are expected to come home, help with dinner, play with the kids, help with bath and bedtime. They are responsible for childcare, they are involved with decisions about feeding and schools and activities. Mothers want more of this. We know the intrinsic value in it.
So, how do we set up fathers to be involved with their children over the long haul? The take-home message seems to be that fathers should be more involved in early childcare. Easy, right?
For some reason, it doesn’t seem to always work this way.
Often, couples describe the following: During the early months of parenthood, mothers seem to do most of the childcare, and they feel resentful that the fathers don’t do more than they do. While some fathers may feel confident jumping right in, some want to do more, but don’t know how. Others may feel resentful that the mother seems to be devoting so much of her time to the children. Maybe fathers (just like mothers) feel scared to death that they are going to do something wrong. When childcare is needed, the mother steps in quickly and does it, “because it is just easier.” The father steps back and lets her. Mothers feel lonely. Fathers feel lonely and less needed or important in the parenting dynamic. And we wonder why having kids is hard on our relationships.
A couple of important factors seem to be at play. First, men are becoming equal partners in parenting without having a shared experience of what this means. For most adult men today, their role models growing up weren’t as involved with childcare as they are now expected to be. While our culture is moving towards this change, we haven’t really fully made the switch. In general, men seem to get the message that they should be full-time providers (pay the bills and fix the roof and mow the grass) and be equal partners in childcare, and they seem to be figuring this all out as they go.
Another interesting factor at play is biology. There is plenty of research that shows that women get hormonally reinforced with a neurotransmitter called oxytocin. Oxytocin creates feelings of pleasure, warmth and connection. It makes us feel good. Women have increases in ocytocin levels when they respond to an infant (even if that baby isn’t their own). They get more oxytocin from helping and responding empathically. They get more oxytocin from picking up a crying baby. This means that women are biologically reinforced when they take care of their children. There is some evidence that men get this same response, but the jury is still out. It may be that they don’t get the same amount, or that they don’t get the same “good feelings” from oxytocin that women do or that they just don’t get oxytocin from childcare activities. What this may suggest is that men and women get different types of rewards for childcare. Women may do it because we are internally rewarded and driven, men may do it because they are socially rewarded and driven.
And, while fathers have been socialized towards “work” and “providing,” mothers have been socialized over generations towards being the primary caretakers. So, it can be difficult for women to move past both their internal and external reinforcements for caregiving in order to give men the social reinforcement they need. Even as women’s roles have changed with more women in the workplace, the shift towards sharing childcare with the father has seemed to lag behind. The choices for women seemed to go from childcare only to working only to doing both. But, where in that process did we start to encourage mothers to let go of the idea that they have to be the primary caretaker? As men are expected to take a more active role in childcare, women have to relinquish their role as the single childcare expert in the house.
Uh oh. Catch 22.
Moms say, “Help more.” And we also say, “I can do it easier or better.” And fathers say, “I want to help,” but they also say, “I don’t really feel comfortable and I know she will do it.” And then moms say, “I knew you wouldn’t help, I have to do everything.” Even the language of “help” implies that that is all the father is doing—helping the mother, rather than parenting in his own right.
And, hence, the study that found that fathers’ view of themselves as being capable caregivers in early infancy—which is directly related to the mothers’ trust in them—led to more involved and interested fathers down the road.
So what can we do?
We can change the rules. Mothers need to trust fathers to know what to do on their own. We can trust them to love and care for the babies and we can LET THEM DO IT! Fathers and mothers need to realize that they may do things differently. They may interact with children differently. They may comfort them differently. They may guide them differently. The idea is not for the father to learn how to do what the mother does. The goal is for him to realize and embrace his own inner parenting wisdom. Find his own inner papa. The goal is for him to become comfortable and confident in parenting in his own way, so that he will love it. And he can only do this if mothers get out of the way.
We can open up our dialogue about it. We talk so much about what our children are doing, how much they are sleeping and eating and pooping. Especially in the early stages of infancy. But we don’t talk much about what it is like for us to parent, and we might not listen to each other talk about our stresses, our fears, our triggers. The more the couple talks about these transitions together, the more they each develop into thriving parents. But more importantly, they can strengthen as a couple.
Today’s fathers are forging the way for future generations of men, and women, to embrace the role of fatherhood. We have to realize that this road is relatively unpaved and that the men in our lives are amazing for taking on the challenge.
We can be more active in bringing this change of balance to our individual family. Just because society doesn’t have a good template yet, and just because most of us don’t have a framework for a family that really shares childcare, doesn’t mean that we can’t work to create it. But that’s just it, we have to work to create it. And it is more than moms telling their friends that they wish their husbands would do more (because, let’s face it ladies, at the end of the day, that doesn’t really help). We have to work together as equal parents to make this happen. After all, isn’t that what we are looking for?