While it is hard to explain how fast the last eight months have come and gone, it is equally hard to believe that eight months and one day ago I had yet to meet Abel. The milestone prompted me to think about what being a father means to me and how that conflicts with our cultural stereotype of the father. These stereotypes and views aren't just theoretical constructions - many of my close friends and relations truly believe that men are inferior to women at caring for young children and have expressed these views openly. Sometimes these remarks are framed in humor, but I don't find them funny. I don't believe that as a father I am an inferior parent and I believe this widely-held view is harmful to not only fathers, but also mothers and children. Mothers are therefore expected to be the primary caregiver, fathers are discouraged from an active role, and children are deprived of a second nurturing parent. Fathers are different than mothers, but no less capable.
There are many differences between expectant fathers and mothers. One key difference is that it is much more difficult for the father to feel connected to the baby before it is born. This isn’t a shocker – the mother can literally feel the baby while simultaneously experiencing a shift in hormones that trigger all kinds of maternal responses. For me, it just looked like Jess had a beach ball lodged in her stomach. I read lots of books about fatherhood, thought long and hard about what my future baby, and talked to dozens of other Dads about their experiences, but I didn’t feel like a father or bonded to the baby. Not yet.
Although a mother may have a head start journey to parenthood due to her biological connection to the baby, a father can catch up. For most mothers, the emotional bond with the baby is automatic and tangible. Hormones released during birth and while breastfeeding forge a strong relationship deeply rooted in our mammalian biology. Bonding with an infant is not automatic for fathers – we have to work at building a relationship. This takes time and patience. Many fathers wait to feel a connection with the baby before getting involved in the day-to-day care. I think this is a big mistake. Father-child bonds are built on familiarity and trust, both of which take time to develop.
There are a lot of reasons why fathers are hesitant to care for their new baby. Many fathers, and mothers, believe that it is the maternal relationship that is most important to a baby and that the paternal role is secondary, supplementary, or even optional. This belief is deeply rooted in our culture. Fathers “bring home the bacon” while mothers stay at home with the baby. Thankfully, this has been changing, but the underlying view of fathers still has a long way to go.
Another reason fathers are hesitant to step into a more active parenting role is that the media is constantly sending the message that fathers are incompetent buffoons who do nothing but screw up, usually in humorous ways. Think about what Homer Simpson, Tim Allen, Peter Griffin, and countless other sitcom fathers have in common. This CNN article does a good job of discussing the bumbling Dad stereotype. In addition to the cultural messages that fathers are superfluous and incompetent, fathers are also deterred from being nurturing caregivers because it is in conflict with the dominant image of masculinity. Hopefully more society will learn to embrace a more sophisticated version of masculine identity that allows men to feel secure in their choice to be the primary caregiver to their baby.
A more tangible reason why fathers find it more difficult to become involved with their baby is because they simply don’t have time. In the US, paternity leave is non-existent or very short in duration for most employees. With the expense of having a child, it is difficult to take additional time off and almost impossible for most men to switch to part-time employment.
Dads Are Capable Too!
As a new father, nothing irks me more than someone implying that I am a less capable parent than my spouse. I may not be able to breastfeed, but I can do everything else just as well. In fact, since I am the stay at home parent, I have more familiarity with many of Abel’s routines and habits. Men are just as capable as women of becoming nurturing, loving, and competent parents, but it does take some effort. You must be able to ignore gender stereotypes, derision from simple-minded peers, non-stop depictions of inept fathers, and work against a system that does not promote or encourage paternal involvement.
I don’t mean to imply that I am some kind of super-dad. Caring for my son can be very rewarding, but at other times it can be incredibly frustrating or numbingly boring. Spending six hours with Abel is hard and I don’t always look forward to it. Working, even as a teacher with a classroom full of children, would be easier and in some ways and more gratifying. There isn't a lot of prestige in changing diapers or cleaning spit-up out of the rug.
Despite the often drab nature of the work, I am very grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time with Abel because I know it has made me a better dad. Undoubtedly I would be less comfortable with Abel and less confident in my parenting abilities had I not spent so much time alone with him. Not only do I feel more comfortable with him, but I am sure that he feels more comfortable with me and that our relationship is solid due to the trust forged during our afternoons together. It is very satisfying to know that our relationship was not a given – not a product of biology – but was earned. I may not have nourished him in the womb and I certainly can’t produce his milk now, but I've successfully managed eight bouts of teething, thousands of dirty diapers, hundreds of bottles, and dozens of adventures around the city. Men can become capable, caring, and nourishing fathers if they are given the necessary time, encouragement, and support.
The significance of mothers in the lives of children cannot be understated, but it is time for the importance of fathers to be fully acknowledged.