Dads, Keep Leaning In

by John Hoffman

I’m old enough to be a grandpa, but I still remember parts of my earliest weeks of fatherhood like it was yesterday. Two things surprised me. One was how hard it was, at first, to be the kind of hands-on dad I had planned to be. The other surprise was that biggest roadblock to my involvement with the baby was… my wife.  I don’t mean she intentionally tried to keep me from being involved. But – well, let me tell you a little story.

Riley was a high needs baby (cried a lot, slept not so much). So our early days as new parents were long and our nights were interrupted. One day, when he was about six weeks old, Holly seemed desperately tired. I was determined to “give” her a decent afternoon nap. So after lunch, when Riley was freshly changed, nursed and sleeping, I shooed her upstairs. I vowed to keep him quiet for at least an hour, like real quiet. I had noticed that Holly was amazingly wired and tuned in to the baby and she felt a massive sense of responsibility that the buck stopped with her if he wasn’t OK. In other words, if he made a peep, she’d hear it.

True to form, Riley started to squirm and squawk in his carriage five minutes after she left. So I started pushing the carriage back and forth hoping the movement would soothe him. It worked! But, five minutes later he started fussing again. I got him settled again. Then a couple minutes later he made a few little grunts. I thought, “OK. I guess I’m pushing this carriage back and forth for the next hour.” All of a sudden I heard this thumping up in the bedroom and Holly comes tearing down the stairs as if the house was on fire. Either that or she was furious at my failed attempts to keep Riley quiet. Here body language seemed to say, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY BABY?!”

But she didn’t say anything. She just scooped Riley up and went back upstairs. I was left alone, feeling pretty useless, and, if truth be told, a little ticked off, too. I thought, “Hey, I was doing OK. She didn’t need to rescue me. She’s not going to get the rest she needs unless I get a chance to learn how to comfort him.” I didn’t say any of this. I just thought it.

This kind of thing – Holly seeming to scoop the baby away from me in difficult moments – happened fairly regularly, in my mind at least. It bothered me, but for some reason I knew I had to suck it up.  Eventually I learned to live with it.  Holly and I even joked about it eventually. And I had to keep reminding myself to not blame her because, basically, she couldn’t help it. It’s called being a new mom.

It took me a long time to fully understand what was going on. Her behaviour, which felt like a judgment of my baby care skills – actually had nothing to do with me. It was all about her – her intense physical and emotional connection to the baby and her sense of responsibility that she had to ensure that her baby was OK.  I think it’s often hard for a new mom to distinguish between the baby’s needs and her needs. It was sort of like, “My baby’s not OK. I’m not OK.” Holly didn’t feel that she could relax and rest unless she knew – actually, unless she could “feel” that Riley was OK. And if that meant that she, rather than me, had to do something about it (and of course, as a breastfeeding mom, she had the magic trick) she was going to do it.

So even though I was pretty involved I felt like second fiddle a lot of the time. And I never really figured out how to be co-first fiddle – at least when the kids were babies. Second fiddle wasn’t what I wanted. But I learned to accept that I just had to figure out how to be as closely involved as I could within the reality of the way my wife was experiencing motherhood. I now see that as an important part of being a hands-on dad.

I can’t say that every family is going to have this exact experience. But, I’m still hearing about this tension from both fathers and mothers.

I think the lesson is that guys who want to be hands-on dads in the early days of parenthood need to pay close attention to their partner’s experience and needs. Mothers usually have this intense visceral (she feels it in her body) connection to her baby, along with a super strong sense of responsibility for the baby’s welfare. Guys feel some of that too, but it’s not as intense, not most of the time anyway. That mom intensity is normal – good, in fact, because it helps women be good moms. But it sometimes pushes them to do things that feel undermining to us. Some people call this gatekeeping. I don’t. I call it being a new mom.

Bottom line. Dads who want to be involved in baby care need to learn how to (to borrow a phrase from a best-selling book) “lean in.” By that I mean keep trying to nudge your way into the mom/baby world, while accepting the reality that you’ll be nudged to the sidelines at times. The key is keep leaning in. Because if a father stays on the sidelines because he thinks his efforts are not wanted to accepted, there can end up being a huge gap between Mom and Dad’s parenting skills. That will make it even harder for Mom to “lean out” so Dad can find the time and space he needs to develop his skills.

It would be lovely if new parenthood were completely equal in terms of gender roles. But it isn’t, not for most dad/mom couples anyway. It usually takes fathers a little longer to find their feet as parents. So, be patient. Try to understand and appreciate what motherhood is like for your partner. Give her as much support as you can. And keep leaning in.

Oh, and Happy Father’s Day!

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