by John Hoffman
People sometimes talk about new fathers being “jealous of the baby.” I’ve never liked that. It paints fathers as self-absorbed and immature. And it pits Dads and babies as competitors. Ick. But most of all it oversimplifies some issues that we really should talk about.
Obviously, having a baby brings big changes to a partner relationship. There’s a new little person in the mix. That little person is very dependent, needs a lot of care and takes up a lot of time. So new parents aren’t going to be spending time together exactly the way they did before. I would guess most men understand that.
But there is something else. It’s not just that the baby takes up Mom’s time. It’s the way the baby fills up her world – her consciousness, her being. Fathers can become entranced with babies too. But most of the time, there’s more intensity to a new mother’s focus. This is an important difference between new moms and new dads. And I think we have to understand it because it affects the partner relationship.
In my first year of fatherhood I felt like I was very involved and tuned-in to our baby. But my wife experienced this at a whole different level. I can remember having conversations with her and suddenly something about the baby would grab her attention and she’d just be gone. Not physically, but social and emotionally gone. It was disconcerting at times, even though I sort of understood it. The baby could certainly draw my attention too, but not in the same abrupt and sweeping way.
(I have no idea how, or if, the dynamic I have described might play out in same-sex parent families. So I won’t try to talk about it. But I’d love to hear from parents about their experiences.)
Eventually Holly and I talked about it. She explained it in terms of the baby taking up more space in her psychological and emotional world than mine. She was right, at least for us. I could walk between the “baby world” and the rest of the world fairly easily. But when Holly was in the rest of the world, a big part of her was still in the baby world. This was a difference in our experience of new parenthood and I had to get used to it. One of the things that helped was being involved in baby care. I understood what it was like to care for Riley, and to be constantly trying to understand how he was doing and what he needed. That kept me in the loop and helped me appreciate Holly’s experience.
This, more than anything else, is the reason I have been a passionate advocate for hands-on father involvement with babies. It can help partners stay connected.
So, new dads, maybe you’re not the most important person to her right now. But you and your relationship with her are still very important. That relationship needs to adjust to the new normal. Being an involved dad can help you do that.
I spoke with one new dad recently who told me that, while he expected to love his child, he was amazed at the sense of a bond that he felt so soon. “I thought the father-child relationship wouldn’t really come into its own until you could physically play together,” he said. “Nobody talks about the joy of simply holding a baby,” he said. “I was amazed at how good that felt.”
Yes, yes, yes! And I believe those feelings are good for all the relationships in his household.
Experts often say it’s important for new parents to have couple time – as in, away from the baby. Sure. Everybody needs couple time. But I think the best way to for a dad to remain a crucial person in his partner’s life is to connect with her around the baby, not just apart from the baby.
For some more thoughts on this, check out Dads! Renovate Your Relationship.