by John Hoffman
I want to pick up on a point a father named JC made in my last blog. He said that when he first starting going to his local dad program it seemed that, like him, all the dads he met were struggling a bit to figure out their role. In their families the moms were “taking care of a lot of things,” so the dads were feeling a bit like second-string parents.
This took me right back to my early days of parenting, because that’s how I felt. I didn’t think of myself a second-string, but I wanted to be highly involved and it was a lot harder than I thought.
I thought I picked up the day-to-day caregiving skills pretty quickly. But she was lightning fast, and, as JC put it, she was “looking after a lot” of what needed to be done. She reacted more strongly and responded more quickly to what was happening. Her reactions to Riley’s (our firstborn son) crying were instantaneous. I reacted too, but she was on her feet and moving while my brain was still assessing the situation.
This is the inherent inequality of early parenting between mothers and fathers in heterosexual families. It’s one of the first things I wrote about when I first starting writing about fatherhood. At the time I was thinking, no matter what we believe, or aspire to, regarding gender equity in parenting, mothers get a head start in parenting. A father who wants be highly involved has to play catch up.
Mom’s head start comes from a few different places. Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding prime women’s brains and bodies for early parenting. That pushes them to be alert to and respond to their babies. It’s not just biology though. Girls are socialized for motherhood from an early age. They grow up assuming that they will the primary caregiver of a baby some day.
But the most important factor in women’s head start at parenting is that she they get a lot more early hands-on experience. And, no matter how you’ve been prepared parenting is something you learn on the job. Mothers are on the job more or less instantly. They know that the buck stops with them, so they pretty much have no choice but to learn fast.
So you’ve got this mom who’s been biologically and socially primed for motherhood. As a result she gets right in there and starts learning mothering real fast. Now let’s add to that her intense need to feel on top of a situation that, in the beginning, feels a little out of control. She needs to know a) that her baby is OK and properly cared for and b) that she is up to the task and on top of it. So she feels driven to do the things that need to be done and to do them quickly, efficiently and well. This is all good. It helps ensure babies survive and thrive.
But how does this affect Dad? He is not primed in the same way. He does not assume that the buck stops with him. And, most importantly, he gets a lot less early experience. So he learns baby care skills and awareness more gradually. He also takes longer to find his feet – to feel comfortable in the clothes of fatherhood, so to speak. He needs experience, but it’s not that easy for his partner to let him get it. She knows what needs to be done. She sees it instantly. She can do it efficiently. It’s easier for her to just do it than let Dad bumble around a bit figuring things out.
It’s not that either Dad or Mom is doing anything wrong. It’s just way it is. It’s one of the things that makes new fatherhood tricky for guys who want to be highly involved.
I’m generalizing here, of course. Not all families are the same.
Thirty years ago I would have thought that we would have made a little more in helping fathers dive into parenting a little more quickly. But my conversation with JC suggests that things haven’t changed that much.
So what do we do about this? Or, more to the point, what do you do about it in your family. I have a few ideas.
- Recognize and accept that new parenthood is not a level playing field between moms and dads.
- Do your best to understand and support your partner’s experience of new motherhood.
- Don’t interpret her competence as a sign that she doesn’t need your support and involvement.
- Understand that you may have to push yourself – make a more of a conscious, active decision – to get involved. And accept that it may take you longer to feel comfortable and competent about looking after babies.
- There is no substitute for experience. You need to spend lots of time looking after and interacting with your baby. Let your partner know you need her support to get the time and experience you need. Your caregiving skills will be hugely useful to her.
- Expect a certain amount of “backseat driving” when you’re doing things with the baby. It’s not necessarily “gatekeeping”, as some people call it. She’s just responding to her need to ensure that her baby is OK. She can’t help it.
- Try to find one activity you can get really comfortable with – giving baths, taking the baby for a walk in the baby carrier, changing diapers, or whatever it is.
- If you’re having trouble, don’t give up. Just keep gently elbowing your way into the picture, but be prepared to back off sometimes. Your active involvement will not only be good for your partner and child, it will also be good for you you’re your marriage/partner relationship.