Given it’s Mother’s Day today, I wanted to explore an important issue that affects many moms every single day. It’s impact is often overlooked. It’s complex. It’s wonderful. It’s personal.
It’s the role of Dads (and partners). Or more specifically, the role of dads in early parenting.
I’m a huge fan of very involved fathers. I believe it makes for healthier kids, more fulfilling career paths for both parents, and better adult relationships.
My father, a successful lawyer, became a stay-at-home dad for three years starting when I was three (and at great peril to his future career trajectory). His presence bonded us together in ways unique between father and daughter. I feel incredibly close to my father to this day (he was the parent, for example, that went with me to buy my first feminine products).
Now my own husband has managed to rival my dad in his face time with our son. While in between jobs, he took almost a year-long paternity leave. After becoming a Professor at MIT, he still stayed with my son every morning during his second year, and has managed to take a day off a week to be with my son into his third year.
I know that my situation is unique. Incredibly so. I know every family cannot afford, would be allowed, or would even want to have such a flexible arrangement. I also know that even if you have and want the option, to be both ambitious and present as a parent is really hard.
But I think that if you are looking for a partner that will truly co-parent with you, even if it’s just on nights and weekends, and not hand you back the baby every time he starts to fuss, there are some things you can do to facilitate more of an equitable parenting arrangement from the beginning.
Paternity leave is important. While paternity leave is not an option for many (we are, sadly, one of the most regressive of all industrialized countries on this issue), have your partner take what he can and be creative! Whether it is 2 days, 2 weeks, or 2 months, uninterrupted family time in the beginning can be so helpful in developing lasting bonds with your newborn. In Daddy Track: The Case for Paternity Leave, Liza Mundy writes:
Paternity leave is a chance to intervene at what one study called “a crucial time of renegotiation”: those early, sleep-deprived weeks of diaper changes and midnight feedings, during which couples fall into patterns that turn out to be surprisingly permanent.
Even if your partner can’t take leave in the first days, perhaps he could take a couple days or half days as early when he has some vacation time available.
Trust your husband! It’s unfair to correct your husband every time he puts on a diaper or chooses a onesie, and then expect that he’s going to feel comfortable caring for your baby in your absence. I admit to being a somewhat critical and perfectionist mother, but I made sure to silence myself when it came to criticizing his early care-giving so that he felt competent and “in charge” of taking care of our child too.
Leave your husband alone with your baby. Frequently. Go on a weekend trip and leave your baby with your husband, or just plan a night out with friends. Start this early on (even if you’re feeling to tethered to breastfeeding, take a walk between feedings or something). It’s important that your partner has the time to develop a role as caregiver, without feeling like he can hand the baby to you as soon as things get difficult. The added benefit is that he’ll probably appreciate you all the more once he realizes how hard it can be to care for a new baby solo.
Encourage daddy rituals. Whether he does bath time when he gets home from work, makes breakfast, or just always plays with a specific toy or sings the baby a certain song when they are together, try to encourage “something” that only your partner does with your child. Having him play an integral part in your baby’s daily routine, or at least having a ritual that is done only with him, is wonderful for baby, and has an amazing effect on the parent too.
I saw the power of many of these tactics first-hand with my husband. Pre-baby, he did not give off any extra paternal, stay-at-home dad vibes. He had literally only held a baby once before my son arrived. But as we cocooned ourself in our hospital room post-birth for a few days, and kept visitors to a minimum for the next couple weeks, I saw my husband blossom in his new role of father and protector. He refused to let me change a single diaper (“that’s my job!” he’d say) and literally slept with my son on his chest for the first two months. I saw him get almost obsessed with spending time with our son, even exceeding my own expectations (I’ve actually had to ask him recently to spend less time with our son, and more time taking care of himself).
According to Barry Hewlett, who wrote “Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care,” children in the Aka Pygmie tribe spend almost equal time with their fathers and mothers. The men carry their babies in slings on hunting trips, and literally let them suck on their nipples when their wives weren’t around to nurse.
I’m obviously not advocating men start nursing, but given that the role of the father varies so dramatically from culture to culture, I truly believe you can shape your roles as parents, together, and make it more equitable, from the beginning.
Happy Mother’s Day everyone!