In this excerpt from Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro, David L. Hill talks about the importance of fatherhood and what it is like to join the dad club.
Like many expectant fathers, there was little else I could talk about in the months leading up to my daughter’s birth. Someone might say, “Looks like we’re about to get some rain,” and then I’d say, “Yep. I hope it’s not raining in 5 weeks when my first child is due.”
When I told people I was going to be a father, I got a lot of different reactions, but the most predictable came from those who were already parents. They would cock their heads knowingly, smile a little, and say, “Your life is going to change.”
“Ya think?” I wanted to ask. “Did you all get together and rehearse this answer? Will you invite me to practice it with you once I’m a dad, and if so, will there be beer? I sort of figured my life would change, what with the baby and all. You want to be a little more specific?”
And then it happened. As a medical student I’d helped deliver plenty of babies, but this one was mine. It was her water that splashed on the floor, her purple face suddenly visible, her tiny hands and feet waving in the air. There she was, my little girl! My life had changed.
The first call I made was to my mom to apologize for how much I must have frightened her. I never knew I could love someone as much as this baby, which means I never knew how scared I could be that something would happen to her. Would she keep breathing? Would she have a happy childhood? Would she be accepted into a good graduate school? OK, too soon for that last one. Better to just start with the breathing part.
Over the next week I spent hours holding the wondrous being that was my daughter. Everything she did fascinated me. I was enthralled at the way she slept, the way she sucked on her hand, even the way she pooped. And pooped again. And again. OK, the hand-sucking was more interesting.
By her second week of life my new daughter could lift her head and sort of squirm around my chest. She’d squirm, drop her head, and wiggle her face back and forth, then she’d squirm a little farther and repeat the process, almost like she was looking for something; food, maybe. When she did this to her mommy she’d soon be happy, but with me it was an exercise in futility. As her rooting became more frantic and she began to whimper, I could almost hear her thoughts: “This isn’t getting me anywhere! Dad, what are you good for?”
As I gazed down at her little scrunched-up nose I whispered gently to her, “Oh, precious girl, one day you will know what I’m good for. There will come a day, sooner than you or I can imagine, a day when you will really badly want to open a pickle jar. When that day comes, there I will be, to hand that jar to your mom, along with that jar-opening gadget someone gave us as a wedding present.”
I don’t know a father alive who has not wondered what his role is in his child’s life and whether he’s doing a good enough job of it. (OK, there is this one guy I met, but seriously, he’s a complete jerk.) As a father it’s common to feel some ambiguity about your role in nurturing your child. After all, she didn’t grow inside your body, and you can’t nurse her, at least not without the sorts of secret, experimental steroids available only to certain major league batters and Tour de France contenders.
Dads: Who Are We, and What Are We Good For?
The answers to these questions are not, as you might imagine, straightforward. The US Census Bureau counted 70.1 million fathers in 2011, meaning the 85.4 million mothers outnumber us (one of many good reasons not to upset them). Of those fathers, 25.3 million (well under half) live as members of a married couple in a house with their children. Another 1.8 million are single fathers, accounting for around 15% of all single parents.
In 2010 about 154,000 married fathers stayed home for at least 1 year to care for their children while their wives worked. They were busy—collectively these dads watched 287,000 kids. But you don’t have to be a stay-at-home dad to provide primary care for a child. In 2006 fathers cared for a total of 2.7 million preschoolers while their mothers worked. That number represents nearly a quarter of all children in that age group.
Families are growing more complex, and fathers include many people whom the Census Bureau might not have counted. They may be stepfathers, foster fathers, uncles, grandfathers, mothers’ romantic partners, or 2 male partners who share in the primary care of a child. If you’re the main guy on whom a child depends for security, guidance, and love, congratulations, you’re a dad!
Dads, as it turns out, are good for a lot, and our positive effect spans the life of the child. Premature babies gain weight better if their dads are involved in their care. Those same premies score better on developmental and psychological tests over a year later as a result of dad’s involvement. Mothers are more likely to successfully breastfeed their babies when dads help. Children with involved fathers have better language skills, make better grades, enjoy better self-esteem, and suffer substantially less psychiatric disease, including depression and anxiety. Positive paternal involvement can even reduce conflict among siblings. Children whose fathers are involved in their care are less likely to wind up in jail, use drugs and alcohol, or become pregnant in their teen years.
Dads are not good for kids just because we do the same stuff moms do. That’s not to say doing that stuff isn’t important; it’s critical! Mothers and fathers have a similar effect on their children’s moral development, social competence, school performance, and mental health. There is a reason, after all, it takes 2 parents to make a baby, and not just because it’s more fun that way.
Probably the most accurate generalization about dads versus moms is that fathers play more. In the first 4 years of a child’s life we tend to focus on activities that involve touch and stimulation, like tickling, wrestling, and playing airplane. It’s our job, in other words, to get kids all wound up so they won’t go to bed, to make them laugh until they pee on themselves. (Note: If this happens, be a good sport and help with the clothing change; after all, it is your fault.) During middle childhood, we’re more likely than mothers to get out and do stuff, like take walks, go fishing, or see a ball game. Are you surprised? No, you are not. You already knew that from watching sitcoms.
You might not have guessed, however, that dads also engage in a lot of private talks, and not just the Big Talk. We also have a major effect on our children’s sense of their gender roles, both sons and daughters. (What this means in practical terms is that you may at times have to wear a dress, especially if your son is wearing one.) We tend to focus more than mothers on risk-taking and problem-solving. (Wearing the dress can provide an opportunity to model both behaviors.)
The realm of discipline holds another surprise: while fathers and mothers often choose different discipline roles in a given family, the differences are not broad enough to generalize. It seems that for every mother who says, “You just wait until your father comes home,” there is a father somewhere saying, “Just wait until your mother hears about this!”
Become an Emotional Genius in 3 Easy Steps
Until you have a baby you may not even be aware of some of your own assumptions about parenting. You might fall back on whatever skills you learned from your own parents, even if time has proven those practices ineffective. On the flip side, you may be so determined not to repeat your own parents’ mistakes that you overcompensate. Regardless, you’ll almost certainly find your partner has some different ideas than you do, setting the stage for conflict. How the 2 of you resolve those differences will have a profound effect on your child’s well-being and also on the future of your relationship. Having 2 parents who cooperate well is one of the strongest factors ensuring children’s healthy development, even when those parents are separated or divorced.
The first step is to have a conversation. Men are not always known for their conversational skills, but even if you’re not much of a talker, now is a good time to try it out. Start with a question; sometimes you’ll find the answer reassuring, and sometimes you’ll find it upsetting, but either way at least you’ll know where you’re starting.
Begin with something open-ended: “How are you feeling right now?” Most women are pretty good at answering this one, but get ready, because they might ask you the same thing. It’s OK to ask for some time to figure out how you’re feeling before you answer. We’re guys; this kind of thing may not come naturally to us.
The next step is even harder for most men than describing our feelings—acknowledge your partner’s emotions. This is the kind of thing they teach preschoolers on television, but you’ll be amazed at the response you get if you do it as a grown man. Try, “I can tell you’re really upset,” or, “I’m sorry I made you angry.” For men, the bar for emotional IQ is so low that just making these statements will amaze your partner, even if you did learn them from Elmo.
Now it’s time to score a hat trick. Assuming you’ve identified a problem, you will feel an overwhelming need to propose a solution. This is because you have a Y chromosome. I cannot emphasize the following statement enough: don’t do it! Instead, try a question along these lines: “Is there something you’d like to see change?” You are now a super-genius, the kind of guy whose partner brags about him when he’s not even around to hear. (Note: if she’s already asked you to change something, skip this step.)
In some cases your partner doesn’t want you to do anything. She may just want you to know how she feels and to comfort her. (If that’s the case, do so now.) In other cases she may indeed want something to change, and now you can decide how you feel about that change. Hopefully you can start working toward a solution.
Just because a conversation is easy to start doesn’t mean finding a solution will be simple. Child care issues produce some of the strongest emotions in any relationship. As you work your way through these challenges, remember 2 words: prioritize and compromise. Some things are important; others are not. Not spanking a child is important. Choosing between spinach and beans is not. There are a few absolute rights and wrongs in child care, but a lot of stuff falls in the middle. If you’re unsure how important something is, you can use this book and others like it to help you prioritize, and when a question comes up feel free to ask your child’s doctor. That’s what doctors are there for.
Compromise is tricky; to compromise, you first have to prioritize. You may not want to compromise on issues that are critical to your child’s health and development. But you may start thinking about some things and realize you’re just doing them the way that seems familiar, and there might be another approach that’s just as good. If the 2 of you reach an impasse, feel free to seek out a doctor, counselor, spiritual leader, or other trusted third party who might be able to help you through it. Your child’s doctor should be able to help you find resources in your community.
You’ve heard this one before, but really, do try to find time to nurture your relationship with your partner. Children who grow up in a home with 2 supportive parents enjoy better outcomes in almost any realm you care to measure, from school performance to mental health to drug use and teen pregnancy. Child care can easily take over your life, and without making time to nurture each other and build your new relationship, you can all-too-easily find yourself sharing a home with someone you don’t feel you know any more. Extended family, baby-sitters, even friends can help the 2 of you find time to find each other. You’ll hear variations on this advice over and over again, but don’t ignore it just because it’s obvious. Don’t forget the little things, either—compliment mom frequently; remember her birthday, your anniversary, or any other meaningful occasion; and show her affection frequently. These things may seem little, but the difference they make is enormous!
And You Must Be Dad!
Since 1965 married fathers have increased the time they spend on direct child care from an average of 2.5 hours a week to nearly 7 hours a week. (The number for married mothers is 12.9 hours.) Figures for non-married fathers are harder to find; when the Current Population Survey began in 1965 they weren’t on most people’s radar. Despite the massive shifts in family dynamics occurring in our society, there are many places that can feel unwelcoming to a dad, starting in the home.
You might think the child’s mother would want you to do absolutely anything to help out, but fathers can find their offers of assistance turned down, a situation that can easily cause hurt feelings. Some mothers feel they’ll do a given job better or faster than dad, a fact they learned from watching sitcoms. If the 2 of you are fighting, she might restrict your involvement in child care as an act of hostility.
She may have other reasons, however, that you might even find complimentary. She may feel you already do enough, or she may not want to bother you. She might even come to the relationship with different cultural beliefs about men’s and women’s roles that neither of you has addressed.
Before jumping to conclusions, try starting a conversation along the lines of, “I feel like you never want me to change the baby’s diaper. That upsets me because I would like to help more.” That opener may get you a big hug, or it may get a container of premoistened wipes thrown at your head, but either way it’s likely to start a dialogue. Often the more mom feels you support her, the more supportive she will be of your involvement with your child.
Some people might still call this a man’s world, but the corners of it devoted to child care can sometimes feel downright unfriendly to fathers. I recall times when, taking my young children to the playground, moms actually got up from a park bench where they had been talking and moved over to the next swing set. It’s possible they were just following the shade, but I couldn’t help looking around to see if my picture was stapled to a nearby utility pole.
As an involved father you might expect everyone you encounter to smile and praise you or tell you how impressed they are at what you’re doing. At times you will get this reaction. Some people seem amazed I can get my kids out of the house wearing 2 matched shoes. In fact, one of my pet peeves is when the children’s clothes clash and someone says, “Daddy must have dressed you today.” I want to look that person dead in the eye and say, “You don’t know me very well, do you? My daughter here left the house in a perfect little outfit, but she threw up on that one, and this is what was in the trunk of the car. Now stand back—she’s looking a little pale.”
I have sat awkwardly as the only dad in dentists’ waiting rooms, pediatricians’ offices, school field trips, PTA meetings, and any number of children’s birthday parties. Be aware of subtle biases that may make you feel uncomfortable, like pink, flowery wallpaper in a waiting room, or a magazine selection that runs the gamut from Women’s Day to Martha Stewart Living. Also know that your presence may be altering the all-female dynamic, just like if, say, your mom showed up to your poker night. The important thing is not to let the fact that you’re a dad keep you from being appropriately involved in your child’s care. If your child’s pediatrician or teacher seems to be directing all the questions to mom, you might have to speak up. There’s no need to become adversarial, but at the same time, some people involved in child care don’t expect you to be interested, and when you are it may surprise them.
When You’re Not There
What if you’re not living with your child full time? Do you still matter? There’s no question you do. While the statistics for children of divorce can be daunting, there is good evidence that a strong relationship with a nurturing father improves these outcomes. In some cases divorce might even improve children’s well-being, if it helps resolve conflict between parents. There are no studies to compare, but it’s a fair guess that living with 2 happy parents apart is better than living with 2 parents who are in the same house but miserable.
Separation and divorce can also pose your biggest challenge. Children of divorced parents fare better when the parents work well together. Given the anger and pain so often associated with these situations, you may never want to see mom again, much less work with her. But how the 2 of you handle this situation will make a difference in your children’s lives, so making it work will pay off in the long term.
Remember too that quantity of time matters, but the quality of your time with your children is equally important. If your time with them is limited, it can also be focused, allowing you to really slow down and learn who they are. Not every day has to be a trip to the zoo. Just reading a book, playing a game, or walking in the backyard provides you an opportunity to listen to their thoughts, show them stuff, and play. Chances are the things they will remember about your time together will not be those grand, elaborate events you worked so hard to plan, but instead they will be small moments that you may not have even registered.
Of course, if you’re already a dad, you probably knew that stuff. Your life, after all, has changed. But you knew it would. You’ve watched sitcoms.
Excerpted from Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro by David L. Hill, M.D., F.A.A.P. Published by the American Academy of Pediatrics June 1, 2012. Available online and in bookstores nationwide. David L. Hill is a pediatrician, writer, and father of three. He lives with his family in Wilmington, North Carolina.