Monday, August 30, 2010

New Dads on the Block

Picture this traditional scene – It’s 1970 and parents of a newborn arrive at a “welcome home” barbeque for the new family at the home of the mother’s parents. Within minutes, the new baby is passed from one set of arms to another. No surprise to any of our readers, it does not take long before the newborn tires and starts to turn away from all the attention. These early cues are ignored until the newborn begins to cry loudly just as he is handed to his grandfather. With a knowing smile, granddad says “looks like this little guy needs his mama” and stiffly hands the fussy baby to his daughter. Knowing smiles pass among the women at the gathering and someone declares that men are “just hopeless” with babies.

For many generations, men’s roles in child rearing have been delegated to the sidelines. Men were expected to step into the action only when women were too tired, too stressed, or occupied with other responsibilities. Traditionally, men have played more of a utilitarian role as diaper changers and secondary feeders, leaving the bonding, emotional connection, and comforting to mothers who were expected somehow to intrinsically know “just what to do” when their babies needed them.

Fast forward 40 years. The world has changed dramatically, fathers both demand, and are expected, to play a much larger role in their children’s lives. In fact, it is now known that father (or father figure) involvement plays a specific and beneficial role in promoting infant health and development. Even so, much of the education and support offered to new parents is still focused almost entirely on mothers. Research in this area (often done in Scandinavian countries where fathers get some hefty paternity leave) suggests that many fathers feel overwhelmed, out of control, undervalued, and misunderstood. Fathers want and often experience many of the same feelings mothers do, sensing the bond and “completeness” that new parents experience. While mothers may be comfortable to feel their way around both physically and emotionally, men are more likely to want to identify and master the specific skills needed for their new role. They would prefer an “instruction manual” while women tend to rely on their friends and family to support individual decisions. (Ok, I realize these are generalizations, but the research suggests that lots of dads feel this way)

While this blog is far from “an instruction manual,” we hope that we have added to dads' knowledge and skills, helping them to understand the value of their interactions with their infants. In our imaginations, we hope our readers would experience a different scene unfolding versus the one described at the start of this post.

Todd and Jill arrive with their newborn, Sam, at Jill’s parents’ welcome home barbeque. Todd and Jill are very familiar with Sam’s disengagement cues and they know that Sam has a particular problem with overstimulation when he is already drowsy. They have come prepared with a plan to minimize stimulation if Sam show’s signs of tiring. Todd carries Sam into the party confidently and proudly. As Jill reconnects with family and friends, Todd keeps a casual but sharp eye on Sam’s reaction to each new relative, pacing new contacts slowly. As Sam begins to tire, Todd explains to the group about the baby’s cues and knowingly takes the irritable Sam from his grandfather’s arms before he starts to cry.

Of course, in our dreams, everyone at the party has the same baby behavior skills and Todd’s perceptions are not even noticed as out of the ordinary! We’d love to hear from dads if they have had any experiences like those we’ve described, particularly if you have been dismissed as knowing nothing about infants or (what we hope) embraced as the “baby psychic” in the family.

Next time: Let’s Talk about Twins!


Fägerskiöld A. Support of fathers of infants by the child health nurse. Scand J Caring Sci. 2006 Mar;20(1):79-85.

Premberg A, Hellström AL, Berg M. Experiences of the first year as father. Scand J Caring Sci. 2008 Mar;22(1):56-63.

Fägerskiöld A. A change in life as experienced by first-time fathers. Scand J Caring Sci. 2008 Mar;22(1):64-71.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the dad-related stuff! My husband enjoys your blog. Keep up the good work.