Fathers - The Unsung Heroes
By Dr. Cathy Moser
It takes just one sperm to father a child - it takes a whole lot more than that to be a dad. Father's day is approaching. Dad - it is a good opportunity to check in with yourself. If your father is still in your life - what is your relationship with him? If you are a father, what is your perception of the relationship you have with your child? What do you think their perception is? Sometimes these questions are hard to ask because the answers may not be the ones you want to hear. At other times - it's a joy to ask and answer them. Something I have consistently noticed is that most parents are better with their children at one stage of the child's development than another.
So forgive yourself, appreciate yourself, and take on the challenge of fatherhood with the realization that you will need 'Continuing Ed' courses for as long as you are a practicing father! We learn a lot about parenting from our own parents. Either we strive to emulate them because we thought they did a good job, or we make every effort we can to avoid parenting the way that they did. Before you father a child, it is a good idea to think about what you are bringing to the job. Because before you know it - your children will be there - wailing away and presenting you with new challenges. If you haven't sorted some of this out, you will act instinctively. And if you come from a family that wasn't all that healthy, your in-stincts might stink! Even if you had a wonderful upbringing and think you know exactly the way you will raise your child - your child may wind up having a personality and needs that are completely outside your range of competency. Sorry to say- but you are starting out with a few strikes against you.
But have no fear. I am in your court, and I know that with some help, a healthy father - son/daughter relationship will prevail. It may just take a few decades... but patience pays off. And always remember that it's never too late to repair a relationship with your child. If you are a DAD-2-B, read on - here is an opportunity to increase the odds that you will have a close bond with your child.
Your unique DAD challenges start off even before your child is born. As soon as the zygote is announced, you become a second-class citizen in your home! How many people come up to you and ask you how you are feeling, or if they can touch your belly (I guess that WOULD be a little weird)? And after baby? Let's face it - baby gets the starring role, mom is the supporting actress, and dad? Hopefully you are not just a GOPHER (go for the diaper, go for the bottle...), and you don't feel displaced because now your partner is more attentive and seems to love someone even more than they have ever loved you. Here's the deal, and it's a good idea to get it from me right now, before you start to take things personally. Almost all mothers DO love their children more than anything else in the whole world - but it's a unique love that is different than what we have for anyone else in the universe. We are mama bears, and it is genetically encoded - designed to perpetuate the species. That being said, if mama wants to protect her offspring in the best possible way, she should learn how to help her partner feel wanted, needed, and loved (you can tell her I said so). Babies fare best when their parents are a strong team and the family unit remains a loving and healthy environment.
The second potential pitfall that dads face is feeling rejected by their child. Sometimes, infants can wind up extremely attached to mom and detached from dad. This situation can arise for several reasons. Some dads are initially not very comfortable handling babies - baby senses the anxiety - dad finds it easier to clean and cook and let mom take care of the bathing, comforting, etc. By the time he is comfortable, baby may have gotten too used to mom. Another scenario resulting in strong attachments to mom occurs when baby is extra needy in some kind of way. When my husband and I were preparing for parenthood, our plan was for me to go back to work and for him to be the primary caregiver. That fantasy came to a halting crash soon after our baby was born. When it was time for baby to exit, he really didn't want to come out. After a lot of coaxing and getting the boot from the doctor, he exited.
But it was clear that he was not ready to face the world, and he wound up being extremely sensitive to sound and to other sensory experience. When he wasn't out of sorts, he was happy to hang out dad. But once his internal system was not feeling right - my rhythm of cuddling and rocking was the only one that could comfort him (it makes sense - he had gotten used to my rhythm for 9 months, and it just 'felt like home'). If he happened to be with dad when he needed a little extra comfort, he let dad know that he didn't want to have anything to do with him. Dad felt pretty rejected, and soon realized that it would be a lot of hard work to cultivate the kind of bond that develops from 9 months of 'kangaroo' carrying. He quickly found out that he had to go back to work immediately, if not sooner! In retrospect, this situation could have been averted if we had known what you new parents are now discovering - S2S (Skin to Skin).
One form of S2S known as Kangaroo Care has been used with preemies for years - with amazing results. Babies that are held and massaged several times a day leave intensive care much earlier than those that are treated the old school way of being left to develop in their incubators.
There's something about the physical warmth and connection that helps infants feel secure and thrive. Outside of neonatal care, S2S is the practice of keeping babies lying on the bare chest of a warm body for extended periods of time. Although this is common practice for moms and newborns, many brilliant men are joining in this practice by taking their shirts off and hanging out with baby on their chest (don't worry - I don't think that you have to shave your chest). Many men take time off work and continue this practice for weeks and even months! S2S solidifies the bond between dad and baby, and makes it more likely that dad will be only be a nose hair away from mom in terms of ability to comfort. Regardless, having an infant lying on your chest is an experience like no other - and one you won't want to miss if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity. A perfect fathers day present!
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