Dear Dr. Debbie,
I happen to have one of those husbands who thinks it’s my job, and my job alone, to take care of and entertain our 2-year-old. Yes, he works full time and I’m the rare stay-at-home Mom, but still…. When I see other dads out in public, feeding a baby at the food court, pushing a swing at the playground, helping a little one check out a library book, I feel resentful. Is there any way to get him to participate more? I know this is affecting me in a negative way. Is there something our daughter is missing by not having her father more involved in her day to day life?
Seems Like I’m On My Own
Don’t miss last week’s column Hold that baby — Good Parenting
The question of how to involve fathers has been a topic among preschool educators for at least 40 years. Moms with fulltime jobs were not far behind. In that era, women were actively seeking equal pay for comparable qualifications and responsibilities, and ever since, dads have been slowly finding their footing as equal partners in parenting. Statistically, the traditional family structure of mom-at-home and dad-at-work has been drastically transformed in two generations. During the course of this cultural change, the obvious benefits of having fathers more involved in child rearing have been well-researched.
Benefits include reduced family stress since mom gets a break, more stimulation for the children’s intellectual as well as physical development, and the long-range benefits of having another go-to parent for improved mental health throughout childhood.
So everyone wins if Dad plays a more hands-on role.
Let’s tackle the how-to’s.
We’re talking about breaking a long-held held attitude and adopting some unfamiliar behaviors, so think about optimal times of the day or week or month or even year for your husband. Is he fresh (or grumpy) in the morning? Relaxed (or keyed up) in the evening? Looking for something new and different on the weekends (or hankering to get away from responsibilities)? Does his occupation have monthly “crunches” or high and low seasonal demands? Some jobs, such as retail sales, see monthly deadlines that force overtime work or extra stress to meet quotas. End-of-year sales pushes can be even more stressful. If his work has anything to do with tax preparation, you’ve probably learned to give him a wide berth at the height of tax season.
You can’t be vague when asking someone to do something he has never done before. Use specific locations, visual descriptions, procedural steps, etc. So instead of “Please get something warm for her to wear” ask him to “Please bring down the yellow sweatshirt from the bottom drawer of her dresser. It’s to the left of her crib.” Don’t expect him to know how she likes it put on – crown first, then guide each hand to the armhole – until he’s actually ready for that next step.
Make It Success Proof
Make your request very minimal at first. (Yes, above we were just getting him familiar with where her clothes are kept!) I heard a traumatic tale of a new dad who relented to minding his 4-month-old so mom could attend a 2-hour meeting. The infant spiked a fever, fell into convulsions, was treated by an EMT and was not allowed to be left alone with dad again – by order of dad. We want your husband to experience self-congratulation such that he might more readily do this same task again, if not a slightly more difficult one.
Choose an Area of Interest or Expertise
If clothing is not his thing, maybe food, or furniture, or the yard, or the car, is. Choose a task related to his daughter that is so very close to something he might do for himself that he experiences only a modicum of discomfort or uncertainty. For example, if maintaining the yard is his thing, suggest that you’re thinking of getting a sandbox for the yard and ask his opinion between two possible locations. (I’m guessing you would be more likely to have thought through such factors as distance from the house so the sand falls off before re-entering, and proximity to the kitchen window for eventual sight-only supervision.)
Provide Role Models
If you’re in charge of hospitality, see that your guest lists often include families with more egalitarian parenting than your husband is comfortable with. Over time, he may catch on to this new wave of father-child engagement. Many celebrities nowadays are good examples of hands-on dads, so the media is already working on your behalf.
With the research to guide you, point out some of the many ways his daughter is already benefiting from his involvement. Relate the new words and phrases she has picked up from Daddy. Detail the ways she imitates his contributory behaviors around the house, such as wanting to off light switches when she leaves a room. Share how excited she was to know that Daddy was on his way home so she could share the day’s news with him. And later tell him how reviewing the day’s highlights for him was assuredly building neural connections making her that much smarter (which is what happens!).
Keep Realistic Expectations
While it would be nice if your husband was able to move well beyond his current comfort level, accept that your family’s roles are a bit behind the times. And do what the moms of the 1950’s did. Find other stay-at-home moms to share weekday time with. If they’re not easily found, join a babysitting co-op or Moms’ Club and recruit a good mommy friend from the group. Make use of hired sitters – teens or grandmother types – so you have time off for yourself or as a couple.
Take the realistic approach that an overhaul to your husband’s attitude from hands-off to being a sunblock wielding, boo boo kissing, lullaby-singing dad is not likely. And celebrate any baby steps he might make in the right direction.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com