A Dad's Way isn't the Wrong Way: It's Just Different
This post is about new dads, but it's actually addressed to new moms, in honour of Father's Day. Consider it my attempt to restore a bit of peace and understanding to that perilous territory known as the postpartum couple relationship.
Here's where I'm coming from. Almost every parent I know has not-so-fond memories of at least one post-baby relationship meltdown: terrible words uttered to a beloved in the middle of the night as a result of sleep deprivation and simply not understanding what the person on the other side of the bed has been going through at the same time that your own postpartum world has been being rocked.
That's why I was so excited when I learned about this study -- a study that has the potential to help bridge the gap of misunderstanding that can make new moms and dads feel like roommates (distant roommates who don't even like one another) so often during baby's first year. It's a horrible, lonely experience to feel out of synch with your partner at the very time when you crave his or her love and support most.
This groundbreaking study seeks to explain a mystery that has frustrated and angered many a new mom: why it is that some dads eagerly embrace fatherhood right from day one while others seem determined to leave the bulk of the baby-care tasks to their partners.
According to research conducted at Ohio State University and published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, in many cases, we moms have to accept some of the responsiblity for driving new dads away at the very same time that we desperately want and need their help with all things baby. What the researchers describe as "maternal gatekeeping behaviors" (a mother's efforts to control access to her baby out of a deep-rooted desire to protect and nurture her child) play a large part in determining how hands-on or hands-off a new dad ends up being with their baby.
Here's how this study worked. The researchers involved in this study surveyed 97 couples at two separate intervals: prenatally and when their babies were three-and-a-half months old. They also evaluated videotaped footage of the couples while they were interacting with their babies. The prenatal survey focused on each partner's beliefs about the roles fathers should play in caring for children. The early parenthood survey focused on maternal gatekeeping behaviors (the extent to which the mother encouraged or discouraged her partner's efforts to be involved with the baby through the feedback she provided about his baby-care abilities), the degree to which fathers were involved in baby-care tasks, and the amount of parental conflict over parenting and baby care issues. The videotaped footage allowed the researchers to assess how the couple shared baby-care tasks and how fathers interacted with their babies.
The researchers discovered that fathers were more likely to choose to be actively involved in baby-care if they received encouraging feedback about their fathering abilities from their partners. The feedback didn't have to be verbal for fathers to become discouraged: a mom's body language frequently told a new dad everything he needed to know about her feelings about his fathering abilities -- and then some.
The study also revealed that even the most committed new father can lose his motivation to be actively involved with baby-care tasks if he receives a lot of negative feedback. Fathers who had expressed a strong commitment to being actively involved with baby-care tasks when they were surveyed prior to the births of their babies were just as likely to become discouraged by negative feedback and gatekeeping behaviors and to become less involved with baby-care tasks as other new fathers receiving reactions from their partners.
The takeaway message from this research is clear: maternal gatekeeping behaviors seriously undermine the confidence of new dads, causing dads to beat a hasty retreat from what they begin to perceive as dad-unfriendly turf. This quickly creates a no-win strategy for mom, dad, and baby.
So what's the alternative? Everyone fares better when new moms give new dads the time and space needed to figure out their own ways of comforting a baby, changing a diaper on the go, and mastering all the other early-parenting essentials.
Dad's way won't be mom's way, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong way. It's just different, that's all.
And vive la difference.