Friday, June 17, 2005

Dads are no longer the 'assistant parent' - The Boston Globe

Some good dad talk in ink in Boston.
Dads are no longer the 'assistant parent' - The Boston Globe
By Barbara F. Meltz

Matt Miller of Ashland is the father of 20-month-old Aaron. Sure, he's also the happily married husband of Jennifer, he's an attentive son, and a respected first-grade teacher. First and foremost, though, he's Aaron's dad.

''Thinking about Aaron is where my mind goes when it doesn't have to be someplace else,' he says.

Miller, 34, had the good fortune to become a father at a time when society accepts, encourages, and values dads' involvement. Like many of his peers, he's just as likely as his wife to feed, bathe, or diaper the baby; to take his turn waking up in the middle of the night or staying home when Aaron is sick. Recently, he was supposed to meet an old friend for dinner and a beer, but cancelled at the last minute because Aaron was vomiting. It was another sign of the times that his buddy gave him only a one-sentence, half-hearted hard time about it.

''People just get it,' Miller says."

More of the article in the comments.


Anonymous said...

This is a dramatic change, most obvious in labor and delivery rooms, where 80 percent of dads today are present for the birth compared with 15 percent 20 years ago. Anecdotally, pediatrician and author Harvey Karp says there are more fathers on playgrounds and in pediatricians' offices. His books, ''The Happiest Baby/Toddler on the Block" (Bantam), are available on DVD, a purposeful effort to draw in dads. Even baby-product marketing is just as likely today to feature a father as a mother, a sure sign of acceptance of fathers' roles. Developmental psychologist Michael Lamb, a professor at Cambridge University in England, says, ''When I started doing research on fathers in the 1970s, the majority of men I studied had never bathed a baby or changed a diaper. You simply won't find that today."
 Tips box: The daily dad
There are plenty of reasons for the change: Couples are waiting longer to have children and being more thoughtful about their parenting; economics dictates that both parents work, making it only fair that both be involved; and research continues to show developmental benefits to a child from having two involved parents.
Just because it's more acceptable, however, doesn't mean it's easy. For the Millers, there's tons of conversation, including over what Jennifer concedes are ''stupid" things, like when she doesn't like what Matt dresses Aaron in.
''I can't help myself," she says. ''Everything has to match."
You mean. . .?
''Yes. I'll say, 'Go back upstairs. You have to change him.' And he will."
Clearly, that has more to do with the give-and-take in their relationship than with Aaron's well-being, but that counts, too, and for meatier parenting issues, Jennifer bites her tongue to avoid undermining Matt as a parent. ''Aaron's at the age where he has temper tantrums, and I would really like to be the one to handle them, even though I know that what works for me isn't the only way to do it. I have to resist the urge to say, 'Honey, I'll handle it.' "

Anonymous said...

That she does says volumes about what may separate the Millers from other new parents. They know that coparenting is a partnership, that sharing in decision-making and responsibility-taking also requires a commitment to put in the time and energy to constantly retool.

''Success in coparenting boils down to how open couples are to a continuing dialogue," says developmental psychologist Michael Lamb, a professor at Cambridge University in England. ''When a situation comes along, do you just stumble along or do you discuss what's happening and what you each want?" He is author of ''The Role of the Father in Child Development, 4th edition" (Wiley).

Even when couples agree to be partners, ''There are plenty of dads who end up feeling more like an assistant parent, the gofer who follows mom's orders," says Jerrold Lee Shapiro, a counseling psychologist and professor at Santa Clara University in California.

Often, he says, ''a mother can't walk the talk." What she thought she'd want during pregnancy in terms of shared access to the baby doesn't feel good once the baby is in her arms. Here's a typical scenario, says Shapiro:

''Mom's tired, dad offers to take over. Mom watches from the doorway while he diapers. He fumbles. Which is the front, which is the back? Mom makes a small sound in the back of her throat. It scares the heck out of dad and the baby. She rushes over. She comforts baby and secures the diaper 'properly.' And she puts herself in prison for the rest of her life."

 Tips box: The daily dad
What he means is that a determined, confident dad may try again. But a dad who feels inadequate is likely to back off; he may even feel relieved. So now dad is an assistant parent, at least in his head, setting up a psychological and emotional pattern that can last for years, sometimes building resentment for both mom and dad.

Shapiro often tells mothers, ''There is no gene for diapering."

Yale University researcher and child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett is a little more tactful: ''We haven't done enough to help women understand that the differences between a father's style and a mother's doesn't mean your child is at risk. It just means the styles are different." Indeed, research shows that the combination of exposure to mom's and dad's differing styles is what contributes to a child's healthy development. Pruett, a researcher on fathers' involvement, is author of ''Fatherneed, Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for your Child" (Broadway).

''When a mother picks up an infant," says Shapiro, ''she rolls the baby into her breast and provides comfort, warmth, and security. A father picks up a baby and positions him either facing him, looking over his shoulder or facing out to the world. That provides the notion of freedom and interaction. Together, as a package, that's spectacular." Similarly, when mom plays with a toddler, she lets him tell her what to do. That supports his creativity and self-esteem. When dad plays, he typically directs the play: ''I'll throw, you catch." That teaches teamwork.

Pruett's research shows that when a father is involved (including in divorced families), benefits to children include: higher grade completion and eventual income; increased math competency in girls and high literacy rates for boys; greater competence in problem-solving; more empathy and moral sensitivity; less likelihood of engaging in gender stereotyping. New studies indicate that a father's early involvement reduces the likelihood of child abuse.

So what does an involved dad look like?

''It's a father who knows his child's favorite music and her favorite foods and who her friends are. They have 'in' jokes between them and he knows what will make her happy or sad, and how to cheer her up," says Pruett. ''It's a father who holds on to his kids emotionally, even when he is not with them."

Miller dismisses the notion that his wife ''is the real parent" no matter how involved he might be as a dad. ''Are there things she's better at than I am? Absolutely, but the reverse is also true. Do I lack confidence in some of what I do? Sure, but it's been the other way around, too."

''I think I'm typical in that I have the desire to be completely involved," he says. ''I'm atypical in the sense that I'm actually doing it."