As a dad you’re vital to the early development of your child – before you're even a dad!
Gender might be a weird, ill-defined and sprawling construct, but then so is the Great Wall of China and you can see it from space.
Some constructs endure, whether or not they’re innate, or healthy, or sacked by Mongols in the 13th Century.
Parenting is gender’s Ground Zero. So it’s no surprise that when bumps turn into babies, the concept of distinct gender roles is particularly flinty and stubborn.
Whether by accident or design, mums are better than dads at many things. Gestation and breastfeeding, especially, and wiping toddlers’ faces with spat-on hankies from a purse.
This is all beyond the father’s remit; you don’t have a womb, boobs (milk-providing ones, anyway) or a purse (not that there is anything wrong with carrying a purse. Ha! Don’t carry a purse).
But mothers are typically also more attuned to empathy; possessing an innate softness, attuned to a certain nurturing instinct.
In everyday terms, this might mean offering sympathy (“Oh, poor baby… Let Mummy kiss it better”), where a father might offer something more stoic (“Ha! Well you won’t do that again”) or practical (“I told you not to carry a purse”).
Even as it’s moved with the times, Mum’s job has remained pretty well defined.
But what about Dad?
Fatherhood is still a distinct and important function. The Great Wall endures. (See it from space!) But its component parts have evolved much faster – ramparts added, materials updated, brickwork replaced.
“A generation or so ago, the role of fathers was more narrowly defined,” says Dr Louis Weiss, of the Alliance for Early Childhood.
“Dad ‘brought home the bacon,’ as the family’s main provider, was seen as the disciplinarian (‘Just wait until your father gets home!’), and would take time to play when he could.
“But times have changed and fathers, for the most part, are more involved in raising their children —even their very young children.”
Basically, dads these days are a lot more hands-on, and a mounting pile of evidence is proving this can have profoundly positive long-term effects on kids lives, from lessening the chances of drug and alcohol abuse, to vastly enhancing social skills, reducing depression and increasing confidence.
In fact, science now tells us that a father’s impact on his kids future begins long before his role as a dad — back when your future children are still just tiny little sperm, swimming around in your balls.
Dad’s role in a nutsack
Studies have shown that Dad’s pre-ejaculatory eating habits can affect Junior’s health later in life, with a high-fat diet increasing bub’s chances of diabetes, while low-nutrient intake boosts the incidence of neurological and physical disorders, including some cancers.
So, if you’re planning to pop one past the keeper anytime soon, plot your calories, for your future baby’s sake.
But you’re on this site, so it’s probably too late…
Dads matter, even in those first few weeks
Once bub is born, you really need to engage with him (or her). You must insist on engaging (even if your missus resists), for the purposes of bonding; no negotiation entered into.
As a dad, you can easily fool yourself into thinking there’s not much you can do with a newborn, because they’re so dependent on mum. It can be tempting to sit safely on the sidelines, cooking and cleaning and doing all the non-baby related tasks, until they get a little bigger.
This is complete BS! There is so much you can do, including, but by no means limited to, holding, changing, bathing, soothing, swaying and singing to sleep (tip: Metallica works surprisingly well).
They seem mundane, but all these little acts of care add up to one massively important connection in your baby’s blossoming brain: that you, kind giant, are its dad! A separate, non-milk producing, but equally important parent, that can be relied upon in times of need.
Unless that need is hunger.
But even that can be solved with a decent breast pump or tin of formula.
Dad Pro Tip: Even if your missus is breast feeding, it’s a good idea to feed your baby from a bottle sometimes — starting very early on — just to get them used to it.
This will significantly reduce the nightmare/ heartache/ soul destroying distress that will befall you both if mum is ever unwell, needs to leave the baby alone with you, or you both need to leave the baby alone with parents/in-laws etc. for more than a few hours, anytime, ever, in the first few months.
Dads matter, even when they go back to work
One of the suckiest parts about becoming a dad, is that — except for a few lucky SAHDs — mum stays home and brings in the milk, while you go out and bring home the bacon.
At least for the first few months while the little nipper has no teeth.
Now if you can afford it, you should absolutely take as much time off as possible when the baby is born, for all the reasons listed here.
But when inevitably, (and all too soon), the day comes that you must go back to work, take solace in the fact that your baby learns from you, even when you’re not there:
“Babies soon become aware that fathers simply aren’t around as much as mothers; they seem to pop up here and there at odd times. When the father is there, he matters, but in ways that are different from mother.” says Kyle Pruett, Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale.
“Through these experiences, babies start to learn from their fathers about comings and goings, transitions, separations, and loving, but non-maternal, nurturing. The father is thus a perfect resource for help in differentiating one’s own self from one’s own mother’s self.”
This is why, it’s argued, many toddlers turn decisively to their fathers in their second year. They’re practising their own autonomy. It’s a step towards not remaining, well, a mummy’s boy.
You Da Man!
However you make that slippery definition… purse or no purse…. Your baby can differentiate between both parents at just two months.
“Even very young infants experience men as different from mothers in smell, size, style, feel, sound, and overall presence,” says Pruett.
As far back as 1981, studies showed that relaxing infants responded differently to mother’s or father’s approach.
In anticipation of mum picking them up, babies settled, slowed their heart-rate and breathing and partially closed their eyes.
When dad approached? Bubs hunched their shoulders and widened their eyes, and their respiratory and heart rates quickened.
In a nutshell, Mum calms. Dad gets them excited.
Which is why your missus sometimes loses the rag with you for simply walking in the room or looking in the baby’s general direction when she’s trying to settle them.
“No eye contact – you’re getting him all worked up!”.
Dad’s influence is indubitable
“They also use a very different vocabulary with their children, often using complicated words where mothers tend to adjust their language down. This helps to broaden the child’s vocabulary.”
You’re important, though, no matter how monosyllabic your vocabulary – or what variety of bloke you are.
“Nurturing men can be quiet, loud, strong, ascetic, thoughtful, or action-oriented,” says Pruett. “What is important is that they want to be in the lives of young children.”
“In a young child who has not felt some form of masculine nurture, the hunger for a paternal presence can be insatiable.”
If you don’t give it to them, they may chase it for life.
END NOTE: Some people will tell you that being able to see the Wall from space is a myth, because even from low-earth orbit it is hard to identify with the naked eye. These people are both pedants and fools, because you can see from space – that’s what spy satellites are for. If you have breakfast on the patio, the CIA can tell what brand of cornflakes you favour. And also, you’ve managed to make it into orbit, so presumably you’re not limited to peering with your goddamn naked eyes – which, if so, will be being sucked from your skull like in Total Recall.