Nowadays, most of us want to be hands on dads. But what if your missus blocks you from getting in on the action?
My grandfather was in the Taree Golf Club when my mum was born. The hospital called the club, who announced that he’d had a daughter over the clubhouse PA after he’d finished his 18 holes.
He didn’t particularly like golf, I think, or at least, he didn’t play it much in his later years; it was just something men of his generation would do automatically if the chance arose – like singing Brylcreem jingles on the toilet, or mowing the nature strip, or punching Hitler.
This parental absenteeism-from-scratch wasn’t considered unusual at the time. Indeed, if he’d tried to insist upon being in the delivery ward, old Kenny Mac would have been seen as a total weirdo — an unhinged and generally suspect oddball who probably drank white wine or cried during films or baked quiche/ate quiche/knew what quiche was.
Times have changed. And for the better.
Well, mostly for the better.
There are certainly moments during the arrival of my firstborn which weren’t the awe-inspiring carnival of planetary realignment I’d expected.
Almost all of it, actually – the 17 hours of contractions, for example, which were frustrating, because your beloved is in rhythmically increasing pain, but also dull, because, well, 17 hours is a long time to wince sympathetically and pat someone’s arm.
She’d have been no worse off and I’d certainly have been happier watching Dr Who at the nurse’s station. But the moment of birth, by caesarean, was colossal – my son hauled from a small neat wound, becoming boundless in size as soon as he appeared, larger than the moon.
A thousand times bigger on the outside like a shouty pink anti-TARDIS. Make no mistake: I am very pleased that I – like upwards of 85 per cent of modern blokes – was in the room. It was magical.
These days, it’s not wanting to attend the birth that makes you the weirdo.
Likewise, after the birth, men are now overwhelmingly expected to pitch in – to make formula, sterilise bottles, give baths; anything and everything that comes with nudging your sprog through the exhausting rigours of its arrival.
To opt out would invite howling derision, firstly from your baby mother, then her circle of Facebook friends, and then, before you know it, the Twitter- and blogospheres. Refuse to change nappies and soon Mia Freedman will be on Sunrise burning your photo like Sinead O’Connor did with the Pope.
But societal pressures aside, most men embrace the modern role of ‘hands on’ dad. We want to be to be more involved in our kids lives than our own fathers were, and now, for the most part, we can be.
A 2014 report from America’s National Center for Health Statistics revealed that nine out of 10 men now regularly change diapers and two in three read to their kids “at least several times” a week.
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, modern dads spend an average of 13 hours a week caring for their kids – a fraction of an average mum’s 28 weekly hours, but still significant.
Beware of gatekeeper mums
But what about when mum doesn’t want help? When dad – apropos of no wider relationship problems – is sidelined by a mum who always knows best.
A mum who refuses to let pops take on more responsibility – mostly because he doesn’t do it like she does.
What about then?
As far back as 2006, Time Magazine was reporting on the phenomenon of ‘Gatekeeper Moms’.
“Even when their husband insists he’s more than willing,” wrote social reporter Po Bronson, “a lot of moms are having trouble letting go of the pram.”
“As many as a quarter of all new moms are actually blocking their husbands’ attempts at involved fathering. These ‘Gatekeeper Moms’ give mixed signals — they beg their husbands to get the kid dressed, then are hypercritical over the choice of outfit he puts the baby in.
They leave long lists of instructions whenever going out, as if Dad’s a new babysitter. Or they demand their husbands tackle half the duties, yet they resent it when Dad asks to be an equal partner in critical decisions.”
How to muscle in
So, you’ve made time to help – that’s the first step. Work will be there forever, tragically, whereas your kid’s infancy will shoot by like Winx on a monorail.
Most mums will gladly let you step up, if with a few nervous, supervisory glances at first.
But if she’s struggling to relinquish control, you may need a more tactful approach.
First: Arm yourself with statistics.
Australian research shows that hands-on dads – those who spend 18 hours or more tending for bub each week – are the happiest fathers. And she wants you to be happy… Doesn’t she?
But it’s not just for your sake. Does she know that children whose fathers are more positively engaged with them at the age of three months have fewer behavioural problems at the age of twelve months?
Or that kids with hands-on dads are more likely to have higher IQs?
Or that Australian parenting experts agree letting dads be more hands on is just all-round, hands down better for everyone, including mum?
Of course she doesn’t. Because if she did she’d be throwing the baby at you, begging you to take on more responsibility. Right?
Second: Recognise her concerns as legitimate, and work to ease them.
For example, you could bring to her attention that, once they’re tough enough, the sort of rough-and-tumble play you do with your little tyke is actually a crucial part of their healthy physical, emotional and social development.
It can provide “a real-world opportunity for a child to observe and practise important social skills such as recognising emotions, suppressing impulse and aggression, and sustaining reciprocal play”, says researcher, Jennifer St George, of the University of Newcastle in NSW.
Lastly: If she’s still proving stubborn – ask yourself – are you being consistent?
“Men need to recognize that their cherry-picking and piecemeal volunteering doesn’t allow her to let her guard down,” wrote Bronson, a decade ago. “What’s really at issue here is her lack of trust in his commitment.”
Professor Sarah M. Allen, of Brigham Young University, says that to make progress, “he can’t be a token Dad”. Offering to get his daughter dressed one morning ain’t enough; he needs to say, “I’ll not only dress her today, I’ll dress her every day.”
“When he acknowledges how important this reliability is, he’ll gain her trust.”
Be careful what you wish for. You could be playing golf.