Getting a Father to Help More with the Baby

Getting a Father to Help More with the Baby

“It’s been three months since the baby was born, but my husband still holds her like she was made of nitroglycerine and gives her back to me as soon as he can. He avoids changing diapers by saying that he’s no good at it because she always cries – no wonder, since he’s a little rough and awkward – and heaven help us if I want him to walk her so I can get a little sleep. When I get irritated, he tries to joke it all away by saying things like, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get more involved when she can throw a ball.'”

Ah, yes, we know the type! Many new fathers – not all, to be sure – love their children enormously . . . but from a safe distance. Studies have found that the average mother is working about twenty hours a week more than her partner is – doing one task or another – whether or not she’s drawing a paycheck.

OK, so we all know that it’s important for a dad to help with the baby. But how do you accomplish that, especially if his idea of childcare is putting her in a motorized swing while he watches Sportscenter?

Involve Him in the Pregnancy

Getting help from the father starts during your pregnancy. Since he’s observing more from the outside, it’s extra important to look for little, doable ways to strengthen his sense of connection with his child:

  • Bring him to appointments with the OB-GYN – especially if you’re having a sonogram.
  • Talk about your hopes for family life. Make them concrete, imagining a typical day with a three-month-old, or when she’s one or two years old.
  • Ask about any concerns he has, like not knowing what to do with a little one. Reassure him that he’ll be a great dad, that just like he’s learned to be successful at his work he’ll learn to be skillful with a baby.
  • Discuss in advance his involvement in routine care of the baby. Walk through typical situations – like feeding, changing diapers, settling a fussy baby, or whose lap a squirmy toddler sits on in a restaurant or airplane (!) – and ask him what he plans to do.
  • Be honest and realistic about the help you expect from him and what you want your roles to be. Explain the reasons why, in terms of the benefits to his child, to himself, to you, and to your marriage. Don’t be afraid to make it a matter of principle, of simple fair play:
    “Raising our precious child is just as important as bringing home a paycheck – maybe more so. If I’m doing dishes (or changing a diaper or reading a story or putting the baby to sleep or . . . ) why should you be watching TV?”
  • Sometimes you’ve just got to assert yourself. Keep remembering that you’re doing so for the sake of your child, and that fairness is on your side. Don’t be afraid to be blunt, like: “How would you feel about someone at work who doesn’t pull his weight? Or someone who promises to help but keeps avoiding it?”
  • Ask third parties, such as your OB-GYN, birth educator, or trusted family friend to give him a “second opinion” about how important it will be to the baby (and to you and the marriage!) for him to be really involved and helpful.

Once the Baby Arrives

  • Have confidence in his fundamental ability to be a parent. Hundreds of studies have shown that a father is just as able to parent with love and skill as a mother.
  • Encourage him. Be supportive (though not patronizing) if he is learning a new skill or doing something uncomfortable. You could self-disclose about ways you, too, have occasionally felt a little klutzy.
  • Acknowledge him. Admit it when his way worked even though it was different from yours, or when you learned something from him. Emphasize what you appreciate about his parenting rather than what you wish were different.
  • Understand the whole picture before jumping in. Otherwise, you might make a mistake.
  • Don’t micro-manage. Don’t be controlling, dogmatic, or self-righteous about small matters. That way, you’ll be more credible when you discuss the big ones, and your partner will probably feel less defensive. If he puts an orange top and purple pants on the baby, maybe you should just smile to yourself and let it go.
  • When you do offer suggestions, be respectful and specific. Give a positive idea of what he could do rather than what he should not do. Try to filter out any implicit criticisms or commands in what you say.
  • It’s alright for you to take the lead. He is probably entering a flow of activities that you’ve been managing, and he’s just being a good team player when he asks you, the quarterback, what the play is. It’s OK to tell him at the time what you’d like him to do. Later on, you could talk about similar situations in the future and figure out what he could do in them without you having to say anything.
  • Arrange for him to have lots of experiences with the kids. Let him be the one who handles a fussy baby from start to finish or tries to get a toddler to eat some carrots. Direct the kids to him sometimes. Try to arrange for him to spend extended times alone with the children, such as an entire evening from dinner to bed, or better yet, a full day or two.
  • When there’s a meeting with the pediatrician or a teacher, try to have your husband come, perhaps by emphasizing that the person wants to talk with both parents. In the meeting, try to have roughly half of the conversation be with the father. For example, if a doctor speaks mainly to you, shift your gaze to your partner, sending a nonverbal signal to the doctor to do the same. If the professional asks a question, encourage your husband to answer by looking at him and remaining silent, or simply smiling and asking, “What do you think?

Time Is on Your Side

Even if it’s rocky during the first few years, most dads naturally become more involved as their kids get older – and yes, more able to catch a ball. Plus if you keep at it, and keep asking for what the baby and you and your marriage need, most men will respond. Maybe not perfectly or all the time, but usually with a steady improvement.

Plus the endless tasks of caring for a little one do diminish. Amazingly, there finally comes a time when you no longer have to change a single diaper. Really!

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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