Being a Father is a Hands-On Job
written by Tom McGee, L.C.S.W.
Having grown up in a family in which my mother was responsible for all the child-rearing activities and my father was responsible for bringing home the paycheck, I knew I wanted to be more involved in my children’s care when they were born than my father had been with me and my siblings. However, having had no experience caring for infants, I had a lot to learn. I was fortunate enough to have married a woman who had lots of experience caring for her younger siblings. Because of this, she knew how to care for an infant. She also had lots of backup from her mother and aunts. My wife took on the role of teacher when it came to my learning how to care for our infant daughter. I had to take on the role of the beginner and student. These roles threw our relationship into a disrupted state at times because we had married with the idea of being equal partners. It was very humbling in the beginning to take on this subordinate role as I learned how to change a diaper, bathe and dress my daughter, and feed her and burp her.
As time progressed, I soon became an expert in all these baby care activities. I became accustomed to getting up at least once a night, changing my daughter’s diaper, and bringing her to my wife to nurse. Then I would burp her and take her back to her crib. Later on, when my wife was expressing her milk, I would take care of an entire episode of night feeding while my wife slept. I learned how to be awake for forty-five minutes, then go back to sleep.
I am very glad that I stayed with my determination to begin my relationship with my two daughters in this hands-on way. I realize that my interaction with them as infants began our relationships in an intimate way that could not have happened if I had left all of those baby care “chores” to my wife. In changing their diapers, I was given the opportunity to let my daughters feel my touch, know my voice, to interact and begin developing a relationship. This was our special relationship. No matter how closely I followed my wife’s instructions on how to perform these tasks, I did them differently. The cadence of my voice, the way I touched them, and the rhythm with which I moved was different than their mother’s. They had an experience of me rooted in their senses from the beginning of their lives.
In addition to giving them this experience of me, I began to learn, from the very beginning, who they were and who they were becoming. I fell in love with them, not from an abstract principle of fatherhood, but from experiencing their unique responses to my ministrations. I saw that when I came into a room where they were, they instantly recognized who I was. They responded, out of their growing love for me, with expressions of satisfaction or happiness and sometimes outstretched arms.
This two-way love affair that I developed with my daughters is sometimes called “bonding.” Bonding has been written about and talked about extensively among those concerned with child care and family development. It is a term that has been used so much that there is confusion about what it actually means and what it looks like. As my daughters grew beyond the stage of infancy, this bonding took on visible form in my playing with them on the floor or on the ground, feeding them meals, watching their favorite television shows and movies with them, going to the beach together, hiking, camping, discussing and occasionally assisting with homework, attending their volleyball and softball games, learning about their friends, and being there for school conferences and graduations. The less visible form of this bonding arose in the feelings we have felt for each other—fondness, frustration, caring, apprehension, anger, pride, and above all, love. All of these feelings and our accumulated experiences with each other comprise the bonds that we share today, now that they are thirty-one and thirty-three years old.
In my therapy practice, I have worked with many people who have complained that they never bonded with their fathers. This was a terrible lack in their lives. It left a hunger and a hole in their lives that could never be completely repaired. Some of them have gotten some of what they missed from me and from important men in their lives. I have heard heart-warming stories about the power of a grandfather, an uncle, a coach, or family friend providing some of this very important experience of bonding with an older male. But for many, the fact of missing their fathers never completely went away. Listening to their stories, I am painfully aware that, often, this hole first came into existence during infancy, when their father was, for whatever reason, not very involved in their care.
I have also worked with many fathers who lamented the lack of bonding with their children. They are often confused and hurt by the fact that their children have little or no interest in them. This state of affairs usually has many roots, not all of which begin in infancy. Sometimes it grows out of differences with the mother, conflicts about child-rearing practices, separation and divorce, absence due to work, and other sources. It is usually possible for fathers to become more involved with their children at any stage, as long as both fathers and children are willing and open to exploring new ways of understanding and developing their relationship. However, I would suggest that creating the bond in the very beginning is the best way to establish a foundation of relationship that can last throughout life.
For families with fathers, research has shown that, when fathers are intimately involved with the care and raising of their children, both the children and the fathers live better lives. What better way could there be to enhance and improve your life as a man and your children’s lives than by beginning with a hands-on approach to fatherhood?