Don't Make The Same Mistake I Did: Here's How To Empower Your Partner To Be An Involved Parent
A few weeks after our daughter was born, my husband suddenly decided to take up both long-distance cycling and training for triathlons (which caused him to, literally, run away). His new hobbies were the source of endless jokes with my fellow moms (huh, it’s so amazing that he chose to get in shape at this particular moment!).
After we did couples therapy, I viewed his fitness bonanza a little differently. During one session, Tom confessed to me that he felt completely overwhelmed and intimidated around the baby. As it turns out, I wasn’t helping matters: When he tried to bathe or dress her, I’d hover over him, rolling my eyes and critiquing his performance—or worse, just grabbing the baby and doing it myself. This behavior, widespread among new moms, is called maternal gatekeeping, when mothers limit or control dads' interactions with the baby. I realized I was doing it all the time—and as a consequence, Tom slowly withdrew.
How I wish I had involved him from the get-go. Not only did Tom miss out on many of the sweet, everyday moments of our baby’s first year, but she got shortchanged, too. Studies show that babies with invested dads are more confident in new situations and more emotionally secure, and recent U.K. research found that babies learn faster if their fathers engage with them in the first few months of life.
Don't make the mistake I did. Here is how to empower your fellow parent to be a strong, involved partner.
Encourage your partner to make skin-on-skin contact.
When a baby is born, a doctor or doula will often put her or him on the mom’s bare chest to encourage bonding—but fathers should do this, too. A review of a dozen studies found that when fathers cuddle their infants skin-to-skin, the babies cried less and were more easily comforted. The dads, meanwhile, had higher levels of oxytocin (the bonding hormone), lower stress levels, and even a better relationship with the mother.
Make your partner part of the daily routine.
When fathers are actively involved in everyday life stuff such as diapering and dinner, their kids benefit enormously, having advantages like greater brain development and better problem-solving skills. Set up some regular jobs that your partner can do from day one, whether that's bathing, laundry, or singing a bedtime song. If you breastfeed, you can still include him: Put the baby in your partner's arms after nursing so they can help get them back to sleep. If you do a combination of breast and bottle, have your partner assume bottle duty as much as possible; if you’re a stay-at-home parent and your partner works, see if your partner can do nighttime feedings on the weekends. At the very least, they can be Burp Master.
If your partner is feeding the baby, be mindful of maternal gatekeeping ("hello, wipe her chin!"). Step away. Let your partner figure it out. Even better: Let them figure it out while you leave the house completely. As sex therapist Esther Perel told me, "Go out! Go see your friends! Your child will not die! Your husband is not a nincompoop!"
She’s right: It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to change a diaper (although admittedly, it does take a while to master the 9,000 snaps on a onesie). If you find yourself about to criticize the way he’s caring for the baby, ask yourself this game-changing question: Is he doing it the wrong way or simply doing it his way? And he just may find a better method of doing things: Tom discovered that if he stuck a burp cloth on the baby’s lounger, he didn’t need to wash the cover every time she spit up—he just whisked in another burp cloth. Done!
Never assume that your partner "won't be interested."
Not long ago, I was texting with a bunch of mom friends about something funny that happened on the playground. When Tom asked me why I was cackling, I waved him away. "Oh, you won't be interested," I said breezily. Then I stopped myself: Why did I do that? It’s his child. Of course he’s interested.
The more you involve your partner, the more invested in your baby he becomes. Forward your partner baby-related articles, solicit their opinion, and do it often so you avoid the dispiriting dynamic in which you’re the expert and your partner is the apprentice. Ask your partner if they're interested in taking a movement or exercise class with the baby (many places are doing away with the tired "Mommy and Me" moniker and just calling it "Parent and Me"). And cc your partner on all baby-related email—playdates, classes, pediatrician appointments.
Have your partner run errands with the baby.
Little ones love rituals and routines, so look for ways that your partner can incorporate the baby into daily life, such as bringing them in a carrier during errands (plus, research shows babies are soothed by movement). Most babies love to be out and about, while your partner gets a little company on an otherwise tedious trip to pick up the dry cleaning.
And the more silly games and jokes that your partner can share with the baby (such as the old "wearing a diaper as a hat" gag), the better. Studies show that in straight couples, dads are more likely to be a baby’s play partner than mom, and the play tends to be more boisterous—which encourages the baby to be more confident and exploratory.
All of your partner's participation will pay off hugely as your baby grows, with benefits lasting years—and in some cases, decades. If your partner is a father, fathers report greater life satisfaction and their kids are more likely to earn A's in school and less likely to indulge in risky behaviors when they’re teens.
Of course, you’ll benefit, too: While your partner and the baby are off bonding together, you can take a shower in peace. Win-win.
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