A friend asked me the other day if I think it’s natural for dads to share care responsibilities. She was frustrated because her husband just didn’t seem to be attuned to their child’s needs and was concerned that he (the child) simply wasn’t getting cared for the way she felt he needed when he was with his dad.
The timing of her question was actually quite perfect because I am, coincidentally, just now working on a chapter on stay-at-home dads for my book on men opting out. I have mostly interviewed men who have opted out to opt in to other forms or approaches to work, but my data does also contain a few stay-at-home dads whose narratives are so interesting that I’m dedicating a whole chapter to them. It’s a very timely issue, what with initiatives to get men to share the care load and to take more parental leave when their children are young.
So the question is, is it natural for a man to be a caregiver, or even the main caregiver, of his children? One argument I sometimes hear (in addition to the one above that men just aren’t sensitive enough to children’s needs) as to why it isn’t is that in the animal kingdom it is often the female that cares for the young while the male goes off and does something else, whatever that may be, so shouldn’t it be the same with people. (Yes this is true, this is an argument I hear, although there are species where the male also cares for the offspring to different degrees. I’m no zoologist, but you can look this up.)
Let’s deal with this point first, and get one thing straight. We humans are our own species with our own social structures, rules and needs, so comparing us to other animals is not always helpful. In fact, according to Finnish child psychiatrist Jukka Mäkelä, one of the things that sets us apart form other species is that human infancy lasts much longer than it does for other species. This means that it takes much more physical, emotional and mental effort as well as time to care for human infants until they are big enough to feed themselves, actually walk, look out for themselves etc. than it does for other species’ offspring.
What this means in practice is that this is a lot to do for one person (i.e. the mother) and the work and responsibility should, in fact, be shared. Unfortunately our individualistic society with ideals like the nuclear family and mothers struggling alone to raise their children does not support this. However, our individualist ideals are not a natural human condition, they are social structures so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have trouble seeing alternative ways of life. But parenting has historically not always been organized or idealized the way it is today; caring has, for example, not always been done primarily by the mother.
So just because other animals organize their family life and care responsibilities in a certain way, it doesn’t mean humans should too.
Well then what about that first point, the one about men not being attentive enough and therefore being incompetent to properly care for children and their needs? Being attuned to a child’s needs is an acquired skill. Those of you women out there who have children probably remember that when your first baby was born the learning curve was quite steep. However, after spending a lot time with your child around clock you learned to both understand and anticipate your child’s needs, it became second nature. But still, it was a skill you acquired after becoming a mother.
Now, since women do the brunt of childcare and are the ones who take most or all of the available parental leave, this usually means that the father ends up not spending as much time with the child and therefore not acquiring the same skills. Hence we have the situation where moms feel that dads really aren’t very attentive, which they often aren’t because they haven’t had the chance to learn. Also, it needs to be noted that, growing up, girls are socially conditioned and taught to be attentive towards others’ needs and feelings, which is not something we as a society generally expect of boys.
However, research has shown – and I have seen this in my data too – that when a father gets a chance to spend a lot of time with his child, especially alone without the mother around (like being on parental leave), he learns to become attentive to the child’s needs and just like the mother learns to anticipate things before they even happen. This comes automatically from spending time with the child, but it doesn’t happen over night. Time is needed, and just like mothers learn to mother over time, fathers need a chance to learn to be the nurturing fathers they are very capable of being.
The upside to this newly acquired skill to be attentive and attuned to needs, is that fathers who gain this skill are not only more attentive towards their children (and develop very warm and close relationships with them), they also become more attentive towards other people, like their partners, which has a great positive effect on their relationships. In other words, this is really very good for the whole family.
And finally, I know of no father who has taken responsibility for the care of his children, either in my data set or elsewhere, who has regretted the close relationship and bond with his children that this caring has entailed. Children who have parents who share the load typically become very close to both (or all, depending on what kind of a family we’re talking about) parents.
So the answer to the question whether it is natural for fathers to take on responsibility for their children’s day-to-day care is yes! It is completely natural and it is desirable. Fathers should be around their children more and share the care load with their partners.
But, having said that, we mothers, who are concerned about the quality of care that our children get, also have to accept that everyone will not do things exactly the same way, nor should they. Everyone is bound to have their own ways of going about caring. The point is, however, that fathers need to be given a chance. And to the fathers out there I want to say, go for it, you won’t regret it!