When my son was very young, just months old, I told his Mum I wanted to have one day alone with him each week so that we would learn about on another.
She loved the idea, and why not? Not only did Dad get involved with his own child, but it gave Mum a day off.
However, the theory sounded great, the wrinkles revealed themselves more in the practice. The very first Saturday that was declared to be Dad-son time, she hovered around in the background. Actually ‘hover’ makes it sound like she was a humming bird – and at some levels, she was. But at another level, she was more like a Momma-bear.
I felt intimidated. The stereotype of intimidation generally runs in the other direction, but in this instance, I definitely felt like I was being watched, and judged – and perhaps found wanting. Even though I tend to work at home, and so I was around much of the time with our young son even if she was the one primarily pre-occupied with our first-born. Nonetheless, there was a sense that on this first Dad-son day that this was not my domain.
To add to that, Momma bear wasn’t far away as she was pottering around the house doing other things in other rooms. This could at some level be reassuring, but at another, it threatened to undermine the whole intention of the practice.
Whenever our young son would squawk or wail or burp or grizzle, she would holler her advice from somewhere within the house: “He wants a feed,” “He needs to be put down,” “You need to change his nappy,” etc.
I quickly saw that this was not what I had wanted and just as importantly, was probably not going to work. So I suggested to his mother that for Dad-son day, either Dad and son would leave the house together, or she could leave the house for the day leaving us to work it out for ourselves.
It was hard to establish a rapport with my young son with his Mum playing translator and big boss ma’am. I was fortunate. His mum agreed to this and so I learned heaps about my son from these regular intensive interactions, and maybe he learned some from me too!
Yes, the Mum may have a good deal of expertise in the care of the offspring. However, just as Mum will probably acknowledge herself, all the advice in the world (from her own mother, from her mother-in-law, from other helpful mothers) does not replace the tried and true hands-on method. At some point, the parent – be it Mum or Dad – has to work it for themselves.
Men – like women – need to be supported in this. Parenting is a tough job, and as every child is different, it is impossible to ‘parent by the book’. So it would be great if the community, that is employers, neighbours, mums, all stepped up to support Dad for what he is doing. When he gets involved with the kids at home, he is doing everyone a favour.
Mum in particular can help. It is true that ‘his’ way may not be ‘her’ way – just as ‘her’ way may not be the way of those faithful family members who tell her how to do things. However, she can help by trusting that Dad will learn the same way she did, by trial and error, hands-on practice.