A Matter of Time
There is another explanation for the difficulties that men have connecting with their babies: lack of time. As much as women have progressed in the workplace, men remain the primary wage earners in most families. Moreover, while women typically take a maternity leave of three months or more, men usually don't feel comfortable taking off more than a week or two after a child is born (or can't afford to). Hence, most new fathers have only nights and weekends to interact with their newborns. Add to this the fact that more than half of all new mothers breastfeed -- limiting dad's role as a food source -- and it's hardly surprising that men usually bond a bit later than women do.
Steve Bigwood, 32, a finish carpenter from Palo, Iowa, admits that when he first held his daughter, Rhianna, now 9 months, "I thought I was going to break her." But he quickly evolved into Mr. Fun Guy, swinging and tickling Rhianna and enjoying the resulting smiles, giggles, and coos. Although Bigwood's extensive caregiving -- he does much of the feeding and buys most of Rhianna's outfits -- fostered an early bond, play helped cement it for both of them. "The first time I came home and she dropped what she was doing to crawl over to me was really special," he says.
Ultimately, say experts, it doesn't matter whether men face greater challenges than women do in bonding with their babies. What's critical is that they establish a secure bond on their own terms. And the best way for a man to get to know and love the little creature that has taken over his world is simply to spend time with her -- whether giving her a bath or playing peekaboo.
"Whatever edge a mother may have hormonally or biologically, all three parties have to begin forming relationships at birth," says Michael Lamb, Ph.D., head of the section on social and emotional development at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in Bethesda, Maryland. "The more time you spend with a child and the more things you do with her, the quicker the relationship develops and the stronger it becomes -- regardless of the parent's sex."
Further hormonal testing may prove that fathers aren't really that far behind -- that evolution has imbued them with the capacity to connect with their babies as readily as mothers do. But even if that turns out to be the case, it will be up to both parents to make that attachment happen. According to Dr. Parke, mothers should encourage fathers to take on more everyday baby tasks and should provide positive reinforcement -- even if, say, a diaper is put on sloppily. And Dr. Storey, a pioneer in the groundbreaking hormonal research, says it's vital that dads carve out active caregiving roles.
"Hormones may tip the balance a bit and make women somewhat more responsive to baby stimuli," she says. "But hormones don't determine what happens. Dads can make that determination themselves."
Copyright © 2002 David Sparrow. Reprinted with permission from the October 2002 issue of Parents magazine.