For Greg Ikonen, 38, a San Francisco attorney, the first year of parenthood felt like an endless game of catch-up.
Though he had sung to his daughter when she was still in the womb, his one-way interaction could hardly compare to the bond felt by his wife, Polly, as the child grew inside her. For Greg, like many dads, it was only in the delivery room that the baby's existence became a reality. "When Sara's head started to crown, I realized I was on the fast track to fatherhood," he recalls.
Though Ikonen wanted very much to be an involved daddy, bonding with his baby proved difficult. His wife had taken four months of maternity leave; he could only disappear from the office for two weeks. "I had to fake feelings of genuine affection early on," he says. "I wasn't getting much response from the baby. The night that 3-month-old Sara smiled as I came through the door was probably the first time I really felt connected."
Even though Ikonen's relationship with his daughter, now 18 months, has grown, he still sees himself as the parental equivalent of the "second chair," a source of fun and entertainment but seldom Sara's go-to person in the case of boo-boos and crying spells. And he thinks that's because the deck was stacked in his wife's favor, resulting in an "earlier, more primal" connection with their child, he says.
Ikonen's perception is not uncommon among fathers of infants. Despite the fact that new-millennium dads engage in more caregiving tasks and spend more time with their babies than fathers of previous generations did (almost three times as much as the dads of 30 years ago, according to a survey by the Families and Work Institute, in New York City), a great majority still feel that they play a backup role to their spouse. What's more, dads say their relationship with their child is more playful than their wife's and that it takes longer for them to feel at ease as nurturers. Alan Beck, 40, an assistant professor of political science at Juniata College, in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, is a case in point. He believes he didn't really connect with his son until he could play games like "Superboy," in which he'd hoist the baby up so he could "fly." Says Beck: "Before that, I had a sense that my son didn't really know me. I often felt like I was the wacky neighbor who came over and did funny stuff to entertain him but who didn't have a leading role."