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Bonding With Baby

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."

Though few would deny that carrying a child in a womb for nine months gives women a big head start in the bonding process, recent research suggests that the differences in the ways mothers and fathers bond with their babies may be due as much to social upbringing as to biological predisposition.

Until recently, men were commonly presumed to be made from inferior parenting material. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once quipped that fathers were "a biological necessity but a social accident" -- essential for fertilizing an egg but not so useful thereafter. However, a spate of recent studies suggest quite the contrary: Fathers are endowed with parenting skills comparable to those of mothers, and just as their spouses' bodies change and hormones rage during and immediately after pregnancy, men may undergo significant hormonal changes to prime them for fatherhood.

We're not just talking sympathy pains, either. In two Canadian studies, expectant fathers showed a marked change in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which is strongly linked to attentiveness and attachment) as well as an increase in the hormone prolactin (associated with lactation and parenting behavior). One of the studies found that men have an increase in the female hormone estradiol. Of equal significance, the studies found that testosterone levels dropped by one third during the first three weeks after birth, an adjustment that scientists speculate is nature's way of guiding men to nest rather than seek out new mates. "These changes would seem to help dads adjust to the role of new parenthood," says Anne E. Storey, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Memorial University, in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and one of the study researchers.

Other studies have confirmed that men have an innate nurturing instinct. Psychologist Marsha Kaitz, of Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, found that when their senses of sight, sound, and smell were suppressed, mothers and fathers who had spent a minimum of one hour with their infant were comparably adept at recognizing her simply by stroking the backs of her hands. And Ross Parke, Ph.D., director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of California at Riverside, tracked parental tendencies during the first two days of children's lives. His consistent conclusion after many years of study: Men are just as attuned as women to a baby's cues and just as capable of responding appropriately.

Nonetheless, it's abundantly clear that dads and moms generally connect to their babies in different ways. By the time an infant is 8 weeks old, he can readily distinguish between the two parenting styles. A Boston Children's Hospital study showed that when infants were approached by their mothers, their pulse and respiratory rates went down, their shoulders relaxed, and their eyelids lowered. When their fathers approached, their heart and breathing rates quickened, their shoulders hunched, and their eyes widened, as if anticipating action.

According to Kyle Pruett, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and author of Fatherneed (Broadway, 2001), there's an easy explanation for this phe- nomenon. "Kids and dads are hardwired for a relationship that's different from -- yet just as important as -- that of kids and moms."

Dr. Pruett's extensive studies of stay-at-home fathers in Connecticut bolster his theory. Although dads from this small but growing group have proved to be able nurturers, learning quickly how to tell a hungry cry from a tired cry, they maintain a distinctive "fatherly" parenting style: They still have a more rough-and-tumble approach to playtime and tend to take on a stronger disciplinarian role as their children get older. Their working wives, meanwhile, are likely to take over the evening bathtime or bedtime rituals and do much of the baby's clothes shopping -- roles women seem culturally conditioned to perform, regardless of whether they work.

"Men and women approach babies differently because they approach life differently," says Donald Skog, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, in New York City. "Men comfort physically, women emotionally. The resulting bonds are different, but that doesn't indicate that one is stronger."

Still, experts point out that much of what we consider "motherly" instincts may, in fact, simply be acquired traits. From playing with dolls to baby-sitting, girls are brought up to be nurturers, Dr. Parke notes. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to be physical and to suppress their emotions. And the contrasting socialization continues into adulthood. Women are far more likely to lean on a support network of family and friends to get through the challenges of pregnancy and parenthood. Men have fewer role models and often face obstacles if they choose to pursue a nurturing role.

At-home dads, for instance, face the stigma of doing "woman's work." John Glynn, 36, of Midlothian, Virginia, initially felt uncomfortable when he quit his job to take care of his daughter when his wife returned to work. His reservations weren't because he doubted his ability as a parent but rather because he was often the only guy at the playground and because some people seemed to frown on his lifestyle. "Whenever one of my neighbors saw me," Glynn recalls, "he'd ask, 'You got a job yet?' "

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.