Almost all parents will tell you that child rearing is much more difficult than they had anticipated. Before your first child's arrival, your fantasies involved playing with him or observing him proudly. The scenes were always pleasant, always gratifying. You did not anticipate colic, tantrums, "I hate you," defiance, disappointment, or purple hair.
While it is true that "the years fly by," when you are going through a taxing developmental period of your child's life, time can move very slowly. Whether it is the sleep deprivation and resulting crankiness you experience during your child's infancy or the anxiety you feel during your child's adolescent forms of rebellion, fathering is stressful as well as joyful. By the time your child leaves home forever, you will have made thousands of decisions affecting his or her life, and you will have agonized about whether those decisions were the right ones. Fathering does not occur naturally or easily. But you can learn to be more patient, more giving, more loving, more generous, and more forgiving than you ever thought you would be.
You should bond with your child even before he comes through his mother's birth canal. It can begin when you first put your hand or your ear to your wife's bulging abdomen, when you participate in childbirth classes, or when you view the ultrasound image of the fetus. Unfortunately, many men view infancy as a time of closeness between mother and child. They may not want to "interfere." Many men also feel terribly awkward handling a baby or involving themselves in the baby's natural functions. ("I don't change diapers!" or "I change diapers, but not if the baby has diarrhea!") You may believe that you can't feed her as well, dress her as well, burp her as well, or understand her cries as well as your wife can. Oftentimes, men do not view their children as fun until they can play and become involved in activities which the father enjoys.
The relative lack of early contact with your child has a circular effect. The older your child becomes without a bond having been established, the more awkward you and your child will feel when you are together. And the more awkward you feel together, the less you will want to engage each other again.
The more time you spend with your child, the more you will enjoy that time. You and your child will build familiarity, a closeness. In addition, you won't have to deal with your child's resentment because of the lack of time you have devoted to him. When a father infrequently plays with his child, the child's resentment over his feelings of deprivation hamper the quality of the encounter. He is angry and impatient with you, which causes you to feel impatient and alienated from him, which causes him to feel even more deprived and angry with you, and so on and so on. This is one of the reasons fathers are so disappointed when, after having failed to spend time with their children for protracted periods of time, they plan a special day together and it bombs. You may come with the best of intentions, full of enthusiasm and energy. But your child greets you with old hurts.
Don't postpone your fatherhood.
You approach your child and say, "Let's play together," or, even better, you say, "Let's play whatever you would like." Your child says, "No thanks, Dad. I don't want to play now."
You feel rejected. ("Well, if he doesn't want to play with me, to heck with him.") You feel hurt and self-righteous about not offering again. "I tried," you say to yourself.
But certainly you would agree that, just because you found the time to play with your child at that particular moment, it is unreasonable to assume that your child will necessarily want to interrupt what he may be involved with in order to respond to your unexpected overture. He may also be reluctant to accept your offer for fear of being disappointed once again because your interest will not last very long.
Don't let your ego interfere.
Instead of walking away and shaking your head after your child says, "Not now, Dad," simply respond with "Okay, let's make a specific date for another time. What do you think might be fun? When would you like to do it?"
Oftentimes, fathers view play with their children as another thing they have to do. They already feel tired and overwhelmed by other obligations and worries. Perhaps they are unable to effectively compartmentalize their lives. They are unable to leave their work at the office. They are unable to prevent their marital frustrations from spilling over into their relationships with their children. They are unable to cease obsessing about their financial straits. Or they may simply see themselves as inadequate, awkward fathers and wish to avoid the anxiety associated with this perceived deficiency.
The more competent you feel as a parent, the more joy you will derive from fathering. Obviously, the less "baggage," the fewer burdens you bring to your fathering, the freer you will be to spontaneously and enthusiastically play with your child. Fathering can provide an arena for personal growth. When you are actively fathering, you will develop aptitudes and sensitivities which will serve you well in the myriad of other roles you play in your world.
The music they listen to, the clothes they wear, the language your children speak may all seem alien to you. You have forgotten how wide a gulf you perceived there to be between you and your father when you were a child. You can't relate to any of it, so you don't take an interest in any of it. And so you imagine a much wider gap between you and your child than actually exists. Your child may act differently, talk differently, dance differently, or eat differently than you did when you were his age. But he has the same emotional needs that you had. He needs your affirmation, your understanding, your love. He needs a close relationship with his father.
It begins early, even before the birth. Fathers usually wish to have a boy. Research indicates that fathers touch their infant sons more than their infant daughters. Throughout the child's formative years, fathers spend more time with their sons than their daughters. Those fathers who have a very strong masculine identity, who perhaps are very athletic, demonstrate a clear preference for spending time with their sons than their daughters. Those fathers who fervently hope that their sons will follow in their footsteps as physicians, lawyers, businessmen, will also stay close in order to plant and fertilize those seeds. On the other hand, those fathers who also identify themselves with their sensitive, emotional side will more likely feel comfortable with daughters than men who adhere to rather rigid stereotypes about how a male should behave. Having a closer relationship with your daughter will facilitate the development of your interpersonal sensitivities and emotionally empathic capacities. Your daughter can push you to more fully realize all aspects of your self.
"My son is so different from me. Is he really mine?" you wonder aloud. "What do I have in common with my little girl?" you plead. Fathers are often confronted with children whose interests seem to be completely different from their own. Athletically inclined fathers are terribly disappointed when they face sons who perhaps prefer music, art, or computers to the rough and tumble, competitive world of sports.
But you can always find a way to relate to him. Even if there is no seeming "common ground," take this opportunity to expand your own horizons and diminish your feelings of estrangement from your child. You must move into his spheres of interest. Your child will be happy to share his activity with you if he perceives you to be genuinely interested. Having a different temperament from your child provides you with a challenge and an opening. The stage will be set for you to "stretch" your self-concept, to experience parts of yourself which you previously had dismissed or never even discovered.
Difficult children are difficult to be with. Instead of pleasure, they often provide stress and frustration. Instead of offering joy, they cause you to wish you had a different child. You find yourself being continuously critical of him. You believe that he can't do anything right. It is natural to want to withdraw from interactions which are painful and unrewarding.
Before I had my own children, I believed that our socializing environment was predominantly responsible for who we become. Particularly after having my second daughter, who from day one was so temperamentally different from my first daughter, I began to fully appreciate the predominant influence of our unique, genetic blueprint. There is no getting around it. No matter how effective, consistent, or patient a parent you may be, some children will prove more problematic, more troublesome, more stressful to be with, more volatile in their moods -- in short, more difficult, or to put it in a positive light, more challenging than others.
Ironically, it is the more difficult child who needs you the most. He hears your constant criticisms. He sees your looks of exasperation. And he feels terrible that you think those things about him, for he is desperate for your love. He is desperate for you to tell him he is not the bad person who he suspects everyone (including himself) believes him to be. He needs your encouragement. He needs you to believe in him. He needs you to go the extra mile. He needs you not to give up on him. He needs you to love him no matter what.
How do you not lose patience with a difficult child? By relating to his insecurities. Your child is so bossy because inside she feels so powerless. Your child is a brat because inside he feels frightened and out of control. Your child does exactly what you just told him was not permitted because he feels worthless and anticipates your rejection. Your child doesn't allow himself to hear your words of praise because he feels so unlovable.
"But, I've given him my love and attention," you insist. "Why does he still feel so insecure?" Remember, your child was born with a propensity to develop in particular temperamental ways. His insecurities, therefore, may be an ongoing part of his life. But you can ease his burden. You can keep his insecurities from destroying him.
There is no one in the world who has more power and potential influence to help your child feel better about himself than you. And there is no one in the world who can better teach you how to be more patient and self-sacrificing than your own difficult child. The patience, self-control, and generosity you can ham from raising a difficult child will also help you better deal with the most problematic, most troublesome people you will inevitably encounter in your lifetime.
After the arrival of your child, your sense of overwhelming responsibility as a father and as a provider really kicks in. Some men almost feel a sense of panic and want to run away. To make matters worse, perhaps your wife stopped working or drastically cut back her hours. Even though you may want her to be home with your new baby, her lack of financial contribution increases the load you feel. Ironically, just as you should be diverting some of your attention to your newborn, you feel the pressure to work longer hours in order to give your family what you want them to have. Furthermore, as your children get older and reach an age when they may need you the most, you are moving through your thirties and forties, your "professional prime," a time when you feel you must give your career all of your efforts in order to obtain a certain level of status and security.
The more children you have, the more justified you may feel in not devoting more time to them. You feel even more financial pressure. You work even longer hours. You're tired and you say to yourself, "I work hard all week. I've already fulfilled my responsibilities to my family -- and then some." And you infer, "I've already demonstrated how much I care about my family."
Oftentimes it is difficult to distinguish your drive to succeed in your career from the realistic financial obligations you must meet. It is more socially acceptable to invoke the latter than former in justifying your absence from family life. It appears less selfish to blame your financial responsibilities than to acknowledge your more narcissistic strivings for success when you work on weekends or arrive home after your child's bedtime.
Your children need you. They need your attention, your encouragement, your wisdom, your physical contact, your affirmation of how important they are to you. They need your love more than they need a CD player or a $100 pair of sneakers. And you need to be with your children so that you can develop a healthier perspective and balance in life.
You may believe that parenting comes more naturally to your wife than to yourself. She's got the maternal instinct. Mothers raise children. That's what my mother did. Women just know what to do with children, how to be with them, you believe. And so you rationalize your relative lack of involvement with your children by subconsciously saying to yourself, They're better off with her anyway.
Furthermore, many men believe that parenting is mostly the female's responsibility. If you accept this notion, then you may not feel completely comfortable being an actively involved father because you will have entered a feminine domain. Fathering might actually detract from your sense of masculinity. Until you incorporate nurturing and attachment to your children into your male ideal, you will feel that attention to these aspects of life will actually weaken you. Have you noticed that when most men get together in order to bond and affirm their manliness, they speak about four topics -- sports, money, work, and sex? Children are what women talk about, you assume. Unfortunately, the quality of your relationship with your child does not garner you the esteem of your peers. Will you be strong enough, secure enough as a man, to fly in the face of convention?
Perhaps you have asked your child, "Would you rather go with Mom or Dad?" You felt rejected when she said, "I want to go with Mom." They prefer to be with their mother, you tell yourself.
It may indeed be the case that your child would rather spend time with your wife than with you. But perhaps that's because your wife is more enthusiastic, more appreciative, or more attentive than you are when interacting with your child. While most daughters (particularly younger ones) might gravitate toward their mother, it is not unusual to find a girl who chooses to be with her father because he is more fun to be with, because he makes her feel so special, or because he indicates by his demeanor that he truly enjoys and looks forward to his time with her.
Your daughter may, in fact, appreciate the differentness of being with a man, her dad. The relationship which each parent has with their child is unique. As a father, your role need not be to imitate your wife's behavior when you are interacting with your daughter. On the contrary, you can provide your daughter with another flavor of positive role model which will help her establish later relationships with a greater variety of people. She will also have two different styles or approaches to life to draw upon when making future decisions.
Children want to be with a parent who clearly demonstrates his/her love, interest, and enthusiasm while being with them. You will feel the satisfaction of being wanted and loved when your children feel that too.
Couples often disagree about how to raise their children. You may perceive your wife to be too indulgent, too lax. She may, just as firmly, believe you to be unrealistically demanding or too stem with your son or daughter. You may believe she coddles your children, spoils them. Your wife, because of past feelings of deprivation, may see in you the father who withheld his love from her when she was a child. Old resentments may be displaced onto you if she perceives you to be repeating the same pattern with your children.
So you leave the field to her in order to avoid another argument. And you rationalize your withdrawal from child rearing by saying to yourself that you want to keep a somewhat shaky marriage from becoming even more unsatisfying and, perhaps, ultimately untenable.
If the prospect of marital conflict interferes with your desire to be with your children, you must resolve that conflict, instead of withdrawing from family life. Begin by talking with your wife about the kinds of parenting which each of you received. How did you feel in your relationships with your parents? What were your perceptions of your parents as you were growing up? How did your relationships with your parents affect your subsequent romantic relationships and the kinds of partners you chose? Successfully defusing the tension between you and your wife may require some professional assistance in unraveling old childhood hurts which affect the way each of you now approaches your children and your mate.
Ultimately, of course, the development of better communication skills in your marriage and greater empathy for one another will serve you in good stead in developing a more communicative and empathic relationship with your children.
All husbands and wives who I see in my practice have had both their marriage and their parenting styles affected by the mother and father who reared them. In their own ways, Ben and Barbara reflect many of the issues which I have discussed in this chapter.
Ben, a 38-year-old accountant, and Barbara, a 36-year-old teacher, had been married for seven years before they appeared at my office because of marital difficulties which had been simmering for years. (No one seeks psychotherapy or counseling after experiencing a problem for only a short period of time.) There were the usual complaints. From Ben: Barbara didn't seem to have much time for him anymore. Barbara was overly involved with the children. Barbara had put on weight and didn't care about her appearance. Barbara wasn't interested in sex. From Barbara: Ben was uninvolved in family life. Ben seemed to care more about his work than about her or the children. Ben always excused himself as being too stressed or too tired. Ben wasn't affectionate anymore. Ben didn't seem to care about having an emotionally close relationship anymore.
Both Ben and Barbara grew up in very modest circumstances. Their parents occupied traditional roles. Ben's father worked seven days a week as a tailor in Boston. Barbara's father worked overtime in his steel mill whenever it was available. Ben's mother and Barbara's mother were housewives. Ben's father, an immigrant, was from "the old school." "Be happy for what you have," "Life is tough," "You don't need very much," "Money doesn't grow on trees," were some of the lessons he imparted to Ben. Barbara's father, abandoned by his parents at an early age, was a bitter, cold man. He was uninterested in his children. Barbara remembers her frustration at repeatedly attempting to gain his attention or a word of approval. He virtually ignored Barbara and her brothers.
Ben learned his lessons well. Both as a child and as an adult, Ben has led a life of self-denial. Although his financial circumstances are significantly different from his father's, unfortunately Ben feels as though and acts as though he is living under the same constraints. And he expects the same of his children. "My children always seem to be whining or complaining about this or that. And their mother spoils them rotten. What kind of character will they grow up with? Shouldn't there be limits?" Ben rhetorically asked.
Barbara was more aware of her previous hurt and anger toward her father than Ben was of his feelings of deprivation. She was determined to provide for her children what she never received. She admitted, "It's difficult for me not to give my children what they want. But, unlike Ben, I don't see my children as being so demanding or unreasonable." And Barbara acknowledged that, in many ways, particularly when there is an issue of giving, she sees her father when she observes her husband. Every time Ben says "No" to his children (or to her), Barbara hears that voice from her childhood denying her once again.
In any couple I see in therapy, both parties are absolutely convinced of the correctness of their point of view. Each is dumbfounded that the other doesn't see "the obvious." But the issue, of course, is not who is right or who is acting most appropriately. In Ben and Barbara's case, one of the first steps in their treatment was for them to understand how the parenting which they received has affected their feelings and expectations toward their own children. Only then can they respond most helpfully to the needs of their children, as opposed to acting on the sanctions of their own childhood.
Reprinted with permission from The Gift of Fatherhood: How Men's Lives are Transformed by Their Children, Fireside, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Aaron Hass, PhD