Typically, in the first few months of a baby’s life, the primary bond is with the mom. The child, after all, was living inside her body. That’s not to say that one parent is more important than another. Children are psychologically nourished by both their parents.
Nevertheless, the baby’s need for mommy, combined with her maternal instinct to care for her child, creates an intense connection. As fathers experience this pre-wired pull toward each other, they may feel excluded and may even feel envious.
During this delicate time in the family’s development, dad has an extremely important psychological role; his wife and child need to feel emotionally supported by him. The more tuned-in fathers are to their new family, the more secure and less anxious both mommy and baby will be.
As time goes on and babies enter their next developmental phase, they’re ready to be introduced into the wider world. Although both parents serve over-lapping roles, as a generality, moms provide the baby’s first sense of security – baby is cradled by mommy first. And dads, whom baby meets next, tend to be more about the experience of separation and independence.
Often times, dads are first to playfully throw babies up in the air, an example of how they bring letting go and excitement into their child’s young life. For a father to have the psychological fortitude to enthusiastically play in this way, and for him to encourage his little one to let go of mommy and come to him, requires a different emotional makeup than she has.
A sense of security and encouragement to reach out to others and explore their surroundings are important experiences that support a child’s development.
It’s not easy to be mindful of the child’s innocence and fragility, be aware of the mother’s instinct to hold onto her baby, and then also launch children out into the world. Maybe this helps explain why fathers can sometimes be a bit cut off from their feelings or those of their partners and babies. A less emotional perspective enables a dad to accomplish this difficult and emotionally complicated task.
If dad does have trouble getting and staying involved, it could lead to his emotional withdrawal. “I want Mommy” is more hurtful than dads usually admit. Truth is both parents like feeling special. To stay emotionally engaged when one parent is more hands on than the other requires a conscious commitment.
It’s not uncommon, though, for mothers to have a part in the father’s exclusion. Saying they want him to be an equal partner isn’t the same as being committed to making it happen. Feeling overwhelmed and needing help, but at the same time, feeling an imperative to do it all themselves can keep mothers in and fathers out. Over-riding the demands to conform to stereotypical roles is way more complicated than most young couples anticipate.
Starting a family stirs up confusing feelings for both parents. Looking beneath the surface to understand why you each feel the way you do is an important skill to develop. Talking about feelings often sends a shiver down the backs of otherwise brave men, but with practice, it can lower tension, increase empathy, and help you both feel closer and more satisfied.
Loren Buckner, LCSW is a psychotherapist in Tampa, Florida. She is also the author of ParentWise: The Emotional Challenges of Family Life and How to Deal with Them. Photo credit: nettsu / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND