Fathers are far more insecure than they let on. The overwhelming majority of men enter parenthood without a clue as to what to do.
When you read this title you probably had one of two responses: “Not going to happen, he’s hopeless” or “he’s a good dad already and doesn’t need any help”. Regardless of your answer, you’re wrong. He does need help and he needs it from you. Here’s why: you know him better than anyone and you know your child better than anyone. That means that you know what your child needs from him. Your husband may not. In addition- as a daughter- you know what you wanted as a child from your dad, so you know what your child wants from his dad.
But there’s a problem. Most men (my husband included) don’t like advice and they sure don’t want it from their wives. So, we feel stuck. We aren’t because they will take advice if we give it in an indirect way. I’ve talked with hundreds of dads around the country, and I’ve learned a few things about them that I’d like to share. Understanding these will really help you advise your husband without him knowing it.
Fathers are far more insecure than they let on. The overwhelming majority of men enter parenthood without a clue as to what to do. They look at this beautiful baby and feel stunned. What do I do now?
Mothers are given advice on feeding, sleeping, car seats, etc., but dads are seldom given advice. They take the baby home and as the child grows and his needs become more complex, fathers feel ill-equipped. Since they don’t want to let on that they have no clue what they’re doing, they won’t tell anyone. Mothers on the other hand, immediately ask friends for help.
The feeling of inadequacy is hard for both men and women but particularly hard for dads. They are the protectors, the nurturers, and they want to be involved with caring for the baby but since they aren’t sure they’ll do things right, they often back away. This makes mothers angry because they feel that their husband doesn’t care. This isn’t true. They are simply intimidated and don’t want to do the wrong thing. And to tell you the truth we moms don’t help. I remember looking at my husband trying to do something with one of our kids, not liking the way he was doing it and rushing in saying, ‘here, just give her to me’ with a tone that said, ‘I can’t believe you’re so incompetent.’ Then, of course, we get mad because we are sure they are incompetent. Self-fulfilled prophecy.
Fathers feel afraid. Not only do dads feel insecure, but they also fear for their child’s well-being. Like mothers, they worry about sudden infant death syndrome, life-threatening illnesses and what’s worse is they worry about missing their child’s symptoms. In addition, they worry about providing for their child, and like mothers that they wouldn’t be able to handle something bad if it happened to their child. Again, they often don’t have the support from friends like moms do.
All fathers have a preload. The experiences and feelings that a dad brings with him from childhood have a profound effect on him as a dad.
If he had a great dad or a strong father influence in his life, that preload will help him navigate his own fatherhood more readily and with greater confidence. If a father had a dad who was abusive, cold, controlling, critical, etc., then he will fear being the same to his child. Subconscious memories of that abuse resurface, and a dad can feel the old hurt, causing him discomfort and he may not realize where it comes from. He may battle responding to his child in the same way his dad responded to him. This is terrifying to him, but again, he doesn’t realize it because the feelings are so deep. This is a father’s preload.
The million-dollar question is: what can we do? First, recognizing what is going on inside of them is a huge start. Empathy and understanding are the most powerful ways to position ourselves to help.
Let’s deal with their problem of insecurity. Rather than appear disappointed by their lack of involvement and complain, choose to compliment him. Find something that he is doing well and praise him for it. If he likes to feed your baby say, “Feeding him is a great way to bond with you and that is so important for him.”
What you’ve just said is: “You’ve got this, you’re important to our child, keep going.”
No matter what your husband does or doesn’t do, there is always something that you can find to praise. For men to feel good about themselves, they need to feel respected.
The most powerful way for you to instill confidence in him is to pay sincere compliments and show respect to him. Doing just these two things may be enough to make him believe in himself and be a better dad.
Then you can help him tackle his fear issue. Do some watching and listening. What does he fear? If you aren’t sure, say something like, “Sometimes I just worry that I’m going to mess up or not be good enough as a mom, do you ever feel like that or is it just me?” This draws him out without feeling criticized.
Never say, “Ugh. You just won’t help enough. What’s wrong with you? Are you afraid you can’t do the right thing or are you just lazy?” You’re trying to approach his fear, but peppering your comments with criticism and putting him down will never work. It will drive him away.
Helping him recognize and deal with his preload is really tricky. First, men don’t want to admit hurt feelings. And if they do, they wonder “what I am going to do about it? Nothing – so suck it up.” You and I know better and will usually reach out to a friend to talk about our feelings, but men don’t usually do that. They don’t want to look weak or overly sensitive. In addition, most men don’t have friends that they are comfortable talking to in such an intimate way. That’s where you come in. You are more comfortable talking about feelings and you may be better at finding your preload as a mom. So, here’s how you get your husband to open up.
First, never say “you”. Say “I”. Rather than point out his uncomfortable feelings and fears, talk about yours. Say something like “I know this sounds weird but being a mom has reminded me of how my own mom/dad treated me. Sometimes that feels really uncomfortable. Do you ever feel like that?” At this point, men may not be ready to respond so be patient. He may take minutes or months to open up and that’s OK. Men don’t generally open up as quickly as women.
Again, broach the subject. “I find myself wanting to be like my mom was to our daughter. My mom never hugged me and as weird as this sounds, I feel awkward hugging our child.” Then you wait and see what happens. If you are kind and empathetic, he will open up. If you see him doing mean things to your child just like his father did to him, then you need to intervene. Don’t say “You can be so mean, what’s wrong with you?” Say “I’m concerned because you’re reacting to our son in a way that I know you don’t want. This is hurting him and it’s hurting you. I think that it would help you to see someone to talk about this.”
Here’s the bottom line. Change the way you see him. Look at him as a dad who’s trying. See him as a man with his own unique preload, who needs help and encouragement. After all, isn’t that what you want from him? Once you begin this very simple (but hard) process, you’ll be astonished to see the changes in his relationship with your kids.