“My wife is on my case and I don’t get it. Example: A week ago she tells me I make too much noise when she’s trying to put our baby girl to sleep. So last night I stayed in the den while Amy was screaming up a storm and I guess wouldn’t nurse. Finally Amy’s asleep and my wife comes in and glares at me and says I’m clueless about parenting because I should have come in and asked her if I could help. I was just trying to do what she had said earlier and figured if she wanted something she’d tell me. My wife is the main parent anyway. The kids go to her because they are used to her. I work hard to support my family and do a ton more than my dad ever did as a parent. I have got to relax a little and get my head together at night in order to go to work the next day.”

It can feel really confusing and unfair to men (1) to be doing more as a father than their dads did yet (2) be the object of regular complaints by their wives for not doing enough or doing it wrong. Your dismay and unhappiness are (unfortunately) common experiences among fathers – as are the factors which lead to them. If we can understand those factors, perhaps both fathers and mothers can feel better, and children can grow up in a happier home. It may feel unfortunate, but I think it is no longer enough (if it ever was) for fathers to rely largely on mothers to be the glue that holds families together.

The Key to Optimal Childrearing and a Happy Marriage

My understanding of the most important factor in excellent childrearing has gone through four stages. When I first started studying parenting, I thought that the way to optimize child development was to fine-tune little details in the interactions between parents and children. Then I came to believe that the most important influence on the well-being of the child was the relationship between the parents. Next I observed that the crucial factor in a strong marriage after children was typically the couple’s ability to solve problems and share the load of parenting effectively. Finally, through reading some exciting new research on the transition to parenthood, I saw that the key to solving problems and maintaining a loving marriage was one thing: a deep and continuing involvement by the father in parenting.

Research shows that when men are more involved in their families, they feel better about themselves, their wives feel better about themselves, their marriage is more satisfying to each spouse, and remarkably, their children are more popular and successful in elementary school.

Not Blaming Fathers

It’s important to realize that the father’s involvement in the family is the result of many factors: men, women, economics, and culture all contribute. I am not blaming fathers. These days, dads too (like moms) are pulled in different directions by changing expectations about their proper role in the family coupled with unrelenting pressures to be a successful breadwinner. Mothers may complain about their husband’s disengagement yet be unclear in their wishes (as in your example), needlessly critical, disrespectful of different styles of parenting, or even threatened by a father’s competence. Although it is unfair, the workplace typically rewards men more than women for continuing to work for pay after children, and is usually unsympathetic to fathers who want to shift their priorities from job to home. And there is still a widespread and deeply held belief that mothers should be the principal parent and that there is something odd about men who are strongly pulled into a nurturing role.

Nonetheless, when we step outside of a framework of blame, the fact still remains that it is profoundly important to children – and husbands and wives – that fathers take a very active role in parenting. There is an African proverb which states that “It takes a village to raise a child.” With all the fragmentation of modern life, the “village” that raises most kids these days is at best a village of two. If dad is MIA, then it’s a village of one. That doesn’t work.

Tears at the Fabric of Marriage

Additionally, a father’s half-hearted or inept involvement in the daily nitty-gritty of parenting tears at the fabric of a marriage, sometimes to the point that it rips apart. Often there are problems of inequity, in which a mother is clearly doing more work overall than a father. On mornings, evenings and weekends, are the tasks of caring for children and home shared equally in your family, regardless of who works for pay? If not, it’s plainly unfair. (Obviously, equivalent effort with specialized roles is not unfair, such as when dad reads stories while mom does the dishes.)

In other cases, there are problems of different expectations about the roles of mothers and fathers. A psychologist, Jay Belsky, has identified three types of “gender ideology”: Traditionalists who believe that women should do most of the parenting and housework, Transitionalists who believe that men should have some involvement but women should still do the bulk of the work, and Egalitarians, who believe the load should be shared equally. Dr. Belsky found that problems emerged in marriages when there were mismatches in ideology, such as a Traditional man married to an Egalitarian woman.

Inequities and colliding gender ideologies breed misunderstandings, hurts, and resentments. Each little episode of conflict nicks at the relationship. The cuts can accumulate to the point that the marriage hangs by a thread.

No Disneyland Dad

There is a difference between showy gestures of parenting and the real thing carried out over days and months and years. Sometimes fathers make sporadic efforts to look good and get their wives off their backs. Too bad for men, women see right through this kind of grandstanding. It is also cruel because it raises the hopes of children and mothers only to be disappointed.

If you had an employee who approached his job with occasional bursts of dramatic effort but on the whole was ducking out, what would you do?

Where Was Your Own Father?

It can help to think about your own childhood. Where was your dad? Did you miss his involvement in the heart of your life? Would it have helped your family – or your parents’ marriage – if he had been more involved?

Robert Bly and others have written eloquently about the pain men feel over their own missing fathers. Facing that loss and hurt honestly can help you see the family you have made today in a new light.

You needed your own father. Your family needs you.

Get Skilled as a Parent

Involved parenthood means both doing tasks and sharing leadership. Fathers may be willing to do parenting jobs but leave the overall responsibility and decision-making up to their wives, who then feel the burden of solitary command.

Sharing responsibility and doing the tasks of parenting well requires great skill. I suggest that men approach the skills of fathering with respect, and take pride in their competence. There is great satisfaction in mastering something, whether it is throwing a spiral or helping a fourth-grader with homework. Parenting taps many traits of character that men have traditionally honored: endurance, guts, discipline, justice, penetrating clarity, and protection of those in need.

I suggest that you approach the field of parenting at least as seriously as you would a major new job. Study the tasks. Study children. Learn about your wife, your partner in this great endeavor. Find out how to be an excellent team player. Take initiative. Anticipate needs. Don’t always wait for the wheel to squeak before you oil it. Be proactive and creative at home much like you would at work.

Do your homework. Read the books your wife keeps putting on the bedside table! If you are competitive, put that to the service of your family. How about becoming the best father you know?

Make the Real Gift This Holiday Season

This is a good season to reflect, appreciate blessings, offer heartfelt gifts, and make sincere resolutions for the future. Could you give the gift this year of really entering your family? It would make all the difference in the world. When all the wrapping paper is finally on the floor, and all the packages have been opened, there is one gift that remains, the best one of all: you.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.