Guest Blogger: Troy Flake
When our first kid was on the way, my wife and I were full of naive excitement and apprehension. We spent a lot of time and energy choosing names, painting the nursery, making plans, and predetermining every aspect of how we’d bring our baby girl into the world. When my wife was about 20 weeks along, the doctors discovered that our new baby had a serious, potentially fatal, heart defect. In order to have a chance at surviving, the baby would need a major open-heart surgery. Immediately, our nervous excitement became chaotic dread.
Shortly before her due date, my wife was devastated to learn that the baby would be whisked away by doctors immediately after she was delivered to be placed on life support. This was particularly hard on her. The doctor agreed to let my wife give the baby one kiss before they took her away. We knew this might be the only kiss my wife would give our little girl during her life. As this bleak reality set in, my wife turned to me and said “You go with the baby. Don’t take your eyes off her. Stay with her no matter what!”
I suddenly felt a transformation. I was still afraid, but I was no longer a passive observer to the drama that was about to unfold. It was now up to me to provide protection, comfort, bonding, and love to this little girl in the critical first moments of her life. I could also feel that my wife was relying on me, trusting me, turning her most precious possession over to me. Along with fear, I felt a purpose. Fear with a purpose feels a lot better than fear alone. This responsibility was a gift from my wife.
A few days after she was born, they performed the surgery. It was 7 hours long and our little girl’s heart was stopped for 3 of those hours. After the operation, she was in extreme peril. The surgical team was crowded in her little room, refusing to go home in case she crashed. There was only enough space for one parent to sit in the corner and watch. With great difficulty, my wife wisely turned these critical hours over to me. There was a real chance these would be the last hours of our little baby’s life. But my wife knew and showed me that she knew that my fatherhood was equal to her motherhood. As hard as it was, she let me act not only as the protector of our child, but as her hero and full partner in parenting. This was an amazing start to fatherhood.
I believe a major part of the bond a man feels for his children comes as a result of his relationship with their mother. Sadly, many fathers walk away from their children when a marriage breaks up because the bond has been severed. Even in stable marriages, the father’s bond can be weakened when the mother doesn’t foster the bond between father and child. When I see a father who is not especially helpful and engaged with his kids, I almost always see a mother who is mistrustful, overly particular, and critical. Both parties likely bear some blame for this dynamic.
I think the moms usually have good intentions — they want their kids to eat right, look right, play safely, avoid all risks. And they probably think they are doing a favor to the husband by providing instructions. But a mother trying to control every aspect of her children’s care is not signaling her trust and admiration for her partner’s role as a father. Or she may have a darker agenda. She may have contempt for her husband and feel threatened when she sees her children forming a bond with someone else. The “devouring mother” doesn’t just devour her children — she devours their father too.
The disengaged father might feel that being lazy is his best choice because whatever he tries is wrong, disappointing, and counterproductive. He is failing to adopt the responsibility presented to him. He is to blame for this. But it is harder to adopt responsibility when it doesn’t seem like you get any credit for it. A father may even resent his wife for criticizing him when his efforts to help fall below her standards. As Dr. Jordan Peterson says, “If you really want to create misery, punish someone when they do something good. That will ensure they never try again.” Sadly, I know men who have bitterly resolved to prove to their wives how useless they can be with the kids because they felt slighted when their effort resulted in criticism.
The popular narrative is that there should be more equality between men and women in child rearing. I think this is a good development from the (probably apocryphal) 1950’s “I don’t change diapers” attitude. Fathers can and should adopt as much responsibility for the care and upbringing of their children as they possibly can. Caring for children is one of the most meaningful things a person can do and men who fail to take that chance when they have it will pay for it dearly. Men get told a lot that they should be better fathers. Some women complain, demand, or dictate. They tell their partners that they owe them or compare their burden with their husband’s. Some women are picky about how the husband interacts with the kids. They might correct him (often in front of the kids) and then resentfully say “ugh, I will just do it myself.” This kind of attitude can rot the bond between the father and his kids.
Men thrive when they are called to adventure. We’re all familiar with the motif of the hero who goes forth to slay the dragon, save the woman, and get the gold. Moms, do you frame caring for child that way to your husband? Do you let him know that every time he changes a diaper, he has bravely met a horrible beast? That when he soothes a crying baby, he’s used his talents to gain a treasure? That when he gets up with a sick kid at night, then goes to work the next day, he is climbing Everest in your eyes? That he is a hero to you every time? Do you let him figure things out for himself so that his victories are his? Do you let go of enough so that he can use his creativity and ambition in the way he interacts with the kids?
Here’s an experiment. Tell your husband you want to do a girls night and ask him if he wouldn’t mind running the show for a few hours. When the time comes, walk out of the house without saying anything. Or just say “Thanks! I’m so excited to have some time with my friends.” Resist the urge to give instructions. Don’t tell him the bedtime routine. Don’t tell him to keep them out of the street. If he asks what to feed them for dinner say “It’s up to you!” Don’t text him to see how things are going. Just walk away. And when you get back, don’t ask how things went. Just tell him how much fun you had and then go on and on about what a great dad he is. Tell him that you told your friends how great he was. Tell him you told your mom what an awesome dad he is– he will really like that.
You might be surprised, but I promise your kids will survive. They’ll probably eat more sugar and watch more TV than you want, but they’ll survive. The real shock might be the effect that has on your husband. See what happens when you show him that you trust him. You will be presenting him with a challenge that he can solve. When he succeeds, he will feel like he has accomplished something and most importantly, gained the esteem of his wife. This will bond him to you. It will bond him to your kids. That day in the hospital, when my wife turned our little girl over to me, it cemented me to them both. Fatherhood became an adventure and I was the hero of the story.