Helping Dad to Bond with Our Baby

QUESTION

Dear Dr. Laura,

My husband and I have a 2-month-old son together, a first child for either of us. The first 2 weeks home were great, and then my husband seemed to go back to his old life. For about a month now, hes been telling me that dads don't need to bond with the baby until 18 months of age and until then, raising the baby is my job. I have no issue being the sole caretaker for the baby, but I think its unfair to our son. I think a father-son bond is very important, especially since I grew up in a single-parent household.

My husband is very stand-offish emotionally, with both me and the baby. He's always been that way, but he said he thought once our son was born, it would break down that wall for him. Apparently it didn't, because he hasn't become any more open since our son was born.

I've had plenty of people tell me that it "takes time for new dads to adjust to parenthood." It frustrates me because I didn't get any time to adjust, and I think I'm doing a pretty good job. I'm wondering how long it is supposed to take for dad's to adjust to parenthood?

So I have some questions:

  1. Is there any truth to what he says about not bonding with our son until he is 18 months old?
  2. Does the emotional barrier my husband has up ever have a chance of coming down? We've tried counseling, it never worked.
  3. How long is the "new dad" phase supposed to last?
  4. Is it fair of him to expect me to be the sole caretaker of our son, our house, and our bills?

ANSWER

I hear your frustration. Your concerns are not unusual, but they are serious. How a couple resolves these issues will influence the quality of their marriage, and possibly its longevity.

1) There is no truth whatsoever to your husband's idea that dads don't need to bond with the baby until 18 months of age. Research shows that the earlier dads bond with their child, the closer they will be to their child at each stage of life. 18-month-olds are notoriously difficult. A dad who has not bonded with his infant will have a harder time being patient with that child at 18 months.

What's more, as you say, children need to bond with both their parents. If they don't have that bond, they will always assume that Dad didn't love them because there was something wrong with them, and their life will be haunted by that rejection.

Finally, Dads who are less close to their children often say later in life how sorry they are to have missed that opportunity. Luckily, your two-month-old is about to start smiling at his Dad. I suspect that even the most hardened heart won't be able to resist that.

2) Do your husband's emotional barriers ever have a chance of coming down? There is always the possibility of growth. However, the person has to be willing.

Since your husband told you his idea that once your son was born, it would break down that wall for him, he must have been hoping for that. I am betting he is both relieved and disappointed. You say that therapy did not work. It is possible that with the right therapist, and interest on your husband's part, therapy could be helpful. Please don't give up on it. There aren't a lot of other ways that hearts are opened.

I suspect that you want your husband to be emotionally closer to you, as well as emotionally available to his son. It will take a lot of patience on your part, and a willingness to focus on your desire to be close rather than attacking his inability to connect or lack of interest in closeness, but it is possible that you could spur him to open up. Many men do, over time, relax into their marriages emotionally. It might motivate him to know that researchers have found that the best sex occurs in relationships where the woman feels emotionally close to the man. (But we knew that, right?)

3) By the "new dad" phase, I assume you mean the way so many new dads panic. They are often jealous of all the attention their wife is lavishing on the baby and sad about the loss of intimacy, but can't express that. Sometimes they feel like a useless third wheel. They are also often worried sick about the responsibility of a family. And they're astonished by the amount of work it takes to tend to that tiny, needy little person, who just doesn't seem that rewarding in the beginning.

Many new dads respond by withdrawing from the family and work a lot at their jobs. If Mom can avoid attacking (a natural response when she feels abandoned and neglected) and instead offer appreciation when he does show up, it shortens this phase by making Dad want to come home and connect. In general, the panic phase subsides as Dad gets used to the idea that he is now a dad but he is still himself, and the world hasn't fallen in yet.

4) Is it fair of him to expect you to be the sole caretaker of your son, your house, and your bills? Well, who knows what is fair? I think every couple navigates this differently.

In the old days many moms did handle the childcare and the house, but we've changed our standards of what kind of care we want to give our kids. In addition, that arrangement was usually part of a deal that absolved the mom of ever earning money for the family, so even if Mom was worn out for a few years, she got to coast (by comparison) once all the kids were in school. Dad had it easy by comparison when the kids were little, but he had the full responsibility of earning the money over the years.

Of course, most dads still handled the yard, the car, the bills, the Saturday errands, helping clean up the kitchen at night, and watching the kids while mom slept late on Sunday morning. And of course this arrangement won't work for most families in this age where two incomes are usually necessary, so there's no reason for women to shoulder all the home burden during the years when the kids are small if they also will share the burden of being wage earners again.

My personal opinion is that it is crazy for any man to assume that a woman home with a two-month-old can handle anything else. Any guy who thinks this has never had full responsibility for the baby for a day, or he would know that it's much harder than most any job he could be working. Being a mom is a 24/7, exhausting job, that demands everything of you physically, emotionally and intellectually.

There is no reason that just because a woman is home taking care of the baby she should get dumped on with the additional responsibilities for the housecleaning, cooking, paperwork, etc. In addition to compromising her care of the baby, it would also exhaust the woman and make her a less loving wife.

Your friends are right that it often takes dads a little while to adjust to being parents. It certainly doesn't seem fair, given that moms don't really have that luxury once a newborn is placed in their arms. But life is not fair.

It is, however, full of possibility. I suspect you'll need to take this opportunity to see how good a negotiator you are over time. My advice would be to speak to your husband's self interest. If he wants a son who adores him, he’ll need to adore his son. If he wants a good dinner, he’ll need to do some of the cooking. And if he wants a wife who is interested in him, he’ll need to help with the baby so she gets some sleep. I wish you patience, love, excellent communication skills, and good luck!

Dr. Laura Markham

Laura Markham

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones.

Have a question about parenting your child? Ask Dr. Laura on her Pregnancy.org Forum, Chat with her live on the Pregnancy.org chat on Wednesdays, or Tune in to her radio show and ask her in person! She takes calls every Wednesday at 9am Pacific/ 10am Mountain/ 11am Central/Noon Eastern at MyExpertSolution.com.

Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.AhaParenting.com, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with "the toughest, most rewarding job on earth." In private practice, and as a speaker and presenter at parenting workshops and seminars, she enjoys connecting face-to-face with parents to help them transform their relationships with their children, regardless of age.

She is the author of an upcoming Q&A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, which will have editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great.

Dr. Markham received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University in New York. She's held many challenging jobs, including running publishing companies with 100 employees, serving on corporate boards and coaching business leaders, as well as counseling families and children. Bottom line, she says, "Raising children is the hardest, and most rewarding, work in the world." Dr. Markham lives in New York, with her husband, 14-year-old daughter, and 17-year-old son.