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The Progressive Dad’s Dilemma

In the world I live in, a highly-educated community in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, adults come into parenthood with egalitarian ideals. 

Dr. Jessica Michaelson

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In the world I live in, a highly-educated community in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, adults come into parenthood with egalitarian ideals. Before kids, both men and women worked, both cooked, cleaned, payed the bills.

But when conception and pregnancy come into the picture, this egalitarianism gets tested. It’s the woman who has to take her basal temperature, the woman who has to go to avoid salami and blue cheese, and the woman who gets the baby all to herself for now. 

The fathers I know are acutely aware that their wives are taking the lionshare of the responsibility from the beginning of parenthood, and feel guilty that they can’t do more. 

Slowly but surely, even for couples who are fiercely opposed to traditional gender roles in their relationship, we find ourselves in gender specific roles during the first few years of parenthood that can remain in place into adolescence. 

For many couples, this traditional division of labor – childcare and housework for women, income generation and home repair for men – feels comfortable and each partner is satisfied. 

However, in the progressive world in which I live, this division is rife with conflict for both partners. 

Mothers want their partners to help with the childcare and housework. Yet a recent study, cited in the controversial New York Times article, “The Egalitarian-Marriage Conundrum,” found that the more men did these traditionally feminine tasks, the less sexually attractive their wives found them

Fathers want to be connected with the baby and supportive of their wives, but often feel at a loss for how to do this. As the author Michael Lewis highlights in his memoir, Home Game,

In these putatively private matters, people constantly reference public standards. They don’t care if they’re getting a raw deal so long as everyone is getting the same deal. The problem with modern parenting is that there are no standards and it’s possible that there never again will be.

In addition to a lack of public standards to reference, there are many factors that get in the way of progressive dads being as involved as everyone would like, including:

  • Feeling incompetent with the baby or the household chores
  • Gaining a sense of competence and usefulness through being a provider
  • Inner conflict between wanting to be involved and cultural ideas about masculinity and men’s roles
  • A mother-focused parenting culture in which all the conversation and attention is placed on the mother and child
  • The mother acting as ‘gatekeeper’ by asserting too much control over the childcare and household decisions, therefore undermining the father’s participation
  • Not fully understanding the specific importance of fathers in their child’s development

The Gottmans are acutely aware of how challenging it can be for a father to be engaged in a satisfying way in our present culture. And they know just how important it is to support couples so they can overcome these obstacles. 

In their parent-education program, Bringing Baby Home, facilitators emphasize the unique contributions that fathers make to their children. Their research has found that fathers:

  • Give infants more freedom to explore and focus more on delighting in the child’s independence.
  • Are more tactile and high energy with their children. Children tend to play with their fathers more like they would another child. When given a choice of who to play with, two-thirds of toddlers choose dads over moms. 
  • Help children regulate, or deal with, more intense emotions through this style of play than the quiet, verbal and visual games that moms tend to play. 
  • In researching the effects on the Bringing Baby Home program, the Gottmans found that both fathers and mothers were surprised and thrilled to know these facts – it gave them a concrete reason to value and promote dad’s involvement.

    And the results of dad being involved are astonishing. Here is just a small sample of benefits that resulted from fathers participating the the BBH program as compared to the control group who didn’t receive this education:

    • Father-infant attachment was higher 
    • The quality of father-child interaction was more positive
    • Fathers felt more satisfied in their parenting contributions
    • Fathers felt more appreciated by their partners for their involvement
    • Greater marital satisfaction for both partners
    • Less hostility between parents
    • Babies responded more to father’s soothing attempts
    • Children showed fewer language delays at one year
    • Both parents showed fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety

    Knowing these benefits can make it far easier to combat the pressures that get in the way of father involvement. With each of my clients, they have a sense that their marriage is the only one struggling with this dilemma of modern, progressive parenthood. But to quote John Gottman’s words from And Baby Makes Three, “We are all in the same soup.” 

    Whether you are planning a family, expecting, or have young children, you and your partner can navigate the challenges of gender roles and parenthood gracefully when you prioritize your friendship and strive to manage inevitable conflict with kindness and curiosity.


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    Dr. Jessica Michaelson is a certified Bringing Baby Home facilitator and founder of Early Parenthood Support, Inc. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and two sons. She provides education, coaching, and community for new and expecting parents around the world.

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