I recently had a series of conversations and the gist was the question of whether fathers had a serious role in raising smaller children or whether small kids are the mother’s purview. The sense of one person was that the father should let the mother be primarily responsible for the younger kids until they’re older, at which point the father steps in. Others disagreed and to be honest, I was surprised. Why shouldn’t the father be involved from the earliest days?
Mothers historically are viewed as the nurturing parent and that’s partially the result of the physical act of having to nurse the child. Both nurture and nurse are from the latin nutrire, of which one definition is to nourish. Prior to formula, and followed later by the breast pump, women had to stay home since they were the only ones capable of actually feeding an infant that wasn’t yet able to take in solid food. And historically, the fathers were out working in order to put the bread on the table and the roof over the head. With these clear job delineations, men looked askance at women as they entered the workplace. I can attest from firsthand experience that when men started to take up the household and childcare duties, more than a few women likewise looked askance as well.
But is that parental job division still valid? Are kids better off with mothers when they’re younger or are men equally as capable?
I’ll have to be honest and acknowledge that at some level, there will be some gender generalizations made. In my experience, women seem naturally more capable of multi-tasking than men and I can’t determine if that’s hard-wired into their brains or just a skill acquired from watching their own mothers as they grew up. Multiple men have commented that their wives are better at handling several things simultaneously but I can attest that there are some learned skills that make the juggling of various tasks at the same time. The more that you handle housework, the more you learn about how to accomplish various tasks while the dishwasher or dryer is running. Most women have also had the opportunity to watch their mothers work with the children and combined with the plethora of additional resources available and are less surprised by the various ways that a child can throw a monkey wrench into the workings of the average day. Men haven’t had the benefit of seeing their fathers in this role before and couple this with the lack of resources and many men are far more unprepared than their mates for the task. Likewise, women tend to be far more detail oriented than men and one of the female’s standard complaints is that the male just isn’t paying attention.
Point taken. But the flip side is that it’s hard to keep track of details when you’ve got no clue what the details even are. Birthday parties, vaccinations and clothing shopping are generally off of the father’s radar but once he’s aware, he can also learn to make sure that they’re covered.
But apart from the inexperience and unfamiliarity factors, fathers are also capable of taking over the childcare and household responsibilities. It’s liable to be a bumpy ride at first, but men can learn the tips, tricks and routines that go into the daily life of the child. What are the child’s sleep and nutritional requirements? Why are they acting as they are and if it’s a problem, what can I do about it? These are issues that don’t lend themselves to any particular gender and with some experience and attention, fathers should be able to handle them as well.
There are some areas of childrearing in which fathers do have an advantage over the women. The communication skills of children with active fathers is significantly higher than those without an active father. Likewise, kids with active fathers are more self-confident in their dealings with new situations and are more willing to explore than if the father isn’t involved or present. It’s the men who interact in the world and take the time to model that behavior for their children that really are watching what they do.
There’s another aspect to fathers in the home that deals less with the child’s well-being than the father’s. Perhaps because so many now grow up in fatherless homes that those men who had no active fathers want to take a strong role in the household and childrearing so that their children don’t experience what they did. I’ve had multiple conversations with men over the years and the common thread of these fatherless guys is that they want the kids to not experience their own difficulties. They also want to enjoy their time with the kids, far more than their predecessors did. Solid parent-child relationships are built on more than just weekend trips to the zoo or other activities and it’s in the day-to-day life that many lessons are passed along.
But for all intents and purposes, it’s become a more academic question than it was one or two decades ago. The old gender lines are blurring and as they continue, because of economics and choice, it will be less of a concern to the simple question of who’s making sure that the kids are cared for and raised.