Q&A: father not caring for baby

Kelly writes:

"First of all let me start with my sincere thanks for your site. As a first time mother living in fairly isolated circumstances (my husband and I are expats in Thailand which means access to very few family or professional support systems) I have found your site invaluable and have spent many hours scrolling through the archives. On particularly trying days I often find pieces of wisdom from you and your commentators popping into my mind and making me laugh or giving me new things to try with my 12 week old son.

I am writing to you about son’s relationship with my partner. I know you have written in previous posts that their relationship is not my responsibility and I agree with this and I am not trying to create or manage it for them, but here is the situation. My partner loves our son dearly. However, he seems to be at a bit of a loss as to what to do with him. As a result he tends to do very little. If I ask him to he will take him and play or hold him for 5 – 10 minutes but after that he puts him in his bouncy chair and continues with whatever he was doing without interacting with the baby at all. I try not to interfere but it breaks my heart to see our generally cheerful son’s face as he looks at his dad for some attention and smiles without getting any feedback and I usually end up taking him for playtime with me.

On a practical level I also need a break in terms of nappy changes and settling for sleep. I need to know that if I want to or have to go out for a couple of hours they will be OK together and my son will not be left crying because his dad doesn’t know how to comfort him and will give up on trying -- as happened on the one time I have left them together for more than 30 minutes when I had to go to a work meeting. As a result of this one time I have been reluctant since to leave them alone together and for my own sanity I need to get out more!

I really need some advice on how to help my husband understand that baby needs his dad to pay him attention, comfort him and really interact with him and ways in which I can help my husband to learn the skills necessary to manage the baby (without telling him how to do things as I am conscious he will have to learn his own way of doing things). Also any thoughts on activities they can do together bearing in mind that we live in a very polluted and “park-less” city which means going for a nice long walk with baby in the kangaroo pouch (which they both enjoyed when we were recently overseas) is not really possible.

I am concerned about the long term ramifications that the lack of interaction will have on their relationship and would really appreciate any advice you have on this."

I really love the internet. It makes me so happy that my dorky little site can help people connect with each other and help each other all over the world.

It sounds like one of two things is happening here. Either your husband just hasn't figured out that he's the dad yet (which I can understand, since while 12 weeks is an eternity in some ways, it's a blink of the eye in others), or he's feeling conflicted or stressed and is showing that externally as indifference.

It's entirely possible that he just hasn't figured out that he's the dad yet, and that he's got to be the one who actually takes care of the baby. At that stage in the game I can still vividly remember hearing my older son cry and thinking "When is this baby's mother going to come take care of him?" and then having that thunk of realization of "Oh. I'm the baby's mother." And that was after the whole pregnancy and labor and delivery and leaky boobs and all of that. So I'd imagine it's even harder for a man, who doesn't have that constant physical reminder that he's now in charge of caring for a teeny tiny person.

I also think some men just have problems connecting with their children when they're tiny and not so interactive yet. You hear stories over and over again about men who barely pay attention to their babies but can't be dragged away from the same children as toddlers. Once kids can talk and walk and play, it becomes easier for some fathers to connect with them. So a lack of bonding and interest in the baby stage doesn't mean a man will never interact with his kids ever.

I think it's also possible that he's feeling pressure and anxiety about being a new dad and being so responsible for your son and the family, and that it's making him curl back into himself. What seems like indifference could just be fear and stress. (If there are any dad readers who'd like to comment about this, please do!) I think for women, we take so much of the parenting hit physically, between the sleep deprivation and constant carrying and feeding and everything else, that it's hard to remember that the men are also in the middle of a huge change, and feel pressure and fear and can be as overwhelmed as we are.

Now clearly it doesn't help anyone for your husband not to be doing any care of the baby. Especially when he's the only one in charge. I don't know his personality of how best to approach him about it, but I generally think honesty is the best policy. Simply stating what you've observed and asking him how he's feeling may help get to the bottom of it. If he really just hasn't connected yet, you may have to lay out expectations (i.e. if the baby's crying, pick him up and go through the routine until he's settled again). If he's feeling stressed and is withdrawing because of that, then you have a bigger opportunity to grow closer by working through your stress and all these changes together.

That sounded really Pollyanna-ish, didn't it?

I do think that if you both can acknowledge how you're feeling at this super-stressful time of life, and work together to help each other out (which means he needs to learn how to care for the baby) you can grow together and be stronger. If you let things fester, it'll make everything worse. So you're going to have to have the crappy conversation.

Comments? Again, I'd especially love to hear the male point of view on this.