Mothers get a lot of training. It starts when we’re very young; it’s not long before we become aware that our bodies are capable of growing and birthing a child. This knowledge affects the way we view the world, ourselves, and what we choose to pay attention to, for the rest of our lives. And then there’s pregnancy. For months we’re in direct contact with our children before they are even born. Our physical training begins at once: carrying them, staying up nights for them, changing our eating habits. Even mothers who adopt have usually been pregnant or changed their lifestyles trying to get pregnant before adopting. We mothers are used to change.
Fathers buy books. They listen to bellies and talk to bellies. Once their partners are pregnant, they do their best to quickly tap into that inherent knowledge that women have grown up with since they were toddlers: that caring concept, that birthing power running through our veins. But nothing can fully prepare a dad (really, any parent) for the day that baby arrives, tiny and fragile, helpless and needing. It’s a jolt into reality that is shocking, even for us mothers with early training.
If you’re a working father partnered with a home-centered mom, you know what you come home to every day: You’re on for bedtime, you get punted all the complicated “how does that work?” questions that Mom didn’t have time to get to as she was preparing meals, running kids to play times, or changing diapers. You make the most of the tiny bits of time after work and on the weekends that you get with your kids, soaking in every minute and wishing always for more. If you’re the home-centered dad, you get funny looks and needless pats on the back at play groups. You get days with your newborn when she’s crying relentlessly for mommy, as you try to squeeze the last drop from the bag of pumped breast milk into a bottle.
But every dad is trying to make a living – a life – for their family. Dads have a way of creating their family’s world. If it’s Mom who plans the picnic, it’s often Dad who picks the spot. Mom says let’s have a dance party, and Dad picks out the music. Mom buys the birthday party dress, and Dad gets the deck and grill ready. Dads are often more willing to play pretend, cook with the kids, or draw a hopscotch half a block long.
I once had a friend who joked that when her kids were acting up she would sometimes say “Just wait until your father comes home!” But she was always surprised that it would scare them into compliance, since her husband had never once raised his voice (and she, like most moms, had had plenty of moments when her voice was raised in frustration). I always remember this story, because it says a lot about dads. They will hold you to your word, and they are straightforward. Maybe my friend’s kids weren’t scared of getting yelled at by Dad, just of disappointing him. Sometimes it’s easier for dads to rise above their own feelings of guilt and worry, and just see the problem at face value. For that reason it’s often Dad who is called in for backup, when Mom has exhausted all of her own resources.
Whether your first child is due in July, or you’re 6 years in, or you’re a grandpa, it’s not always easy being Dad. We know that. Thank you.