Q: I’m a new father. I haven’t had much experience with infants and I want to be involved in my child’s care, but every time I try to pick her up, she cries. How can I feel more competent and help soothe my child so she’s more comfortable when I take care of her?
A: Few things can make a man feel less like a man than feeling like an incompetent parent. And nothing can make a man feel more incompetent than a baby. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to overcome these feelings.
First of all, let’s start with what NOT to do: Do not hand your daughter off to your wife. She may be able to get her to stop crying a little quicker than you do, but the truth is that whatever your wife knows about children, she learned by doing–just like anything else. And the way you’re going to get better is by doing things, too. Research shows that lack of opportunity may be one of the biggest obstacles to fathers’ feeling more comfortable with their children. In other words, the more time you spend with your child, the more competent you’ll feel as a parent.
And don’t give in if your wife offers to take over, either. Instead, try a few lines like, "I think I can handle things," or "That’s okay–I really need the practice." There’s nothing wrong with asking her for advice, of course–you both have insights that the other could benefit from. But have her tell you instead of doing it for you. Don’t be afraid to make a few decisions–and a few mistakes–on your own.
Another way to start building confidence is to get to know your baby. And the place to begin is with learning her language. Although her vocabulary is pretty limited right now, if you pay close attention you’ll soon be able to tell the difference between her "I’m tired," "Feed me now," "Change my diaper," and "I want to play" cries. Once you’ve got that down, you’ll be better able to take care of her needs and the two of you will feel a lot better about each other.
New fathers are often quite concerned about what to do with their infants. After all, they don’t talk, they can’t catch a fly ball, and they don’t seem to do much else besides drool. But even if your baby is just a few days old, you can do plenty. Carrying her around and listening to music together are great at this age, and just talking to her is wonderful, but my favorite has always been reading. It doesn’t really matter whether you read War and Peace or the ingredient panel from your toothpaste tube–she won’t understand you yet anyway. The point here is to get her used to hearing your voice, which will make her feel comfortable and secure with you. And that’s what close relationships are built on.
Finally, don’t ever devalue the things you like doing with your child. Men and women have different ways of interacting with their children–men tend to stress the physical and high-energy, women the social and emotional. But don’t let anyone tell you that wrestling, bouncing on the bed, and all the other "guy things" you’re going to do when your daughter is a little older are somehow less important than the "girl things" your partner may do (or want you to do).