Q: I’ve got a pretty flexible schedule at work and I’d really like to share the childcare equally with my wife. She seems so good at it, though, that I’m not sure I can ever catch up. Is there anything I can do to learn this parenting thing and feel like a competent dad?
A: Many of us-men as well as women-simply assume that women know more about kids than men. On average, women do spend more time taking care of children than men do, and their skills may be a little sharper than ours. But parenting skills are not innate-they’re learned on the job, through experience and training. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you’ll be able to have an active, involved relationships with your children.
Here are some things you can do:
- Get some practice. Don’t assume that your partner magically knows more than you do. Whatever she knows about raising kids, she’s learned by doing–just like anything else.
- Take charge. Ultimately, if you don’t start taking the initiative, you’ll never be able to assume the child-rearing responsibilities you want–and deserve. In all the times I’ve seen women pluck crying or smelly babies from their husbands’ arms, I’ve never heard a man say, "No, honey, I can take care of this." So, if you find yourself in a situation like that, try a few lines such as: "I think I can handle things" or "That’s okay; I really need the practice." And there’s also nothing wrong with asking your partner for advice–you both have insights that the other could benefit from. But have her tell you instead of doing it for you.
- Don’t devalue the things you like doing with the kids. Men and women have different ways of interacting with their children; both are equally important to your child’s development. So don’t let anyone tell you that wrestling, playing "monster," or other so-called guy things are somehow not as important as the "girl things" your partner may do (or want you to do).
- Get involved in the day-to-day decisions that affect your kids’ lives. This means making a special effort to share with your partner such responsibilities as meal planning, food and clothes shopping, cooking, taking the kiddies to the library or bookstore, getting to know their friends’ parents, and planning play dates. Not doing these things can give the impression that you don’t think they’re important or that you’re not interested in being involved.
- Keep communicating. If you don’t like the status quo, let your partner know. But be gentle. If at first she seems reluctant to share the role of child nurturer with you, don’t take it too personally. Men are not the only ones society has done a bad job of socializing. Many women have been raised to believe that if they aren’t the primary caregivers (even if they work outside the home as well), they’ve somehow failed as mothers.
It’s in everyone’s best interest for you to do everything you possibly can to become an involved father. It’s not easy, but the rewards-for you, your children, and your partner-are incalculable.