Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fatherhood and Bonding?

The Question:

My question is about dads. I have noticed that my husband distances himself from our 2 year old daughter (only child). It absolutely breaks my heart to see her be ignored. He isn't mean or anything, he just doesn't pay much attention to her. How do I help him connect with her? He is not a naturally affectionate/emotional person. I have learned to recognize the other ways he shows his love for us, but I just think that toddlers and children need lots of hugs, affection and encouragement. She gets it from me, but I think she needs it from both parents. I have explained this to him as best I can, but not much changes. He says that I am just trying to force him to do things my way, and that she "doesn't like [him], so what's the use?" I think we are both at the point where we don't know how to fix things. -Anonymous

The Answer(s):

What a great question. I have thought about it all day long! I'll bet there are many who share your frustration. My own father was a very quiet and gentle man but definitely not affectionate. He didn’t know how to relate to little children very well. I feel like we discovered each other when I was a teen-ager. He was kind and accepting and easy to talk to. My mother, always the more affectionate one, was a bit high-strung when I was older. All of that emotion I enjoyed in her when I was a child, was a bit annoying when I was 16. My dad was a great stabilizer.

I think that your husband may feel inadequate and awkward as a father of young children.. You can help by down-playing his awkwardness and appreciating his small efforts. Don’t make an issue of it. This will only make him feel worse about his abilities. Just be patient and know that he will be a father for a long time. He will develop his own relationship with your children, that is unique from yours. They don’t need another mother. (They already have a superb one of those, right?)

Try to do all you can indirectly to help his affection for his daughter grow. Enjoy her together. Laugh with him about the cute things she says or does. Orchestrate encounters that are pleasant—when she’s rested, doing things she enjoys. If he senses your disapproval, he may give up. If he senses that you see him as a good father, his confidence will grow. Resist the temptation to compare him with more nurturing fathers. That isn’t his style.

I really think that the feminist movement brought with it, unreasonably high expectations of men. Their role is primarily to preside, provide and protect. They are pretty good at that. We want to add our role of teach and nurture—things that are natural for us. And we often hand them our tired, worn-out children at the end of a long day and ask them to deal with them. No wonder they struggle.

I shared your question with my husband and I was really quite fascinated with his answer. Anyone who knows him now would say he’s a “family man” if there ever was one. But his answer shows me the journey that it’s actually been for him. I’m going to include it here so that it might give you a glimpse into a man’s mind.

From Bruce:

My wife, Jane, asked that I take a stab at answering your question, so here goes:

I remember a talk given once by the president of the LDS Church then, President Spencer W. Kimball, about sharing the gospel. In it he mentioned that some of us may not be inclined to engage others in conversation or see ourselves as outgoing. I was surprised when he said, in essence, we need to become more outgoing so we can fulfill our responsibilities to share the gospel. I thought of the many people I knew who were in that category of being more quiet, keeping to themselves, or unskilled in conversation. It would take a lot of concerted effort for them and definitely would take them out of their comfort zone to be the kind of people who could be more effective as missionaries. Yet the expectation was clear. They would need to stretch themselves, give up comfortable habits, and develop some new skills. Some things come with the territory.

I think it is the same with parenting. While we all have our strengths, weaknesses and personalities, based in large part by how we were raised, there are still some minimum requirements expected to be effective as parents. For some those skills and attributes come naturally; for others it will take some effort, practice and patience. I agree that 2 year old daughters need affection, one of those things that comes with the territory, but also recognize that even at that early age they often have developed preferences for one parent over the other, making it tough to connect and engage if you aren't the preferred one. And if you aren't naturally prone to showing affection it makes the challenge that much greater.

My experience has been that a child's preferences for one parent balance out over time and at different stages can shift quite a bit. So don't sweat it if you aren't currently the chosen one, or they don't seem to like you, and don't read it as a sign that you will never be close to them. Do what you can to connect, be grateful for those things you find that work and have patience.

As a new parent to young children I gained a lot of help from Jane's views about our children. She would teach me about how our kids see the world--how they view things and what they are likely feeling at any given point in time. I began to watch how she was with them and to look at our children differently. I would try various things to better connect with them and overtly make an effort to find what they enjoyed doing with me. Over time I found things that were unique to that child that they really liked and used those times to build bonds of love and strengthen our relationship. Routines developed so that when it was our reading time, for example, I would let them choose a book and we would read it together. It became one of those things they would look forward to, as did I.

In between those activities I would frequently pick up our little kids and lift them in the air so they were weightless, then catch them, having done it from near infancy so it was something they really enjoyed. Or I would spin around and around while holding them in my arms then sit on a couch or chair and hold their eyes closed for a few seconds after and ask them if they thought they were still spinning. Then I would let them open their eyes so they could adjust and see that even though they thought they were still going around they were actually not. Sometimes this would lead to tickling (which not every child likes) or jumping on the couch or bed or some other thing they liked to do. Piggy-back rides around the house or outside usually work well. Another, seemingly dumb thing, I do that kids that age like is to lightly pound on their backs while they are saying, "Ahhhh" like singing and holding on a single note, so it comes out in a vibrating sound.

So far as showing affection when it doesn't seem to come naturally, I would suggest practicing it. As I said, I learned a lot from Jane by watching how and when she would show affection--hugs when she came in the home after being gone awhile, squeezes occasionally during some one-on-one time, glowing compliments on the pictures they drew, telling them that she loved them when they were having a particularly enjoyable time together, and bedtime routines that included telling them she loved them. The more I tried to find appropriate moments to show affection the better I became at it. I think it helped me that Jane would share her genuine love for the kids to me which made me examine my own feelings for them. Did I really love them that much? Was I as charmed with their antics as she was? Could I be better at developing a deeper interest and admiration for them? I wasn't raised with a lot of overt affection. Compliments were few and far between. So while I enjoyed children, I didn't always show that, and sometimes, when I was honest with myself, I realized that I was fairly indifferent about them. They were part of my life, and I appreciated them, but nothing to get excited about, they were just kids. Seeing them through Jane's eyes opened up some wonderful perspectives and helped me see them for who they are: beautiful, creative, tender spirits who blessed my life and our home. As those perspectives grew it became easier to respond to them in loving ways.

Hope there was something in my thoughts that is helpful. Parenting is a never-ending challenge, but worth whatever it takes to succeed.



  1. As Bruce's daughter, I can honestly say that this account of his journey to fatherhood is a surprise to me. He is (and always has been in my mind) a loving, affectionate, and devoted dad. Reading this of him, that it didn't just come naturally, makes me grateful for the efforts he made to become such a wonderful father.

    My husband wasn't one who had had much experience with kids when we married. I feel like while his love for them came naturally, I have had to teach him a lot about our children. I have often talked with him after he's had a frustrating interaction with one and explained why they might have reacted like they did and such interactions are pretty rare now. It has been fun to teach him to appreciate their humor and the quirks of their different personalities. He's come to a point now where he can appreciate them without my initiating it. I'll suggest he read them a book or play their new favorite game when they are cheerful. If he's going to run a quick errand and one of my older boys is in a good mood, I'll ask if he'd like to take one along. He's come to love this one on one time with them.

    I'm pretty much writing a post here myself, sorry=) I just loved the question and the answers.

  2. My husband didn't know how to relate to our children either. To help with this we instituted a practice that we called "Daddy Day". After chores on Saturday morning we would do something fun for an hour (no more than two) WITH daddy. Sometimes it was mini-golf or going to the park. Sometimes it was going to the farmer's market or to the mall to walk around together and eat lunch. This time was for my husband to learn how to play with the kids on their level and learn what they like to do for fun. As mommy, I stay back and let him learn how to be with them. It's become a favorite activity of ours. We look for fun things in the newspaper that are going on over the weekend and plan them weeks in advance.

    The kids love spending time with their dad, and he loves being given easy ways to interact with them. He also loves the time limit. Knowing that he's going to have time to himself after a long work week makes all the difference. I've noticed the skills he picks up on Daddy Day bleeding into the rest of his interactions with them during the week. Best Idea Ever!

  3. What a great idea from a very wise wife. Your encouragement and patience will surely pay off. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I also think it is important to talk to your child about how wonderful their dad is, and how much he loves them. And as much as it may intimidate him (and make you nervous) try to let him be alone to care for her by himself for a little bit. You may already do this, but my guess is that you might get, "Can't you just take her with you?" or maybe you don't ask. I find that men will default to mom when it gets difficult. It is important for him to realize (my husband had to go through this) that they are competent and very capable to care for their children without your help. I am sure a lot of his reservations stem from his own feelings inadequecy. I have seem my husband, who was good with kids but often defaulted to me the moment they cried or needed anything, go from being reluctant to gladly caring for them in every way. I hope this helps.

  5. A good time to start easing him into things could be bedtime. Start a routine that he can be a part of. My husband and I like to lay in bed with our daughter while we read a book, then have one big group hug, say a prayer, and I put her to bed.

    My dad worked a lot when I was a kid, to the point that I don't have many memories of him until 5th grade or so. He would come home from his 2nd or 3rd job and be so tired that he'd just sit on the couch, but he LOVED to watch us play. So maybe you could start playing with your daughter in whatever room your husband is in. Just for a few minutes.

    Also, I don't think she's too small to understand his "different" ways of showing affection, although she might be too young to notice them on her own. Maybe you could start pointing it out to her. "Wow, your Daddy sure loves you. You know how I know? Because he worked SO HARD today to earn money so you could have food for dinner. And because he mowed the lawn so you could have a pretty place to play. What are other things he does to show he loves you?" etc.

  6. I was a single mom with 2 kids when I met my husband. He is honestly the best dad they could have, but it took some time. He's never had kids before, and he walked into a family with a 4 and 6-year-old. Talk about being thrown through a loop!

    While they hit it off from the start, he had a very difficult time switching from the boyfriend/buddy role to the parent role. I have a son who is EXTREMELY sensitive, and it took me 4 years to learn how to deal with his emotional hiccups. How could I expect hubby to learn it all overnight? While he struggled to learn how to calm and comfort and discipline our boy, I noticed that he chose to just not deal with it and leave it up to me for a while.

    I knew this wasn't because he didn't WANT the relationship, he just didn't know how to develope it. What we ended up doing was this.... When our boy would start to lose it and I could see hubby losing it along with him, I would pull hubby into the other room and leave our son behind. I would explain to hubby why he was doing it, and what I have found works best, but then I would leave it up to him to handle his way. If he didn't do it my way, that was fine. I was just happy to see that he was trying, and he was doing the best he knew how. I found that if he was gently pointed in the right direction and giving SOME kind of an idea where to start, he would quickly blossom into the father he is today.

    Remember that men and women are very, very different. While we have maternal insticts that just kick in when we need them to, men generally have to work at it. Gently guide him in the right direction, and then leave the rest up to him. It may take a while, even years, but you'll be amazed at how far he comes when he can do it his own way, in his own time.

    An extention on 'theqcontinuing' post (we're sisters)- dad used to sit on the couch and watch after work while we made him pretend dinners. Mom went CRAZY because she thought he wasn't paying enough attention to us, but I don't think we ever noticed that he wasn't quite...'there'. He would smile at us and pretend to eat the mud burgers we made him. When we asked if he wanted ketchup or mustard, he always answered. We would take him 15 glasses of water, and he would always insist that he was so thirsty. Good thing we brought him that drink!

    This was not what most moms would see as 'proper bonding time', but it worked for us. After dad was gone for so long every day, the sheer fact that he noticed we were there was enough for us.

  7. I must be in the minority here then. My frustration is that my husband is too involved. He is far older than a lot of his siblings and helped raise them with his mom. I feel quite judged and get offended easily when I have been exercising patience and love and affection all day...he walks in the door and I want a break and I get questioned by him as to why I am not MORE affectionate or happy or kind or touchy-feely with my kids. He has a great repore with our kids and my only concern would be for him to recognize my hand in things more...because I do think I'm a good parent and I wish he saw that instead of comparing his(fresh, newly home from work, ready to play) affectionate side with my (tired, end-of-the-day) side of parenting. I wish he would see my need to be reassured that I am an affectionate, loving parent at the end of the day instead of comparing his readiness with my tiredness. He's a great dad, has lots of energy, doesn't hesitate to show affection and could probably do the day to day motherhood role just fine...(with maybe the exception of thinking @ safety...isn't it true us moms are more cautious about all the things kids can get into and harm themselves with and how to keep them safer?) Anyway...that's my 2 cents...the grass is always greener, eh? :)


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