On Psychology

Jewish World Review July 23, 1999 /10 Av, 5759


Dr. Wade Horn

Moms Want Help
From Dads --- Sort Of

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: Recently, a few of my girlfriends and I were on a "girls' night out" and we started talking about our husbands as fathers. I sheepishly admitted that when my husband first started showing sustained interest in our children, I had difficulty ceding decision-making authority to him. Much to my surprise, each of my girlfriends admitted they had experienced similar difficulties with their own husbands. Can you address this hidden "hang-up" of ours?

A: In a world dominated by political correctness, we are often reluctant to mention certain truths. Here's one. Mothers are the gatekeepers to their children -- and they kinda like it that way.

By this, I don't mean to imply that mothers do not want their husbands to be involved dads. They do. But they want that involvement to be on their terms, with themselves as the "field generals" and the fathers as "enlisted men." So naturally, they are just a little bit ambivalent when us guys start to "horn in" (no pun intended) on their territory.

In fact, there is even evidence that greater father involvement in childrearing can lead to lower overall life satisfaction in some mothers and, at least for dual-earner couples, increased marital unhappiness.

Huh? Isn't the modern, happy marriage supposed to be one where both parents share equally in the parenting of their children? How can higher levels of father involvement be associated with greater personal and marital unhappiness?

Econophone There are several possible explanations. First, many mothers have tremendous ego-investment in the parenting of their children. Some see childrearing as the primary area of life through which they prove their self-worth. When their husbands take on high levels of daily child caretaking responsibility, these mothers may interpret this as an implicit criticism of their ability to appropriately "mother" their children, leading to resentment, low self-esteem and marital discord.

A second possible explanation is that some wives may become resentful or even angry if their husbands begin spending more time attending to their children rather than to her -- especially after the birth of a first born child, when many first time moms wonder about their physical attractiveness as they struggle to get back into pre-pregnancy shape.

In still other cases, wives may became upset because they consider child care an area they have staked-out for themselves, and resent having to share parenting authority and discretion with their husbands.

It is also possible that maternal depression and marital unhappiness is the cause, rather than the effect, of high levels of father involvement in daily child care. For example, maternal depression can lead to ineffective mothering which can, in turn, result in higher father involvement in daily child care as the father attempts to compensate for the mother's ineffective caretaking.

Alternatively, couples experiencing high levels of marital discord may find daily parenting activities as just another battleground to express their dissatisfaction with each other. In such cases, high levels of paternal involvement in daily child care may be more a reflection of the father's desire to express dissatisfaction with his wife, than a desire to be involved in daily child care activities.

Of course, high levels of father involvement are not always associated with lower marital satisfaction or maternal depression. There are plenty of moms who welcome and encourage lots of fatherly attention toward their children.

Still, the fact remains that many mothers, including the moms in this letter writer's "girls night out" group, struggle with the tension between encouraging father involvement and wanting to remain in control. This suggests that when it comes to encouraging father involvement with the kids, we need to pay as much attention to the feelings, needs, and attitudes of the moms as we do to the feelings, needs, and attitudes of the dads.

In particular, moms need to be made aware of the fact that father involvement -- early and often -- increases the chances that a child will become securely attached to and bonded with the father as well as the mother. And while the desire to be in control over parenting decisions is quite understandable, research clearly shows that children who have a secure attachment relationship with both their mom and their dad do better in life than those who are securely attached to only one or the other.

This isn't as easy as it sounds; giving up control never is. Some moms justify their reluctance to relinquish this control by saying it is more efficient to have one person in charge, doing things one way, than it is to work at sharing child care duties and decision-making. But in the long run, this is self-defeating, for it tends to drive dads away so that when they are needed, they aren't there or haven't learned how to be of help.

So, if you are a mom struggling to relinquish a good measure of control and decision-making authority to your children's father, remind yourself of just how much better off your children will be if their father is actively involved. Deep down you know that.


JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn