On Psychology

Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 1998 /9 Tishrei, 5759


Dr. Wade Horn

Dads, moms both get job done with babies

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: My wife and I have been married for 9 months and are both in our forties. We would very much like to have a baby, although this may be difficult given our age. Neither of us has been married previously, and we don't have any children yet.

Due to some very bad choices I was in prison for three years. This has made it impossible for me to get back into my previous profession as an elementary school teacher. My wife is employed where she has full medical benefits for both of us.

My question is this: If my wife bears a child within the next couple of years, would it be harmful to that child for my wife to go back to work while I stay home and take care of the baby? I've heard that one of the most important roles a father plays is as a provider for his family. But given my situation, I am at a loss to know how I can provide for my family better than my wife. Is a breadwinning mom and a stay-at-home dad bad for a baby?

A: Decisions about who, if anyone, should stay at home to rear very young children can be difficult and heart-wrenching. There are three opinions on the matter.

First, there's the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" crowd. Essentially, this view says that it doesn't matter whether or not a parent stays home to rear very young children, so long as the choice makes the parent happy and the child has access to good quality day care.

Most popular parenting magazines espouse this view. Numerous articles tell moms "the good news about day care" (it doesn't matter) and "how to make day care work" (most of all, don't feel guilty about it). If you're happy, this view opines, then your baby will be happy.

The second view is that only moms can be effective primary caretakers of young children. Let's call this the "Mommy's Dearest" viewpoint. After all, say proponents of this idea, only women can breast feed and they are the one's who actually delivered the baby. Besides, they assert, there is something special about the mom-child bond that dads can never hope to replicate.

Then there's the third view. This opinion says that while it is true that human babies do best when they have a full-time, at-home parent, it doesn't matter all that much whether it's that dad or the mom that stays home -- as long as one of them does it. Call this the "It Takes a Parent" opinion.

So what does the research say? First, there is great consensus that young children develop best when they grow up with a consistent, caring caregiver who engages them on a regular basis in numerous, reciprocal, one-on-one interactions. In other words, newborns, infants, and toddlers need a relationship with a loving, caring adult who is continuously available to them throughout the day.

The problem with day care is that this is far less likely to happen than with an at- home parent. An adult caring for 5 or more infants, no matter how dedicated or well- trained, simply can not be expected to give as much time and attention to each one her charges as an at-home parent caring for their own child.

Furthermore, no matter how loving and caring a child care provider may be, that infant is still someone else's baby. It is foolish for us to expect that adults will care as intensely for someone else's baby as they do for their own -- to be, in the words of noted developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, "crazy about that kid."

Second, there is no real credible evidence that when it comes to parenting newborns, infants and toddlers, moms do it better than dads. Sure, there's lots of evidence that dads may do it differently than moms, but doing it differently does not mean one has to be doing it better. Baseball players Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa swing differently, but both do a whale of a job hitting home runs. It would be a foolish manager who would try to get Sammy Sosa to alter his swing next baseball season simply because Mark McGuire ends up with a few more home runs this year.

In fact, there is lots of credible evidence that when fathers spend as much time with their infants as moms typically do, not only are they as competent caretakers as moms, but their infants form as secure attachments to them as they do to their moms. And when it comes to the advantages of breast milk, the breast pump allows at-home dads to continue to feed the baby momma's milk even in her absence.

So being an at-home dad is not, in my view, a problem. Indeed, I have two brothers who are at-home dads. Both are raising some of the nicest, most well-mannered, decent kids I know. If there is any problem at all, it's that society continues to see something "unusual" with this arrangement. As a consequence, there are few supports and little encouragement from our broader culture for the at-home dad.

So my advice if you choose to be an at-home dad? Relax. Babies do just fine so long as one parent stays home and gives them time and attention. It matters little to babies whether the parent who stays home is a mom or the dad so long as when they stare up into the eyes of that continuously available, caring adult, those eyes belong to one or the other.


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