My son is one month old today, and it has been quite a month! The lack of sleep and steep learning curve that plague all new parents has been compounded by a lot of other instance of life just getting in the ay. I am still settling into the role of father – I doubt it is ever an easy transition, but I have been fortunate enough to avoid one of the biggest shocks that new fathers experience well ahead of time.
When a man first brings home his new son or daughter there are a lot of feelings – the shock of all the changes, the sudden worry about whether he is up to the task, the sudden impulse to go out and bring home more money as soon as he can… not to mention the evolving relationship he has with hs wife or girlfriend. Sometimes the biggest shock is what he doesn’t feel. That is to say, he is not head-over-heels in love with his baby the way the mother of his child is.
When a child is born, it is natural for the child’s mother to feel a deep love for the new baby; she has carried him for nine months, and gone through an incredibly difficult ordeal to bring him into the world. She has been swimming in bonding hormones like oxytocin from her child for months as well. Motherly love is, for most healthy women, an inevitability, With the father, on the other hand, the bond is just not there at first.
This is normal and natural, too. Men simply don’t have the same opportunities for bonding before a child is born. We don’t have that early hormonal bond, nor the Earth-shaking experiences of childbirth to shape our feelings. Suddenly we do have this new person who is soft and helpless and our responsibility to protect and to provide for – and for a man of deep moral convictions, that can be powerful… but it is not a deep emotional bond.
Let’s face it, babies are pretty boring, too. They cry, they sleep, they soil diapers, and in between they occasionally make a cute sound. Most men take an interest in their children as those children become more active and begin learning more complicated topics, usually when they turn four or five. Men build the best bonds with their children by nurturing them through teaching, playing games, and roughhousing. Fathers take time to fall in love with their children.
As normal and natural as that might be, it can also be a poison pill for a relationship between a man and his childrens’ mother. Several of the men I have worked with have seen that lack of an immediate bond become a major pain point in their relationship. His wife or girlfriend can feel hurt or rejected when he is not as in love with their baby as she is… especially if he has a hard time dealing with the frustrations that come with the first few months of life when a newborn is totally helpless. Some women have a really hard time forgiving a man for not loving his children as much as she thinks he should; it can keep coming out of the gunnysack year after year breaking down communication and trust long after he has fallen deeply in love with his kids and become exactly the father she wanted him to be.
That’s neither fair nor reasonable, but it is the way it is.
But if you don’t feel that bond quite yet, take heart, there are ways to help build it up right from day one – or even long before the child is born. Here are four ways you can start bonding with your child however new they are.
Take in that new baby smell: after a baby has been cuddled, changed, or breastfed, they usually give off a massive dose of pheromones that help their parents feel loving towards and loved by the baby. In fact, babies are soaked in that oxytocin you need to feel bonded with the baby. Hold the baby after he or she has been fed, cuddle them after a bath, and get in on the changings. Those pheromones will help you build up your bond to the baby. They also can make you feel relaxed and happy.
I highly recommend skin-to-skin contact as soon and as often as possible: take off your shirt and get the baby down to his or her diaper and just cuddle them. Skin-to-skin contact with an infant can help you feel bonded, and it is incredibly good for the baby’s development, too.
Read and talk to your child: even if they are too young to understand. As your baby gets used to your voice and starts to respond to you, you will feel a little more connected. And while it is not as exciting as teaching a toddler to throw a ball or a child to ride a bicycle, you are teaching them how to hear, listen, and process language. My dad read engineering textbooks to me while I was in diapers, just to have something to read. I’ve been reading my son Aesop’s Fables… he may not be able to understand them yet, but it means that he is hearing me, learning to understand language, and I’ll know the fables in the future when I can nurture him through direct teaching later.
Take positive actions for your child’s welfare: Take first aid and child CPR classes, start an education fund, educate yourself on baby massage and infant development. Build up collections of movies and music that you want them to hear. The more you learn, save, and prepare for your child’s future, the more you will feel invested. Collecting up a few albums my parents used to play when I was little has given me an incredible sense of continuity… it helped me see myself as part of a line of traditions being passed from father to son over the years.
Take some time to create nurture for the future: I wrote my son letters while my wife was still pregnant. When he is old enough to appreciate them, I have 120 letters waiting for him on big topics like sex, drugs, marriage, health, and media literacy. Anything and everything that I thought was important went into a letter. You might prefer audio recordings, home videos, or even drawings.
While it might take years for my son to be ready for those letters, they let me nurture him from the very beginning. I was preparing important lessons and talks. I was forcing myself to make decisions about what I thought was important for him to know, and what I wanted to teach him about manhood, health, and happiness. If something were to happen to me tomorrow, they would still be waiting for him in a few years.
Deciding what is important and how you want to teach it now means you are looking towards the payoffs of fatherhood in the future. Just as planning a vacation is almost as relaxing as taking the vacation, planning how to father helps you feel as though you have already been active teaching your children, and that can help you feel that bond right from the start.