Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The kind of man who thinks that helping with the dishes is beneath him will also think that helping with the baby is beneath him, and then he certainly is not going to be a very successful father.” Too many dads leave the baby stage to mom. When they do, they miss out on an immensely important and formative time in their child’s life to bond with them—a bond that is the crucial foundation upon which the rest of their relationship will be established.
This article is for dads who have very young children as well as men who are about to become dads for the first time. But it’s also very much for moms who desire to help their partners bond with their babies. The baby stage is a vital time in a child’s life that too many dads miss while they’re establishing themselves at work or in a career.
Before I became a dad, three older dads taught me an invaluable lesson. They each told me, “Spend lots of time with your children when they are babies.” Joe Dabaghian was a father mentor to me for years, from the time I was twenty-three. I spent a great deal of time with him and his family. I ate family dinners with the Dabaghian family regularly and spent as much time with them as they could stand. I asked Joe to mentor me, alone, one-on-one, once a week. The Dabaghian family took me with them when they went out for fancy dinners to celebrate their birthdays (even mine!), and they took me on several family vacations. By spending so much informal time in their family, I got to watch what being a husband and dad looked like, up close, really for the first time.
So many teenagers seem disinterested in their parents, or rebellious toward them, but Joe enjoyed the kinds of relationships with his teenage children I wanted to experience with my kids when I was a dad: open, honest, close. How did he do it? What was his secret? I asked him, “How did you create such great relationships with your kids?” I wasn’t a dad yet but I was already taking mental Dad Notes.
Joe responded, “It’s not complicated; if you spend lots of time with your kids when they’re young, caring for them, building relationship with them, the rest is easy; it all sort of falls into place after that.” I thought, “Are you serious? Can it possibly be that simple and straightforward?”
When I became a dad, I took Joe’s wisdom to heart and practiced it, by faith, with my three sons. Like many dads today, I was present at their births. While my wife bonded with them for nine months in her womb, those fetuses were mostly an idea for me. It was hard to bond merely in my imagination. But when my first son, JD, finally revealed the top of his head the night he was born, a mixture of relief and excitement shot through my body. His had been an excruciatingly long and exhausting delivery for my wife. At the end, she was nearly too tired to push. Yet, finally, he made his way past the last barrier between him and the world, between him and his anxiously waiting dad. And there he was. The doctor slid his hand in and helped JD’s little shoulder past the wall that held him, then suddenly out popped his little head, full of dark, wet hair. The doctor turned his shoulders so that JD’s face turned to the side, the side where I was standing. And there he was. My son! His blue, slimy face captivated my heart. I literally felt a physical rush of love course through my body. My heart felt so full it seemed ready to burst. I had never experienced love like this in such a physical way.
From the moment my boys entered life outside the womb, an incredible love profoundly connected me to them. It’s hard to capture with mere words. I instantly attached to my infant son I now held. I felt unexpectedly responsible for this little life. In that moment, it was as if I was handed a new identity. I was now a father. Something rose up inside me aspiring to be the best dad I could be. I experienced what Martin Greenberg, author of Birth of a Father, describes. He believes the bonding effect of a father attending his baby’s birth is extremely significant and long lasting. That happened for me—three times!
When JD was just nine months old, my wife decided to become a teacher at Gymboree, a fun exercise class for parents and their babies and toddlers. What that meant for me was that I had to leave work on Wednesday evenings to drive to meet Debbie and JD at class. Since Debbie was the teacher, I was the parent who played with JD throughout the experience. Debbie would stay to teach the next two sessions, and I was responsible for taking JD home—by myself! He was just a baby. I had no idea what to do with him. But my wife insisted. She had faith he would still be alive when she got home. So she required me to do this. I’m only partially joking about her requiring me to fly solo on infant care. She knew this would be good for me, build my confidence as a dad. She also believed this was an important way JD and I would bond more deeply. I’m thankful she made me do this, even though I felt incompetent and, honestly, scared. What if he wouldn’t eat? What if something happened I didn’t know how to take care of? What if I couldn’t meet his needs?
With some trepidation, I packed JD and his diaper bag into the back seat of my Ford Bronco after class, strapped him into his car seat, drove him home, chatting with him—that is, mostly to him—as we drove. Then, when we got home, I made some simple dinner for him (like dry Cheerios and yogurt), bathed him (yes, all by myself!), put a fresh diaper on him and changed him into his full-body PJs. Then, I crawled into bed with him and read stories to him. One of our favorites was From Head to Toe by Eric Carle. We must have read that entertaining book a hundred times. It’s a wonderful and amusing children’s book filled with big, colorful pictures and it progresses through various animals and the movements they make, such as a penguin turning his head, a giraffe bending his neck, a donkey kicking his legs, and a gorilla pounding his chest. For each one, the book then asks the young reader, “Can you do it?” I’d point to each of the pictures and JD and I would make the sounds and movements of each animal, laughing as we did. What a delightful and playful experience, every time we read it. Then I’d lay with him in the dark as he fell asleep. I’d sing to him—though I have the singing voice of a tractor—pray with him, and whisper to him how much I adore him.
Turns out my wife was right, as she often is. These were some of the most fulfilling times I can remember in my early daddying days.
I’m happy and grateful as I remember how intimate those evenings alone with him were, and how they bonded our relationship. I now realize those dad-and-son nights with JD, and so many other experiences like these with him and later with my other two boys, created the foundational building blocks for what our relationships have become today.
Joe was right. So was my wife. After spending loads of time with all three of my boys when they were infants and toddlers, the rest has been relatively easy. I am now reaping the fruit of those seeds of love and time I sowed early and often when they were young. There is solid wisdom here for dads to reflect upon and apply if your kids are still infants or toddlers (or perhaps still on the way!).
And there’s wisdom here for moms. What would I have missed, what would JD have missed, if my wife had not entrusted JD to my fumbling care? If she had not encouraged me, even pushed me, and cheered me on, believing I could do this, I may never have bonded the way I did with my babies. Like so many other dads who feel inadequate with babies, I would have gladly spent my time doing something else I felt better prepared for and good at. What a loss had that been the path I’d chosen.
How dads can bond with their babies:
- Holding them
- Bathing them
- Tickling them
- Feeding them a bottle
- Getting in their face and making them laugh and smile
- Changing their diaper
- Carefully tossing them into the air and catching them (when mom’s not looking!)
- Kissing their bodies all over
- Singing to them
- Walking them (in your arms or in a stroller or front pack).
For many men, it’s hard to imagine how to bond with a baby. Typically, we men bond through activity and play and doing things together. Frankly, it’s easier for many men to develop relationship with our kids as they get older. Often, we want to leave the baby stage to mom. But it’s a big mistake to do so. We may miss out on crucial foundational experiences that we can build on later as our kids grow.
In her book, Father Courage, Suzanne Braun Levine quotes a man named Andrew, an easy-going surgeon. She notes his very methodical view of the learning process:
I consider myself to be a very good father and I love my children, who are now four and seven, but when they’re zero to six months, as a father, you have very, very little connection with that child other than what you try to fabricate. If you don’t make the effort early on and you let it kind of slip by, it’s lost and there’s no question about it. I look at my brother who I love dearly, we’re very close, but I don’t think he’s ever changed his daughter’s diaper and she’s now a year old. I think that that’s both his fault and his wife’s fault, but I think he’s lost a serious connection there. My brother has never given his child a bath. To me that’s unbelievable, because I was in the tub with them from the time they were little tiny things, holding them in the tub. I forced myself to create a bond.
Men, if you have to, force yourself to create a meaningful and foundational bond when your children are young—even babies. Even if it doesn’t feel like a significant bond to you, it is to them. It may make a big difference in how close you experience your relationship with your kids to be in the future.
Advice for moms
Moms, encourage your partner to do this. If needed, even require them to, lovingly, believing they can, cheering them on. Many of us men need that kind of encouragement to venture into an area many of us feel inadequate, sometimes even scared to manage on our own.
Advice for dads
Dads, if your kids are beyond the baby or toddler stage, and you did not spend this kind of crucial time with them then, be honest with yourself that you missed something important and special, but don’t let that mistake prevent you from investing more of yourself and more time now. You can’t make up for lost time, but you can sure choose not to waste any more. Your kids still want and need you, and you need them. Spend the time both of you desire now.
- Suzanne Braun Levine, Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First (New York, NY: Harcourt, 2000), 192-93.
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About Keith Zafren
Keith's expertise is helping men identify how they have been wounded by their own inadequate relationship with their fathers, how that father wound cripples their ability to give and receive love, especially in their marriages and with their children, how to begin healing their wounded hearts, and how to receive and give a father's blessing. Keith founded The Great Dads Project to transform fathers into highly effective and deeply fulfilled dads who enjoy remarkably great relationships with their kids-and partners. He also speaks to women to help them understand how all this works out for their men, why sometimes it seems like no matter how much you love or give to your man, he isn't able to receive it or retain it. Many men are starved for affirmation. Keith helps women understand why and how to help. Keith captures much of this in his soon to be published book, The Heart of Fathering. Keith and his wife Debbie have been married for 19 years and have three boys ages 14, 12, and 10.