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  • How Men and Children Affect Each Other's Development (cont)
  • By Kyle D. Pruett, M.D.
  • Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, Connecticut
    Page 3
  • 28/02/2006 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 61 articles in 2006 )
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3. Although this finding was harder to quantify, many of the babies seemed to expect that their curiosity, stick-to-it-iveness and challenging behavior would be tolerated (possibly even appreciated) by adults in their environment, be they parents, child care providers, or examiners. These babies seemed to expect that play would be rich, exciting, and reciprocated, and that block designs and puzzles would eventually yield to persistence and determination. Twenty-two-month-old Amy was typical of this group, as, with a robust whack, she sent her carefully and proudly constructed 10-cube block tower sprawling across the room, sat forward on the edge of her chair, and fixed her eyes on the examiner's eyes as if to say, "Am I great or what?!"

Effects on fathers

So, the babies were doing well. How about the fathers? We were interested in how fathers felt about their babies, how they felt about themselves as parents, and how they (and their spouses) felt about the fathers in other adult roles.

Fathers developed an intense attachment to their babies and a sense of themselves as primary caregivers in stages. They achieved a critical reciprocal nurturing relationship with their babies at different rates, usually depending on how much time they had to get themselves ready for this role in their family. Most of the families had a 3 to 8-week period after the baby's birth in which the mother served as primary, or at least co-equal, caretaker of the infant, but some families had no time to prepare for the transition when mother returned to school, job, or career. This transition was critical for both parents and babies.

Once they assumed primary caregiving, the men reported a consistent sequence of realizations. When first confronted with everyday troubles, such as a baby's inconsolable crying, the father, not surprisingly, would think to himself, "What would my wife do?" The surprise came in the next stage. Anywhere from 10 days to a few months later, these men had completely abandoned their mental portrait of themselves as being a stand-in for mom, or even of being a "Mr. Mom" (a term they universally despise). Unique caregiving styles emerged as the men gradually began to think of themselves as parents in their own right. Most of the men, however, kept this new sense of themselves to themselves - perhaps from fear that it would go away, or perhaps because "they shouldn't even have it." Later on, many fathers reflected that their reticence had been wise; they thought that articulating their own emerging parental self-confidence at the time would have hurt their wives' feelings.

Fathers were amazed at the depth and rapidity with which they became attached to their babies. They found it perhaps even harder to believe that the babies saw them as so immensely significant. One father was baffled when his 4-month-old daughter stopped eating for two days and developed a week-long sleep disturbance after he shaved off his beard. She became irritable and inconsolable and avoided her father's gaze when he attempted to comfort her. She would accept her mother's solace, but even then only briefly. Only after a neighbor failed to recognize him at the elevator did this father think that his daughter might be having the same problem, and be missing the bearded daddy she knew and loved. This phenomenon of intense attachment becomes understandable when we look at the power of the daily, sometimes tedious tasks of caring for a 3- to 4 month-old baby to evoke in a father a profound commitment to the baby's well-being.

Both fathers and their spouses reported that the experience of primary caretaking had vastly changed fathers' behavior, concerns, and self-image as adults. Not all the changes were positive. Fathers said, for example, that although they loved their babies, they suffered a loss of esteem as "productive" members of society. They worried about becoming dull and overweight, losing their intellectual edge or physical prowess, and suddenly enjoying soap operas. Loneliness was a problem for most of the fathers, who found few if any peers with whom to discuss their babies and their world.

On the other hand, these fathers felt more aware of the emotive world, spending large amounts of time simply watching their children sleep or eat. They also felt as though they were learning to "not sweat the small stuff" (What parent of an infant has time for this?). The fathers felt guilty for feeling angry at their kids after the fourth sleepless night in a row, or when they felt that they had lost patience with a cranky inconsolable baby. As I listened to their stories, I heard again how hard this job is regardless of the primary caregiver's gender, and how comforting it would be for many young mothers to listen to the fathers' list of joys and worries. So much of it comes from the job itself!

Wives of primary caregiver fathers were more positive than the fathers themselves in characterizing the changes that occurred in these men. Wives found their husbands more patient not only with their children but with them (unless the father felt his wife was not pitching in enough), and more emotionally available, even though more physically exhausted. However, mothers struggled with envy as they watched the relationship deepen between their child and their spouse. They found this feeling hard to express, however, since most mothers also were grateful that the father was looking after their child, and not "some stranger."

Later findings

Interesting though these early findings may be, observations made during a relatively brief period in the life of a young child can tell us very little. Anna Freud, Sally Provence, Albert Solnit, and Alan Sroufe, among others, have taught us that longitudinal studies are the best way to stay humble as researchers. Time and time again, we learn that we are rarely clever enough to ask the right questions the first time we interact with a study population. So I went back to the group of fathers and children at age 2 and again at age 5, again using play interviews and the Yale Provence-Gesell Developmental Schedules with the children.

By the fifth year of the study, I was surprised to find that in seven of the 16 original families with whom I still had contact fathers were still serving as primary caregivers to the target children and some additional siblings. Among the remaining 9 families, the mother served as primary caregiver in six; there were second children in five of these families. Three families used supplemental child care, nursery school, or baby-sitting arrangements; fathers and mothers described themselves as sharing care of their children "roughly equally." Here is what we found about the children, now age 5 years:

1. There were no signs of trouble, either .intellectual or emotional, in this group of children.

2. Some differences were emerging in the level and range of the children's emotional maturity, the quality of their human relationships, and their ability to handle the stress and strain of everyday life. No gross markers separated them from their more traditionally mother-reared age peers. They felt a zest for life, were both assertive and comfortably dependent, showed a vigorous drive for mastery, and expressed the usual childhood worries for boys and girls.

3. This group of children showed a robust emotional flexibility, including rudimentary evidence that they might be developing greater than usual ease in moving back and forth between roles and expectations traditionally thought of as feminine and masculine.

4. If there was anything unique about their internal images of themselves as revealed in their play, it was the prevalence of the father as a nurturing force. Children who have a father as a primary nurturer seem to be more curious about and interested in father as procreator than more traditionally reared children. Father makes human beings along with mother, who also gives birth to them.

Ultimately, the major findings from the 10-year follow-up (children's ages, 10 to 12) can be summarized as follows:

1. Significant benefit to the child of having a father as primary caregiver in infancy and the pre-school years arose from the presence of two parents who interacted well with each other and with the child, and not necessarily from special cognitive or emotional stimulation from the father alone.

2. The fathers joined early in the transactional and reciprocal nurturing activities that stimulate the emotional attachment so vital in the development of personality in the early years.

3. The style and choice of a father's caretaking behaviors are rooted deeply within the father's normal, self involved wish to be nurtured and to nurture. This mechanism is important in mothers as well, although mothers' caretaking behaviors can be affected powerfully by the physically intimate experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.

4. The father's caregiving style reflects selected imitation of and identification with important care givers in his life. In other words, men's nurturing capacities do not appear to be wholly determined by either genetic endowment or gender identity. Instead, the cultural and social rewards and reinforcements of competent nurturing interact in a man's mind with the internal pleasure of being a particular kind of father. The process yields a paternal competence that is unique to that man and that child.

Implications of research findings

As with all research, we must be cautious about overinterpreting the implications of fresh insights about the importance of fathers in the lives of young children. For example, on the basis of some of these data, some would have us rush to force fathers to stay in the lives of their children and supply support, both financial and emotional, regardless of the reasons for the fathers' absence. Yet with so much to learn about male nurture (including the possible role of biological mediators, such as oxytocin and pheromones) and few observational, longitudinal studies even underway, it is not at all clear what would be accomplished by external efforts to mandate a father's presence in a family that has been unable to preserve that presence on its own or with supports it has sought voluntarily. Longitudinal studies that take full account of context must be our standard when we are trying to understand complex phenomena, or to use research findings to guide programmatic and policy decisions.

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