Two ways to nurture

Do mothers “father” and do fathers “mother” in the same way the other would do?

Canadian scholar, Andrea Doucet, has explored this question in her book Do Men Mother? Her extensive research with 118 male primary caregivers, including stay-at-home dads, led her to conclude that fathers do not “mother.” And that’s a good thing. Although mothering and fathering have much in common, there were persistent, critical differences that were important for children’s development.

To begin, fathers more often used fun and playfulness to connect with their children. No doubt, many a mother has wondered why her husband can’t seem to help himself from “tickling and tossing” their infant—while she stands beside him holding her breath in fear. And he can’t understand why all she wants to do is “coo and cuddle.” Yet as Doucet found, playfulness and fun are often critical modes of connection with children—even from infancy.

Fathers also more consistently made it a point to get their children outdoors to do physical activities with them. Almost intuitively they seemed to know that responding to the physical and developmental needs of their children was an important aspect of nurturing.

When fathers responded to children’s emotional hurts, they differed from mothers in their focus on fixing the problem rather than addressing the hurt feeling. While this did not appear to be particularly “nurturing” at first, the seeming “indifference” was useful— particularly as children grew older. They would seek out and share things with their dads precisely because of their measured, problem-solving responses. The “indifference” actually became a strategic form of nurturing in emotionally-charged situations.

Fathers were also more likely to encourage children’s risk taking—whether on the playground, in school work, or in trying new things. While mothers typically discouraged risk-taking, fathers guided their children in deciding how much risk to take and encouraged them in it. At the same time, fathers were more attuned to developing a child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual independence—in everything from children making their own lunches and tying their own shoes to doing household chores and making academic decisions.

As she evaluated these differences, Doucet wondered if fathers just weren’t as “nurturing” as mothers. Their behaviors didn’t always fit the traditional definition of “holding close and sensitively responding.” But a key part of nurturing also includes the capacity to “let go.” It was this careful “letting-go” that fathers were particularly good at—in ways that mothers were often not.

Her findings provide empirical evidence for the feelings described on Public Discourse by Robert Oscar Lopez in his recent account of growing up without the influence of his father. Lopez yearned for what kids in traditional families often take for granted—the opportunity to learn how to act, speak, and behave in ways that reflect the unique gender cues provided by the parenting of a father and a mother. Although Lopez would have appeared normal on most sociological indexes (as a well-trained, high achieving student), inside he felt confused. In his own words, he grew up “weird,” unable to relate to or understand either gender very well. And that made it hard to understand himself.

Andrea Doucet ends her report by sharing an illuminating moment from her research. After a long evening discussing their experiences as single dads, Doucet asked a group of sole-custody fathers, “In an ideal world, what resources or supports would you like to see for single fathers?” She expected to hear that they wanted greater social support and societal acceptance, more programs and policies directed at single dads. Instead, after a period of awkward silence, one dad stood and said, “An ideal world would be one with a father and a mother. We’d be lying if we pretended that wasn’t true.”

from http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/10/6710/

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