A few months before my first son was born, a friend gave me some advice on fatherhood. It didn't have the ring of a good slogan. Nor did it have the emotional punch of the final chapter of some bestselling Father's Day gift book. • Yet, looking back, it's the thing that has made the biggest difference for me and my family. And so, whenever I hear that a friend's going to be a dad, I tell him: Steal the baby from your wife. Make sure you take care of the baby, completely on your own, early on. And not just for a few hours, but for entire days or weeks.
With my two boys, I spent a month at home after my wife's maternity leave ended. It was hard, but also wondrous and confidence-building — there is nothing like being the only one responsible for a little life. It was a time for my sons and I to bond in a way you can't with others around.
Though I did not think of it this way at the time, deciding to serve a stint as the "primary caregiver" was also a declaration that fathers matter. Our conception of fatherhood has come a long way, baby, but not far enough. So the first step is to "expect more of yourself than society expects of you," in the words of Richard Weissbourd, a family psychologist at Harvard University and author of The Parents We Mean to Be. Do this, and you will experience things, and learn lessons, that you wouldn't trade for anything else.
There are, of course, certain biological facts that make the mother the first person in a baby's life. From this, though, it becomes easy for the mother to become the child care "expert": She alone knows what blanket he likes, how to soothe him, how to dress him. And then what can happen is that the father gets slowly pushed out, consciously or not, as he avoids doing things he is not comfortable with. The dad can end up feeling like "mommy's little helper," says Armin Brott, author of The Expectant Father, an excellent dads-to-be advice book.
This is a pattern that can set early, and it is difficult to break. The father lacks confidence. The mother lacks confidence in the father, and may even subtly undercut him when he tries.
Knowing that I was going to be responsible for my son, on my own, forced me to stay on top of every detail, from the beginning. My wife and I both work, and it made sense for me to take time off when my wife returned to work. There are other ways of doing it, though. I have a friend who insists that his wife go out regularly so he can take care of their daughter. You can give your wife a long weekend away.
The result will be a more balanced, flexible family. Every parent is going to have their own approach, and if the father is allowed to develop his own style, his own solutions, and has an equal vote in decisions, then everyone benefits.
Being an involved father is rewarding in many ways. Take some time to learn how babies develop, and you will have your mind blown as you watch your child make improbable, brilliant leaps before your eyes.
You will also learn to be more patient — solving problems when they are ready to be solved, or even letting them solve themselves. You will learn flexibility. You will become more organized, more efficient, and a skilled multitasker. It will make you a better employee, a better boss.
But being a father, like being a mother, is ultimately a journey. First you will be thrilled. Then you will be exhausted. Then, slowly, you will discover there is an amazing world around you that you didn't know existed. Jump in.
© 2011 Boston Globe