Little Bear is pretty amazing, but most dads will say that about their babies. Most dads look at their little ones and know they want to be there for them every step of the way. It’s a deep instinct that goes beyond just wanting to earn to feed them or elbow dangers aside. Some dads may not feel it from day one (probably due to exhaustion from the birth) but they see the feeling grown on them the more they look at the little round eyes in the unstable, wobbling head, and start to see the first smiles. Others may start to feel it, tears and all, the moment they hear the rapid thump of the heart beat coming from the tiny shrimp shaped blob on the screen of the first scan.
But it’s a feeling and an instinct dads will know. An instinct to protect, nurture and care for this tiny human. It's a want to see them grow, and play a part in building this particular little person. An interest in someone else’s happiness they’ve never felt so strongly before.
Studies have shown that when it comes to taking care of kids, dads with responsibility for their babies have the same brain states as mums doing the same thing. That's not dad's thinking like mums, it's parents thinking like parents. It's instinctive for dads to want to care for kids, just the way it is for mums, even if society doesn't expect that from dads. It's an instinct for all involved parents, not just mums.
The closer dads are to their babies and kids, the more satisfied dads feel with their lives. Dads closely involved in the kids lives aren't just closer to their kids, they also become more social, are less prone to depression, more self-aware and more mature. The list goes on, and the evidence is mounting that dads benefit from being closely involved in parenting in ways they don't always see before being a dad. And like a gateway drug, once dads get a little taste of being involved with their little ones early on, they can't get enough, and continue to have a close and satisfying bond with them as they grow up.
There are of course many new dads who are worried about being responsible for these tiny fragile things, or are frightened of changing a nappy (yes, if you put it on wrong, you will regret it later). I must have held a dozen babies before my first little guy was born, but the moment you hold your own for the first time, you’re struck my how helpless and flimsy they are. There’s also no one else around you to take them after a few seconds, or when they start to cry. This moment is both exciting and scary. And whilst you can get more confident at holding them, they’re still really difficult to look after. It's frightening being a first time dad.
But it's also frightening being a mum. Some mums will be able to pick up their babies and instinctively know exactly what to do, no problems. But there are just as many dads who could also do the same. Just like there are dads who are nervous about taking care of their baby, there are mums who are nervous too. The instincts to look after your own baby are not maternal or even paternal, they are parental, and more often than not, they are learnt.
A rare and lucky few parents will know just what to do with their babies from the word go, others (most, including us and our wives) will pick them up and develop them through trial and error. Our babies may scream, wriggle and thrown themselves into danger, the toddlers refuse, cause a mess or throw tantrums, until we get it right (or sometimes just cope with getting it wrong). But the process of learning to become a parent isn’t hidden somewhere in the ovaries, it’s something all parents have to go through, dads and mums. That's just part of parenting.
People often claim that the 'maternal instinct' is what makes a mum want to nurture their baby. But again, this nurturing instinct is parental. Some parents, dads and mums, feel it strongly, and try to dive into the whole parenting thing. Other parents less so. But whereas mums aren’t allowed to admit that they don’t feel the parenting instinct, or may even find themselves facing depression if they are struggling, dads are told that it’s natural for them not to feel it.
Despite more recent attempts to make dads feel included, there are still plenty of sign-posts telling dads that mum has some special instincts that they’ll never understand, and if they want to be active dads, they’ll never have the special super powers that mum has.
This is unfair on dads, because people expect them to not be good nurturing parents. And it's unfair on mums, because it piles pressure on them to perform as parents in a way dads don't have to, and lays the responsibility squarely with them when things get more difficult. We need to drop the obsession with maternal instincts and start thinking more in terms of a parental instinct, that either parent can have to varying degrees.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots
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