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New Dads: Forming A Lifelong Bond

By Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
Founder,National Center for Fathering


“Congratulations! It's a boy!” “We have a healthy baby girl!” As a new father, these words—and the sights and sounds that go with them—are still fresh in your mind. It was one of the happiest, proudest days of your life.

But truth be told, there was more than just a baby born that day. A father was also born. And whether it's a biological child or an adopted child, that first meeting birthed an entirely new perspective, and the world will never look the same.

How can we describe it? It's a drama—and often a comedy—of magnificent proportions. First, you have the baby: a little bundle of humanity who mostly drools, poops, and cries. She'll grow and change and make you proud in so many wonderful ways.

And then there's you, the father. Once steady and straight-thinking, you became a bug-eyed, video camera-toting, back-slapping fool. You feel bigger, older, and more powerful—and it's exhilarating. You're charged with enthusiasm.

One of the most constructive ways to channel your enthusiasm during these early years is to form your dreams and aspirations into specific goals and commitments. Now is the time to decide: “I will make fathering a priority in life.”

RECONCILE YOUR PAST

“You can't be a father until you're first a son.” Your ability to be a good father is directly influenced by your relationship with your father—or by your father's absence. That fathering inheritance needs to be either embraced or resolved before you can effectively communicate with or sometimes even love your own children.

Reconciling with your father—or, at least, reconciling your feelings toward him—can be a complicated, painful process, but it's a necessary one. The book The Heart of a Father can help take you through that process.

LEARN TO HANDLE EMOTIONS

Our emotions are close to the surface as new fathers. We men, wrapped up in logic and action, have a chance to experience the emotional side of life and lay the groundwork for a lifetime of intimacy with our children. And now is the best time to start. Too many men, having assumed that babies are a mother's domain, miss that window of opportunity and never learn to appropriately express to their children what is in their hearts.

There's lots of pride and enthusiasm during those early years, but there are some negatives that may surprise you:

Jealousy / Feeling Left Out. Through pregnancy and now motherhood, your wife has a deep connection with the child that you can never quite understand. You may feel jealous of the baby, who's getting your wife's best energy and attention. You may feel jealous of your wife, who typically knows more about what the child needs and more or less “calls the shots” concerning what you do with the child.

Instead of getting discouraged and withdrawing from fatherhood (as many young dads do), talk to a father who's been through this. He can share his insights and show you that it's really a common experience for new dads. Ultimately, it's best to discuss your feelings with your wife and start healthy habits that will help you through the conflicts down the road.

Frustration. Your wife is out for the evening, and it's just you and your baby. At some point, he starts crying inconsolably. He keeps screaming for no apparent reason, every logical remedy fails, and your frustration is mounting. Depending on your tolerance level, the tasks you hoped to accomplish, other issues on your mind, and how fatigued you feel after a long day, that frustration could drive you over the edge.

Do whatever it takes to protect your baby from dangers driven by intense emotions. Identify situations or chains of events that make you susceptible to outbursts. Learn to expect your baby's fussiness, and plan in advance how to handle it calmly. Find ways to express the emotion harmlessly, directed away from the child. Set him in his crib for a minute while he's screaming and do sit-ups or jumping jacks to let off steam. Turn on soothing music. Call a friend. Pray.

It's vital that you learn to handle negative emotions. Right now, your baby's physical safety is at stake, and that's serious. But unless you learn this soon, you could develop negative patterns that, through the years, will do lifelong damage to his emotional well-being as well as your relationship with him.

BOND WITH YOUR CHILD

In the early years, involvement means changing diapers and other child care tasks; reading books together; and lots of talking, cooing, playing and exploring with your infant. Fathering may seem uncomplicated, but that allows you to focus on your most important task: forming a close bond with your child.

You want to unleash her potential, to nurture that little seed as it sprouts and grows and blossoms. Your child needs to be stimulated intellectually, challenged physically, and guided socially. You'll probably never feel the responsibility more than now, when your child is small and helpless.

A healthy reaction to this sense of responsibility is to take an active role in learning about your growing child. What is she going through? What are her mental and sensory capacities? What does she need most from you? Too many dads never figure out answers to these questions and never get involved enough to form a close bond with their babies.

Bonding is really something that happens as a wonderful by-product of just spending time together. For many men, it comes naturally—you cherish every chance you have to hold, kiss, rock, coo, touch, and sing to your baby.

Some dads don't feel that immediate closeness. After all, this is a brand new relationship, and it takes time to get used to each other. Give it time. Your bond with your child can become just as close as any other father and child.

Bonding also comes during everyday child care, where many of us feel out of place. We can stand up to an angry boss or muster the courage to land an important client, but we grow skittish at the sight of a one-year-old in need.

Plain and simple, become comfortable with child care tasks. Committed fathers are willing to brave screams and tears, messy faces and, yes, even “blowout” diapers. Dive right in, make mistakes, learn from experience, and gain confidence for the next time.

A healthy bond will give your baby great security now, but will translate into much more tangible benefits later in life.

PREPARE FOR THE COST

There are time and energy costs involved in raising a child, but more urgently, having a child brings additional financial expenses. The brunt of those expenses, since the mother will take maternity leave and perhaps stay home indefinitely, often falls on the father.

Beyond paying the immediate bills, take time to do some financial planning. Maybe you'll start saving for your child's education; maybe you've never looked seriously into life insurance, and now you feel the importance of providing for your family if something should happen to you; maybe you'll need to do nothing more than re-evaluate your budget and spending habits to factor in the added expenses.

Now is an important time to discuss financial and career aspirations with your wife. How much of a priority is your career? Will you sacrifice time at home to advance in the workplace? Would you consider turning down a promotion or transfer to protect your time with your children?

ESTABLISH A SUPPORT TEAM

You need people who are dedicated to you and your children, who are ready to offer assistance when you need it. Your primary “teammate” is your wife. With her parenting knowledge, her complementary perspective, and her womanly comfort, she'll be your most valuable asset throughout your life as a dad. And remember that, right now, she may need your support more than you need hers.

You'll also benefit from meeting with other fathers to compare notes about the issues you're facing. Even if you don't have all the answers yet, it helps to know you're not alone in this.

BE PATIENT

Fathering an infant involves sacrifice and requires patience. There are 2:00 am feedings. There will be occasions when your child is ill but can't tell you where it hurts. You'll need patience when it comes to sex with your wife, who is likely the most exhausted and the least responsive she'll ever be. You'll be asked to change or put on hold some of the things you have enjoyed in the past: eight hours of sleep, timely arrivals, spending money on yourself, fulfilling certain dreams.

Patience is crucial because your child moves at a different pace and operates on a different level than you do. Kids are going to slow you down. Packing for just a trip across town is now a prolonged procedure.

With patience you can make these sacrifices, but it's more than a quiet resignation that you have to because of your new responsibilities. Patience is vital in any situation where two people must learn to mesh together their personalities, schedules and priorities. In other words, this is the character quality that facilitates bonding. Through patience, you are laying the groundwork for a lifetime of intimacy with your kids.

ACTION POINTS

  • Go through your entire house to make sure it's baby-safe.
  • Talk to your dad or another older father about what it was like when he first became a father.
  • Talk with your wife about her expectations of you as a father.
  • Practice saying to your child: “I love you.”
  • Start a fathering journal of your joys, challenges and other memories you want to capture during these early years.
  • Identify a sitter that you and your wife both trust, then plan regular “date nights” together.
  • Buy and read a book on child development. (See our Dads Store for recommendations.)
  • Play with your child every day.
  • Regularly talk to your wife about your child's intellectual, physical and emotional development.
  • Sign up for a CPR class; educate yourself on how to detect illness and how to handle medical emergencies.

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