Dads are definitely getting more involved with their children. According to my friend and colleague, Dottie Lamm, MSW, they’re helping with childcare and household tasks because they want to be present for those special moments, and they want to contribute more time, focus and energy to their families.
Dottie has worked as a social worker with single mothers and with parents of emotionally disturbed children. As First Lady of Colorado from 1975 to 1987, as Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in 1998, and as a Denver Post columnist for 17 years, she has fought for women’s rights and the well-being of children and their families. After having been “blown away” with the way in which her son and son-in-law were so involved with their new babies, compared to their own dads back in the sixties and seventies, she wrote “Daddy on Board: Parenting Roles for the 21st Century.” You can get a copy of the book by contacting: Cassandra@fulcrumbooks.com. 303-277-1623
I’m happy to share with you a recent conversation I had with Dottie.
Joanne: You say that dads are clearly on board the family boat and are even steering the ship. Can you tell us more about how that has come about?
Dottie: Wow! I originally thought, “Of course, dads are more involved than they were in my generation of child rearing. Mothers and the women’s movement have pushed them—ready or not.” Seventy-five percent of married moms with children are now in the paid work force, including sixty-two percent of college educated married moms with infants. So these two working parents are going to have to share the kid care role at home. Right? Well, yes. But I also found that even the dads whose wives were full time homemakers were getting “on board” with their babies too. There appears to be a whole new ethic and desire on the part of dads to get involved from the get-go. One dad said he felt his own dad missed out on the joys (and trials!) of early bonding.
Next: 8 tips for creating balance in a household
Joanne: What tips do you have for parents who get bogged down trying to negotiate and work out issues of child care and household duties—especially with two working parents whose schedules change constantly?
Dottie: Good question! With the parents I interviewed, I found that just because there’s a will doesn’t mean there’s an easy way! Culture kicks in hard, and some men (and women) have difficulty breaking away from the traditional mom/dad roles in their families of origin. The couples I talked with shared many tips for negotiating their parenting roles:
• Communicate. An overused—almost cliché word, so let me be specific. “Say what you need,” said one frustrated dad about his wife’s smoldering anger at the fact that he was great with the kids, but didn’t pitch in on the housework enough. “Hey, I can’t read your mind.” (And sometimes we women think our husbands can—or could if they really loved us)
• Set regular times to review the schedule and the needs of family members. No parenting pattern—no matter how perfect at first—will stay the same over time. “Once a month, renegotiate?” I asked. “No,” said one mom. “At least once a week!”
• DO go to bed angry when necessary. “You’ll have better energy to deal with who does what in the morning,” said one mom of teenagers whose husband is the full time homemaker.
• DON’T be a slave to consistency. Consistency with kids is overrated. With one couple I interviewed, the dad would never spank or discipline the kids in any physical way. The mom thought an occasional swat on the behind was ok. They agreed to disagree, and whoever was in charge used the methods they thought best for the occasion.
• Step away, don’t walk away! Stepping back and saying, “I’m too beat to deal with this right now,” is far different than walking away, yelling or saying nothing—all of which indicate to the spouse that he/she doesn’t matter. Condescension at its worst! And a spouse who is continually “condescended to” can fall into a downward spiral of low self-esteem.
• To Dads: Listen. Really listen. Don’t rush in to fix things immediately. Sometimes she wants specific help. Sometimes she just wants to vent and be understood—an ear instead of a hand.
• To Moms: Let go of control. His way of nurturing may be different than yours and that’s ok. Unless his “style” is endangering life or limb, step back and don’t expect perfection—which really means your idea of perfection.
• Have regular “date nights” or other times to be a couple, rather than always being parents negotiating roles or discussing the kids. What brought you together in the first place? Music, snowboarding, chess, bowling? Do it! A minister in one of my book discussions was adamant. “Don’t feel guilty about not spending every minute away from work with the kids. They may howl when you go, but your nurtured loving relationship is more important to them in the long run than spending every minute as “parents on board.”
Next: Financial woes and how to cope with the added stress
Joanne: But can couples really afford these outings in this devastating economy—or do they just cause more stress?
Dottie: Good point! Before the recession, dads were staying home by choice, but by mid- 2008 hundreds of dads were home because they had been “let go”—an entirely different financial and psychological situation. (Over the past three years of recession, eighty percent of jobs lost were traditional male jobs.) Often dads feel lost. And moms are feeling lost too! Traumas of reduced life style, home foreclosure, need to relocate, elimination of children’s loved activities loom. Egos become fragile when partners are pushed out of their accustomed roles. Guilt and depression can kick in, even when parents understand intellectually that their challenges are due to factors outside their control. It’s more important than ever for couples to be sensitive to each other.
Joanne: How are couples coping with the added stressors?
Dottie: Here are some suggestions that couples may find helpful.
• Don’t project all your woes onto your partner. He/she is probably feeling just as fragile as you are, especially if a job has been lost or downsized. Talk, talk, talk, about feelings as well as finances.
• Prioritize! Many extras you have learned to live with can probably be lived without, although sacrifice may not come easy. One couple moved to a rental house, sold one car, gave up outings with their only child—but they will not give up the tuition for her private school that she loves and they feel she needs.
• Bring older children into the new family realities. Some are surprisingly resilient and eager to be “contributors”—if not with income, at least with creative ideas and positive attitudes”
• At the risk of sounding Pollyanna, look for a “silver lining.” One father found himself relieved to give up his demanding restaurant business and go to work for a competitor at a reduced income but regular hours. “I can finally spend some time with my kids,” he said.
• Make a budget and stick to it. Get help if you need to or go to Family Budget on the internet. Also, check out www.themoneycouple.com with Scott and Bethany Palmer or their handy paperback book “First Comes Love, Then Comes Money: A Couple’s Guide to Financial Communication.”
• And as for that “date night”—perhaps do it in a group with other parents, and share babysitting expenses. That’s something we did in the “old days”—and it worked. You may not get the desired “one to one,” but at least you can get adult support, conversation and, perhaps, a bit of fun.