When I found out I was pregnant, I was shocked and alarmed: I’d spent the weekend at the lake, bouncing on a Jet Ski, drinking Miller Lite and shooting off illegal fireworks. I read the pregnancy test’s bright-blue plus sign while sitting on the toilet smoking a cigarette. When the baby was born, I was flooded with love, but I had no idea what to do with her. I bumbled through it as best as I could, praying for the day when she would learn to speak so she could just tell me what the hell she needed.
Since I was a woman, this was some DEFCON 1 trouble.
A woman who doesn’t instantly melt over baby shit is a monster, missing some crucial woman gene that dictates all women are born natural caretakers. If I had been a dude, though, my trouble to bond with this tiny, poop-covered thing would have been not only understandable but even hilarious, heartwarming and bittersweet.
I often joked that it was like Knocked Up, except I was Seth Rogen. The only difference was, I didn’t quite have the luxury of being an incompetent moron.
That’s because the history of men loving their children—yet somehow not knowing or caring what the fuck to do with them until they’re grown up—is as old as time; it hinges on the assumption that women will just naturally step up. But we rarely talk about why this is the case. Does it make you a shitty dad if you’re not a baby person? Short answer: for most of history, no. Now? Sorta. It depends.
Take Donald Trump.
We certainly don’t need any more evidence that Trump is a shitty father who was also not a baby person. He has freely admitted to never lifting so much as a finger for his kids’ care when they were young — unless you count writing the checks. He has expressed clear unequivocal disdain for and indifference to their early rearing, from refusing to change diapers to not even being around for bedtime or walks. But for fun, let’s add another exhibit to the record, from GQ’s recent profile of Donald Trump Jr. In it, Julia Ioffe notes:
Largely absent from childhood tales is the father. “He would love them, but he did not know how to speak to them in the children’s way of thinking,” Ivana said of her ex-husband on The Wendy Williams Show last year. “He was able to speak to them only when they came from university, when eventually he was able to speak business to them. Otherwise, he really did not know how to handle the kids.” The interactions were apparently alien in both directions. “The children,” Ivana wrote in her book, “didn’t know how to relate to him, either.”
Trump benefits, as many shitty dads from his era do, from the fact that we have always operated, broadly, on the notion that women are naturally “baby people” and men are reluctant fathers at best. These dads may be proud, doting papas later on, sure, but only after they’ve been roped and caught, then persuaded to breed. Then, they stand around helplessly wondering what to do with this tiny human blob, usually fucking it up and infuriating their partners in the process. They may swoop in for proud moments and discipline, but they mostly didn’t have to get their hands dirty in literal shit and spit-up along the way.
I’m not talking about the 1950s! I’m talking about up until fairly recently, too. The assumption that men aren’t equipped or cut out for this work while women de facto nurturers still pervades the culture. It’s a shame, because it not only ignores the fact that not all women are baby people, but that just like men, women, too, can find themselves totally shell-shocked by the reality of newborn care.
Still, modern parenting books perpetuate the idea that men are the only ones ill-suited to the job. Popular books for soon-to-be fathers have names like Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad! which sounds like it was written by that teen stoner from the old Dell commercials. Generally, there’s still a dumbing-down of the modern father, who is widely portrayed in family-oriented commercials as either nonexistent or simply too idiotic to help out reliably — the sort of man who wouldn’t know how to change a diaper if you drew a tutorial on the backside of a beer can. That’s only just now changing.
But again, why have we made men out to seem too stupid to care for a child? Why is it men can draft complex legal systems, invent indoor plumbing and design tactical pants, but instantly morph into mouth-breathing morons when it comes to holding a baby?
In part, it’s because for most of history, we never gave them a chance to figure it out, starting with childbirth and following up with the first few months of a baby’s life.
Medical historian Judy Leavitt told NPR that traditional childbirth has always been “a female event” that men were excluded from. “The woman would call her friends and relatives together to help her, and they’d be all around the birthing bed,” Leavitt said. “And there’d be the midwife.” Men, she said, might be asked to boil water, but that was about it. But by the 20th century, birthing moved to hospitals, and men were moved to waiting rooms, or “stork clubs.”
Even though often that’s romanticized in depictions of the era, Leavitt says it was something male physicians enforced more than anyone else, and that men weren’t always happy about it. Nor were their wives, who also pushed for male presence in the birthing room as part of their feminist efforts to simply demand that women could dictate for themselves who could and could not be there. That took until the 1960s to happen. Cut to today: Most men are typically present for their child’s birth.
That’s important: Research has found that fathers who witness their child’s birth and experience the “engrossing” first few moments of their newborn’s life will feel like they “already have a relationship” with the child, feel more at ease holding them, and can identify their own child in a group more quickly. Those who regarded this moment as a “peak experience” were more likely to help out in the caregiving. This alone would indicate a greater comfort and ease with doing all that mom stuff that men are always portrayed as being too dumb to master.
But what comes next also perpetuates their ineptitude. Studies show that bonding/talking/playing with newborns actually prevents postpartum depression and lowers stress in men, and also boosts the child’s mental and physical development. This is extra critical in the three to six months after the child is born. And all this activity early on bodes well for a future strong bond with your kid. In other words, the bond fathers and their newborns experience might not be identical to that of the mothers, particularly if the mother is nursing, but it’s equally important.
Bonding with newborns actually prevents postpartum depression and lowers stress in men, and also boosts the child’s mental and physical development.
But men don’t always get to do this bonding. Kyle Pruitt, a doctor at Yale’s Child Study Center, explains why, and it’s a powerful mix of male vulnerability and cultural expectations about gender roles. Pruitt writes:
The period immediately after birth can find fathers vulnerable as well as engrossed. We are often so anxious to affirm a close and uninterrupted attachment between baby and mother that in the service of early “mother-infant bonding” we unwittingly disrupt the baby’s early connection to father. Fathers so often feel that they should — or are directly told to — back off from mother and newborn that some observers call the baby’s first three months of life the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy, as far as the father is concerned. Zaslow (1981) reports that two-thirds of first time fathers describe having some form of “the blues” during this time period. They feel less control over their own lives, inadequate to the task at hand, and marginalized in their relationship with their spouse. Interestingly, the best treatment for fathers’ depressed mood was more contact with the baby.
The vulnerability of new fathers can be hard for new mothers to fathom. A new mother is anxious to enjoy and practice her new maternal competence. Having her baby respond to her care of him or her is the best antidote to all her worry and concern about her inadequacy. Precisely the same is true for fathers. But since so many mothers have had practice in caregiving before having their own babies, and because they feel the enduring pressure of culture and society to demonstrate their competence, they feel particularly invested in practicing to “get it right.” When this is overdone, father can feel excluded and back off. In short order, the mother has the exclusivity she wants, but she has unwittingly lost her most important partner in care of the child.
What’s more, Pruitt notes that the interaction with and the recognition the child has of his or her father at even 6 or 8 weeks old — their touch, voice, face, playfulness and so on — cements the bond both ways. The child delights in this other source of nurturing, and the father has learned that their relationship is “irreplaceably special,” which encourages him to keep at it.
So, in short, it’s the stereotype that men aren’t needed, or can only act as a kind of supplemental care to the mother’s, that in effect creates the vicious cycle that prevents men from stepping up early on.
But Pruitt’s work was from 1997, and that leads us to 2018. The good news is that millennial men have increasingly rejected this stereotype of the inept or supplemental father who isn’t really around except to make bad jokes: They spend three times the hours on childcare and household work vs. the 1965 dad. There are twice as many stay-at-home dads now as there were in 1989, and they’ve pushed for paternity leave at unprecedented rates. Mothers have also conceded some ground to fathers in order to more equally share this experience.
But that leaves today’s father with a curious problem: What if you learn all the skills of basic baby care, and you realize you’re still not a baby person?
If a new father spoke the way Trump did about early childcare, he would no longer get a pass for generational tone-deafness. He would just look like an asshole who didn’t bother to even read the baby books.
But assuming you’ve done the work and learned the care, it should be all right to take your time figuring out which part of your kid’s growing-up you’re best at. The trick is, you can’t opt out until you figure it out. I learned eventually that while I wasn’t so great at baby time, I was terrific at toddlerhood. Once my daughter could converse and explain her needs, everything shifted. For every way I sucked at guessing the source of her nonverbal fussiness, I was a natural at talking through her questions and curiosities and worries. Until I got my bearings, though, I still nursed, read to her, played with her, soothed her, made silly faces and cleaned up all her shit. I’m not a monster.