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How to Nurture the Dad-Bond

Jen Geller
July 20, 2012

Sometimes it seems that Dads get a raw deal. "Attachment parenting" is the new big buzzword, and is usually associated with mothers. Magazine covers are all about celebrity moms. When Mom is away, people still ask if Dad is "babysitting" (no, he's being a Dad!). Deserved or not, these days dads often get overlooked or even derided.

It's true, moms do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to the kids; handling their childcare needs, dealing with the school stuff, even most of the housework falls to mom. Dad may not always deal with the nuts and bolts of parenthood, perhaps working 80-hour weeks or not even living the same home as the mother and kids. However, his bond with the children is no less important and needs to be strengthened as the kids grow.

But parenthood is tricky, sometimes for everyone. And if you (Mom) find yourself wondering why Dad hasn't bonded with your child, the way you have, you might be seeing their bond the wrong way. And you might even be able to learn from it.

Infants and Babies: Loving the Little Stranger

For many mothers the parent-child bond comes in-utero. Nine months of pregnancy, delivery and nursing often make for a physical and emotional bond from the get-go. Dad can feel a bit left out in those early days and may struggle a bit with a connection.

Dr. Robi Ludvig, psychotherapist and Care.com contributor says, "It's normal for fathers not to feel as connected those first few months. There isn't as much one-on-one time with the baby in those early months."

Tom Matlack, founder of the Good Men Project, a website for men that deals with issues such as fatherhood and families and how men think, suggests that there is a broader cultural issue at play here; "It's very rare for fathers to get any form of paternity leave so many of them feel as if they miss out on those first connections and it can be hard."

Goofing around is Serious Business

The early years are prime for father-child bonding. The preschool and grade school years are great for horsing around, shoulder rides, and roughhousing. While there are plenty of dads who like quiet activities with their children, many families love the fun play that 'Daddy' can do. This kind of silliness is an important part of bonding and growing during those formative years as well.

And if it looks like Dad is having all the fun, it may be because he is.

According to a recent study "In Defense of Parenthood: Children Are Associated With More Joy Than Misery" researchers found that fathers are happier than mothers as well as men who are not fathers.

According to author of the study, Katherine Nelson of the Positive Psychology Lab at University of California, Riverside, "From our studies, we can't necessarily say why or how fathers had a different experience of parenthood than mothers, but just that it appears that the parent-happiness link is stronger for fathers than for mothers. Past studies have indicated that much of fathers' time spent with children is in leisure or play, whereas mothers tend to be more responsible for the "work" aspects of parenthood. I'm not saying that this is always the case, and those roles may be shifting, but the association with play may be one possible reason for the stronger association between parenthood and happiness for men. Obviously, not all time spent with children can be playtime, but men and women alike may find solace in the fact that parenting can be associated with greater feelings of happiness and meaning."

Helen Partridge of Arlington, VA is home all day with 10-month-old Charlotte. Her husband James only sees her at morning, at night before bed and on weekends. Instead of regarding this as a negative for the family, she sees the time Charlotte and James spend together as a plus for everyone; "It works out really well because those are the times that I am usually the most tired and in need of a break -- and less likely to be playing or teaching her. He definitely does things with her that I normally wouldn't do -- namely along the lines of play. He is so interactive with her and definitely brings out her funny side. He is very inventive and more adventurous than I am. She learns a lot from him."

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Of course families don't all look the same. Families where the father is the primary caregiver, blended or divorced families, single parents and same-sex parents are all growing parts of the populations. Every family is unique and every parent-child bond is different, but fostering a bond, particularly between the kids and the parent who isn't the primary caregiver is incredibly important to everyone involved.

"For divorced or blended families it is really important that the child has a relationship with the other parent, even though it may be difficult for you," says Ludvig. "Allowing the child to have a relationship with both parents and having them work hard at not making the child take sides is essential to their well-being. As for families of same-sex couples or families where the father is the primary caregiver, recognize the strength each parent brings to the family and carve out special time with your kids to foster those bonds and grow them."

Parenthood Isn't Always Fun, Obviously.

"Look, sometimes it feels that kids can be hardwired to be pains-in-the-ass," admits Matlack.

As children grow, those close knit bonds that fathers have in those early years can be tested. Teens and 'tweens may no longer think that Dad is the coolest guy and horsing around or reading together may seem babyish. Fathers can often retreat and that bond can feel strained at times, but it is important to be the grown up and keep at it.

"The bad times really can strengthen a bond in a family. Being present and there for your kids is probably the single most important thing a father can do. Just being there counts for something sometimes," says Matlack.

Being present is a big part of parenting for all ages. Yelling at them to put the phone down and talk to you may not always yield the results you want. If your child always seems to be texting, maybe that's your in. Be funny in your messages to him or her even if it's about something mundane.

Show up when there is a game or a play. Take them out to dinner or ice cream afterwards alone. If something is important to your child, make it important to you.

"Parenthood is really a time to stretch yourself as a person and try and be your best self" says Ludwig. "There is always a way to get back into a child's life no matter what the age. Being there for an activity, being approachable and willing to talk. It takes effort but being there does help these bonds."

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