Questions and Answers for My Child Magazine:

Q1: I would love to know why fathers do not feel the guilt that mothers do – over everything, spending time away from the baby, spending money on themselves not the baby, feeding them the “right” food etc.

I don’t believe this is strictly true for many dads. Men can and do feel guilty about whether they are ‘doing’ their parental role responsibly and well. Particularly in families where there is a co-parenting model and a desire by dads to be engaged and active fathers. Some issues men face around guilt is not always the feeling part, but the expressing part.

More importantly, I believe that woman face imbalanced cultural and community pressures to ‘get motherhood right’ or suffer perceived or real criticism. Particularly as woman in many cases are the primary carers for new born children. An example of this is as simple as flicking through news articles, research papers or general discussion points on parenting. In nearly all cases you will find that the focus of any story is about mothers, their roles and what they may or may not be doing that reflects good parenting standards within the community. You don’t often see articles relating to dads or men that may say “Dads criticised for feeding their children the wrong food” It is more likely to read that mothers are. I think this is unfortunate, and subliminally woman are constantly barraged with messages place them under enormous pressure to act a certain way. I don’t doubt this has the potential to cause a lot of guilt for woman.

I’m also curious about your question as it reflects some specific actions by fathers. I’m presuming this is your experience of someone in your life, perhaps even the father of your children? If so, it will be important to keep talking about these feelings. Keep discussing what your experience of his actions is like for you and nurture a space which helps open positive communication around parenting.

Q2: My 9 year old daughter has thought of my partner as her real dad (he’s been there ever since her birth). Her real father left me during pregnancy and hasn’t had any contact until recently and wants to see his child, now. I don’t know how to explain this to my daughter; that her dad isn’t really her dad without upsetting her. Can you help?

It may be impossible to break this news to your daughter without upsetting her. I don’t doubt this will be a shock. Rest assured that your fears and concerns are common amongst parents in your situation. However, it is critical to not keep information about your child’s history hidden from her. It is her history and no matter how difficult or painful the facts, your child has a right to eventually know everything about her life. Obviously, you have an important responsibility to use good judgment about how the facts should be presented. Your job as a parent is to convey any information you have about your child’s history in a way that she can digest it. Give your child ample opportunity to ask questions, and put some thought into the environment, words and setting you want to use. Your primary role will be to provide your daughter with the space to express her feelings and to feel heard when she does. Be creative in allowing this process. Give her options overtime to write, draw, paint or use music as a way of dealing with this information. This can really support children who may not have the words or emotional literacy to express themselves verbally. Overtime, open, casual conversation about her biological father will give your child the opportunity to practice discussing the topic at home before being challenged to do so by the outside world.

Working through your own feelings about your child’s biological father is also important before broaching the issue with her. Children follow your lead. If you are uncomfortable with her life story, she will probably be too. If you are comfortable with her heritage, and the choices you made to protect her than odds are that she will be too. So, work on yourself first.

Q3: What activities, words of encouragement can I give to my husband to help him bond better with my daughter (1 yr old). She adores him but he seems to shy away, perhaps a little scared of her. He seems to put 100% effort into our son (5) and very little effort into our daughter. He says he finds it hard to bond with her. What do I do? It’s breaking my heart and causing a lot of conflict between us.

I can appreciate this situation. I have a son and a daughter and for me parenting my son feels so natural and easy. As a man, I feel I know intuitively what play he might like and things he may be interested in. With my daughter, although confident of a deep and beautiful love for her, I’m aware of some uneasiness and a lack of confidence around what play and intimacy are in her best interest. For me I hope to keep learning over time. I’m not sure if this feels familiar to you and your circumstances? But I know one thing that my partner and I do is watch and learn from each other. In a sense I am teaching her more about boys and she is teaching more about girls.

From your question, the crux of the situation lies in understanding what your husband finds hard about bonding with your daughter? It could be something quite simple or a deep emotional block that may even be out of his awareness? If you haven’t already, my advice is to have a very open and empathetic discussion with him about these issues. To do this differently from how you may have approached this in the past try setting the scene for a new solution in your communication:

1. Make a contract about your discussion. Try discussing or organising all the points below before you actually begin to speak.

2. Make a time that your both able to be alone, present and available for each other.

3. Contract to finish the discussion regardless of interruptions, even if it means coming back to it at another time and day. This can be vital if the conversation breaks down because of conflict and you need to have some space.

4. Become a champion for using ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements. ‘I’ statements deepen intimacy and help each person take responsibility for their feelings, rather than blaming someone else. Again, if you can, make this part of your communication contract.

5. Honour your feeling and be empathetic to his. If you’re upset tell him (Using ‘I feel’ statements of course). If he is saying something that is hard or difficult to accept, deepen your empathy for his life and reality rather than become defensive or hostile. You will always both see the world (even one you share) differently.

6. Repeat what you have heard him say back to him (‘I heard you say that..’) and encourage him to do the same for you. This will really validate you and your partner’s feelings or position on a point and provide both of you with the confidence that you are being heard fully. It also helps to clarify things you may not have understood.

7. Finish with a statement that reminds each other of your love and your commitment to being parents and together. If you can, leave the discussion open to revisit. It may take a few times to deepen the level of the conversation before you both really open up to something more intimate around this situation.

I have a suspicion that if your communication goes well you may find that this creates a pathway to the answers you seek in your question.

From a practical point of view my thoughts are to generate ample opportunities for your husband to spend time alone with your daughter. From an ‘I’ statement perspective, perhaps you can suggest ‘I feel I am missing out on time with my son’ rather than, ‘you need to spend more time with our daughter’ and take him out for some mother/son time. Suggest to your husband some of the below activities which may be great for the two of them together.

1. Go to the pet store. Even younger babies get really excited about kittens and puppies and every kid likes to watch goldfish. If you don’t have a pet store nearby, go give some love to the closest animal shelter.

2. The local wading pool. Ours costs less than $2. Young ones love it.

3. Go for a hike. Walk in-town or discover a new spot in nature. Take another dad and baby daughter along for company if that’s possible. He may get some insight watching other fathers with their daughters.

4. Go to the library. Even when they are too young to read, babies soon discover that there are plenty of board books to drool on and crawl around space to escape from at the library.