Dear Dr. Poussaint:
I have recently become the father of a healthy baby girl. My wife wants me to help with feeding and holding the baby. This I don't mind. However, she also wants me to change the baby's diapers and give her a bath. I think that's going too far. Some things should be left to the woman.
I feel foolish and uneasy about changing diapers, but I also worry that it would be bad for the baby's image of me as a father. Would this confuse her about the proper role of a mother and a father in the house? Don't get me wrong. I believe in helping my wife but I don't want to feel like a "sissy" and get angry at my wife and maybe my baby, too. Is my wife right in asking me to change the diapers and bathe the baby? L. D., Houston Dear L.D.:
Traditionally there have been very sharply defined roles for mothers and fathers. Mothers were to provide the nursemaid functions, which included the routine household chores and the physical care of the baby. Fathers usually remained uninvolved with the child except when they occasionally held and played with the baby. These rules suggested that the father remain remote, except as a disciplinarian, until the baby could walk and talk.
These traditions were at least partly based on the notion that women were biologically destined to be the nursemaid and housekeeper while the man was to be the stern financial provider who was exempt from the dirty work.
Some psychologists suggested that males were not emotionally equipped or suited for the nurturing routines required by a new baby. Some men who wanted to participate more in fatherhood held back because they felt they would hurt the baby through their own clumsiness. Others felt that their friends and relatives would think they were "sissies" if they became too involved with their babies.
Fortunately many of these distorted ideas regarding the proper role of mother and father are changing for the better. The women's movement did much to awaken us to the understanding that many of the defined male and female roles were sexist and harmful to women, men, families and children. Most psychiatrists today support the idea that parenting in as many aspects as possible should be a shared experience between mother and father.
Thus, think not only of helping your wife but also of sharing and participating actively in child raising activities. This will benefit you, your wife and your baby.
There is absolutely no reason to feel like a "sissy" if you change your baby's diaper or give her a bath. Perhaps you are afraid you will feel emasculated if you change your baby's soiled diaper because it is a messy job. In fact, that may be the primary reason for wanting your wife to handle the job instead of you.
Let's face it. Babies can create messes. They defecate, drool, vomit and urinate, frequently at inopportune times and places. However, such messes don't always have to be unpleasant. They can be rewarding because they are part of caring for the baby.
Babies often respond positively to a soiled diaper being changed and this may be a special time for interacting and "gooing" with the parent. During all of these activities, emotional bonds are being built with the caretaker. So it's as important for the father as well as for the mother to participate in these routine chores.
You, in turn, will feel more confident and self-reliant as a parent in your own right with the baby. This is important, particularly if your wife works, becomes ill or is otherwise unavailable.
I can't think of any aspect of child care except for breast feeding that prevents the father from being as active as the mother. Enjoy your baby, and don't restrict yourself by archaic notions of male and female roles.