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When moms criticize, dads back off of baby care

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Melissa Dahl


Health writer

When Jeremy Adam Smith's infant son, Liko, woke up in the middle of the night screaming, Smith wanted to help calm him down. While his wife tried to sleep, he'd take the baby into another room and sing, coo and plead with his son to quiet down.

But all that accomplished was keeping all three of them up. More often than not, his wife, Olli, would insist that he just let her breast-feed Liko. It worked like flipping a switch — no more crying.

“For many fathers, they see that and, on the one hand, they don’t want to intrude — and on the other, it's a lot of work to intrude!" says Smith, who lives in San Francisco with his wife and their now-4-year-old son. Within weeks, he began to back away from trying to soothe his son's screams.

During the first few months of a new baby's life, every parent suffers moments of self-doubt. But new research suggests that dads might be especially susceptible to that lack of self-confidence — and that moms may be partly to blame.

Moms' words of criticism or encouragement directly affect how involved their husband or partner becomes in the day-to-day care of their infant, finds a new study published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. When a mother criticized her partner's child-care efforts, it often caused him to lose confidence, and even withdraw from caring for the baby. But when a mom praised dad's efforts, he took a more active parenting role.

Study co-author and mother Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan attributes much of the nagging that goes on to all the pressure felt by new moms.

"It can really feel like it's all on you, so you want it all done just so. If your baby goes out in a non-matching outfit, someone may criticize you. You feel like it's going to come back to you," says Schoppe-Sullivan, an assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.

Her team interviewed 97 married or cohabitating couples, starting when they were in their third trimester of pregnancy, asking them about their beliefs about moms, dads and involvement in day-to-day child care.


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"Most couples said they believed fathers and mothers should spend an equal amount of time with their children," Schoppe-Sullivan says. But after their child was born, it didn't matter what they had said in those initial interviews; it was the mom's behavior that dictated the dad's involvement.

About two-thirds of the couples were first-time parents, but whether or not they already had kids at home didn't affect the outcome, Schoppe-Sullivan says.

When the baby was 3 or 4 months old, researchers visited the families to observe them in their homes. They asked the couple to change the baby into a new outfit, and watched how the mom and dad interacted: Did the mom completely take over, while the dad stepped back? Or did they work together?

They found that the dads who knew what they were doing had partners who encouraged and complimented them as they changed the baby's clothes. But the dads who looked less confident were accompanied by partners who critiqued their methods during the entire observation.

'You're not doing it the way I do it'

For Paul Skabish, a 31-year-old who lives in Garden Grove, N.J, the physical act of changing his son Paulie’s clothes was never the problem. It was the mismatched outfits he chose — and his wife’s reaction to them — that eventually caused him to resign from wardrobe duty.

"I do try to match … but my wife is kind of anal about that," he says. After his wife's critique of his haphazard fashion sense, he backed away from his brief stint as family fashion director, and has stayed far from it ever since. Paulie is now 4.

Of course, both Skabish and his wife, Melissa, say that their wardrobe skirmish is a small issue. But Diana Solomon, who helps facilitate parenting groups at Community Birth & Family Center in Seattle, says that many parenting disputes are over the seemingly simple tasks: What's the best way to soothe the baby? Should we use a pacifier or not?

"There's a lot of judgment, a lot of 'you're not doing it right,'" says Solomon. "Which really means, 'you're not doing it the way I do it.'"

Both partners have moments of uncertainty over making the right decision for their child. But it may be that some dads need a little extra cheerleading is because, culturally, the father's role in caring for an infant isn't as well-defined as the mother's, Schoppe-Sullivan says.

"For dads, their role is anything from bringing home a big paycheck and no child care to being very actively involved," Schoppe-Sullivan says. "Some dads want to be involved but they're not sure what the point of entry is."

A nine-month head start

That's often because the mother has something of a nine-month head start on parenthood, which means the dad has to play a bit of catch up.

"You really can't underestimate the importance of the mother carrying that child for nine months, and what that does to prepare her for caring for that infant," says Jay Fagan, an associate professor in the school of social work at Temple University in Philadelphia. His research often focuses on fatherhood and early childhood. "That little baby has been with the mother 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So it's a very different relationship; it's a very intense relationship."

That relationship can be so intense that it's tough for dads to know where they're even needed. During those first few weeks of his son Liko's life, Smith warred an internal battle: Should he try to step in and attempt to calm his son’s tears in the middle of the night? Or just let his wife handle it, since she seemed to have it all figured out?

It took Smith's "sheer force of will" to abandon the easy route and keep pestering his wife to let him help Liko get back to sleep. But finally, his wife relented, and handed the boy to his dad. After about four months of trial, error and lots of crying (by both Daddy and Baby Smith), Smith learned how to lull his son to sleep.

“My clearest memories of his first 18 months is spending enormous amounts of time walking around our apartment holding him and singing to him,” Smith says.

He says people point to studies like this as evidence that maybe babies should just be with their mothers. “But it can be read the other way – that fathers need to try harder and mothers need to help them with that,” Smith says.