Arlene Harris looks the how role of fathers in their children’s lives is as important as their mums
IT HAS has long been believed that a mother’s bond with her child is stronger than that of a father’s. But with Father’s Day just around the corner, many believe that Dads can be just as close to their children.
Midwife and founder of the Gentlebirth App, Tracy Donegan, says babies respond to love and attention regardless of who is giving it to them.
“Think of that relationship with your baby as a tennis match,” she says. “You ‘serve’ and baby ‘returns’ so there’s a constant to and fro of communication. In the early days that could simply be making eye contact, touching or carrying your baby, cooing and talking and answering his cries — all things Dads can do brilliantly.
“The primary bond right after birth is supposed to be mum as her body is designed to be baby’s habitat during and after birth and in those early weeks of life, but in the modern world sometimes Dad becomes the primary caregiver through necessity or choice and what we know from research is that having a responsive consistent carer for the infant is most important for healthy development rather than whether it’s mum, dad or granny. The key here is consistency and responsiveness which is critical for the baby’s brain health.”
David Hickey lives in Cork with his wife Mary and their children Sadbh (10) and Odran (5). The information and advocacy officer believes that while the mother/baby bond is inherent, a strong relationship between fathers and their children is easy to achieve.
“I do think there is a special bond between mother and child which was traditionally developed due to mothers doing most of the caring and rearing,” he says. “However, fathers can also have that bond if they spend quality time with their children throughout their development. Men can also have great supporting role during pregnancy, birth and afterwards.
“I always wanted us to have the kind of family where with an equitable approach to parenting and household work as I grew up doing basic housework and helping with younger siblings and continued to learn from these tasks into adulthood — so I see this as a life skill to learn before becoming a parent.”
So comfortable was he with looking after his children that the 47-year-old spent some time as a ‘stay-at-home-dad’ in order to get more out of fatherhood.
“In 2011, I decided to reduce my working hours and get more involved with my family,” he says. “Mary was due to return to work (as a doula for www.birthingmamas.ie ) so I went part-time which meant we each only worked 2½ days per week and had no childcare costs. I have heard so many older men talk of the joy of being with their grandchildren, but also having some regret for never taking time out with their kids so I wanted to be at home with my children — to grow with them and not hear about their achievements from my wife or in later years when they are talking about it as adults.
“In the beginning it was brilliant — taking trips to Fota Wildlife Park, playgrounds, doing art projects, reading, cooking and playing games. Then one day I was planting an apple tree in the back garden which took three hours due to the many distractions of my small kids. That evening I apologised sincerely to my wife for all the days I questioned her ability to keep the house tidy, have a dinner ready, get simple tasks done, even keeping the car tidy. Within two months of being a stay-at-home dad the reality of parenting was evident — I realised it wasn’t just the fun stuff. I also struggled with the loneliness and repetitiveness of parenting and over the years, I often wanted to go back to work, especially in winter when the Irish weather can restrict your options with the kids.” But while discovering that being a dad wasn’t all about having fun, David, who is originally from Dublin, says taking time off to be with his children was invaluable.
“The last four years have been the best learning curve for me as a man, a father and as a husband,” he says. “My daughter and I didn’t connect for the first few years of her life — while I tried constantly, she just wanted her mammy. But I was patient and thankfully, that’s now a distant memory. Every day I get hugs and kisses from each of my kids and see the sincere joy in their faces to hang out with me.
“I understand their needs and can parent at an equal level to my wife because I know who my children are. They know all of me — happy dad and grumpy dad; not just working dad. Going to part time employment was the best decision I ever made and alone has helped me appreciate the amount of work involved in parenting and how much joy I get from hanging out with my children and getting to know them more each day — so I would really recommend it to other fathers.” While he realises that not everyone gets the opportunity to be a hands-on Dad, David says that even dedicating time after work, can make a difference to the relationship between father and child.
“I feel lucky for what we have and I know not everyone can make this choice to be with their family,” he says. “My father (Larry) had to work to provide for his family but shared so much of his spare time with us. My mother hated him being around the kitchen so he isn’t a cook, but did do some cleaning; however, his main task was working and hanging out with us kids. I feel very lucky to have grown up with him; and he’s still here to play with my kids, which is great for them as they love him for his playfulness.”
Having fun with his children has always been important to Larry who says his own experience with a ‘traditional’ father made him want something different for his own family.
“I have six children and have always enjoyed spending as much time with them as possible,” says the retired bus driver. “My wife Angela was brilliant at the organisation side of things but I loved playing with the kids.
“We lived on an estate in Dublin and I would always be out on the green with my own children and those from other houses arranging football matches or rounders with them all — it was great fun and I think I enjoyed it so much because things were very different in my day. My own dad, by comparison, was very distant and never interacted with me and my brothers at all — everything was left to my mother and as far as fathers in those days were concerned, children were definitely to be seen and not heard.
“I would have loved to have played football with my Dad or have had some fun with him but it just wasn’t the done thing at the time. And because I didn’t have a close relationship with him, I was determined to make sure I spent as much time with my own kids as possible. So whenever I had the chance I was out with them and for this reason I would say that I have a great relationship with my children and think I have passed this on to them because they also really enjoy being with their families and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”
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