Rarely has the birth of a baby created as much attention as the birth of the Royal Baby. The almost minute by minute reporting of the labor and birth, followed by the announcement with its British protocol, seemed to put the entire country (ours as well as England) into the role of expectant parents – or grandparents. Speaking of a baby market, according to the press, $37 million dollars will be spent on royal baby-themed toys, including burp cloths and potty trainers. Royalty by association.
Much noted in the commentary about this event was the seeming informality of the new parents, despite their status as Prince and Duchess. Their clothes and demeanor have been described in detail. The new mother expressed her feelings as “very emotional”, while the new father, like other fathers, expressed thanks that the baby had his mother’s looks. Reports contrasted the occasion with those in years past, including the appearance of William’s parents at the time of his birth, as well as traditional announcements in earlier times.
The interpretation given to what was labeled a choreographed event, was that this was an attempt to depict the monarchy as more modern, and better able to relate to ordinary people. Even more striking, however, was the degree to which it symbolized the changing role of fathers. Here was a picture of a young father very much involved in the birth and care of his new baby, his wife making the point that he had already changed a diaper, and dad commenting on the baby having good strong lungs. (Strong enough to wake his father as well as his mother.)
One does not have to believe that either this mother or father will be the sole caregivers of their baby to recognize the changed involvement of fathers in both the caring for and rearing of children. This is a work in progress, particularly with more fathers becoming stay at home fathers and primary caregivers. Of course, those fathers do not yet receive universal approval or support, and there is still considerable resistance to this kind of role reversal. Men who have undertaken this role report having to hear comments about their competence and aspersions cast on their masculinity.
Certainly, part of the thinking in the struggle to enable women to become part of the larger work world was that men were to take a larger domestic role. The nature of the economy has been a force in bringing that about. As women have become important contributors to family income, men have had to take on a greater share of what was once thought to be “woman’s work.” The consensus among women, however, is that the primary responsibility is still theirs, and trying to balance work in and out of the home a major source of stress.
Whatever the variation in the degree of responsibility for home and children among men, there is clearly a change in the nature of men’s involvement in their children’s lives, and the emotional rewards men experience as a result of that involvement. As one who has worked with parents for many years, I am aware of changes that may seem small, but are still significant. Some years ago, it was always a mother who called me wanting help with a child, who came alone for appointments, and would say when asked about the father that he was not involved, knew very little about the child, or disagreed that there was a problem.
These days, it is most often the father who calls me and describes the situation in detail. Parents always come to see me together, and while they may disagree about some issues involving the child, fathers have a meaningful contribution to make shedding light on the situation. Often, identification with their children can lead to rejecting responses to them by parents who don’t want to see characteristics repeated that they don’t like in themselves. More recently, however, I have seen the opposite in numerous fathers, especially in relation to their sons. These fathers have shown a deeper understanding of their sons’ behavior as a result of their recognition of similarities to issues of their own. This has enabled them to have good ideas about what would be helpful to their children.
Without generalizing too far, what seems clear is that greater “hands on” experience is the way one gets to know and understand one’s child. It is this knowledge and understanding that enables parents to respond successfully to their children in ways that help them learn and grow. It is what enables parents to resolve and move beyond the inevitable bumps in child-rearing. These are some of the rewards that fathers are now experiencing as a result of their greater involvement with their children.
It is also this kind of involvement with children that has been in short supply more recently, and therefore of deep concern to both mothers and fathers. The search for balance between family and work continues, but is not answered simply by the greater involvement of fathers, no matter how desirable in itself.
We can cheer for the arrival of a baby. But let’s remember that birth is only the beginning.