Making the Most of Dad Time

by Carolyn Hoyt

Making the Most of Dad Time

In the days before kids, I was sure that my husband would be the perfect father  — the Steve Martin movie dad. You know who I’m talking about: the dad who roughhouses with his 5-year-old while gently disciplining his prank-playing daughter and wisely counseling his teenage son. My husband was that kind of guy. I’d seen him entertain roomfuls of kids with singing, Frisbee throwing, and toddler tossing. Alas, expectations were not borne out by reality.

My husband  — under duress, he will confess to this as well  — started out as a pretty rotten father. You had to beg the guy to change a diaper, and pour a cup of ice down his pajama pants to get him out of bed in the middle of the night. When he did pitch in, he would, without exception, do a lousy job. The baby’s diaper would be leaking, the 4-year-old squalling because he got soap in her eyes. He’d give up, and I’d take over.

So it went, until the day my husband lost his job and I became an essential, though part-time, wage earner as well as the sole health-insurance provider for our family. We had no choice but to put him in charge while I was at work. And, I must admit, he rose to the challenge.

Necessity being the terrific mother of invention that she is, my husband stepped up to the plate and discovered in himself the dad he’d always wanted to be. Not only were the kids alive when I got home  — and fed, and sometimes clean  — but they were happy. They felt closer to their dad than ever. And he felt close to them.

Most men these days have an image of the dad they’ve always imagined themselves to be. Yet no matter how good their intentions, it’s hard to make that image mesh with a reality that can be stinky, whiny, frustrating, and mind-numbingly repetitive. If his wife looks like she’s got the whole mom thing effortlessly under control, it makes it all that much harder.

And since not every father will  — like my husband  — be forced to take charge, you may just have to help him. Lest you worry that this dumps another task on your already-too-long list, chances are it will take only the gentlest of pushes to point him in the right direction.

As I discovered, Rule One of helping your husband make the most of dad time is simply to make sure that dad time happens. That might mean convincing him to scale back his work hours, adding on to yours, or (heaven forbid!) getting yourself a life. Take some tennis lessons, join a book club, go to a movie, or simply occupy yourself with the ton of stuff I’m sure you generally leave undone. Then step back and let Dad do his thing.

“I know a lot of moms who leave instructions for their husbands,” says Armin Brott, father of three and author of The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year. “‘The children have to eat this food, warmed up at this temperature, at this time, put on these pajamas, and sing this lullaby.’ But he needs to make his own mistakes, and she needs to let him.” So skip the list, and encourage your husband to just wade in and figure things out for himself, without you looking over his shoulder.

Carolyn Hoyt, mother of Gabrielle, 11, and Miranda, 7, writes regularly about relationships and child development.

Breasts Are Not Required

Call it biological, call it cultural, call it what you want, but taking care of an infant can often appear to be a task best left to the mother. Or so dads seem to think.

Until he reached the ripe old age of 6 months, it seemed like Mason Tate of Orlando, Florida, would not stop crying  — especially when his father, Trey, was holding him. “At first Trey would rock him and shush him and swing him, and when that didn’t work, he’d just say, ‘He’s hungry,’ and thrust him at me to nurse and quiet him down,” says Allison Tate, Mason’s mom. But the day came that Allison simply couldn’t take it anymore  — she needed to shower, change her clothes, eat some dinner, brush her hair  — so she decided to just leave the room and leave things up to Trey. It was a decision she doesn’t regret.

Left to his own devices, Trey came up with his very own baby-soothing strategies. “He had a certain way of holding Mason, where each part of his arm was touching him, and sometimes it was the only thing that calmed him,” Allison says. “That made Trey feel empowered. Then he found this one rattle that would comfort Mason. He wore it, like a tool belt, and would whip it out when Mason started going. And when nothing else would work, he’d hold Mason on his lap, turn on ESPN without the sound, and watch the ticker at the bottom of the screen. I’d put ear plugs in and go to sleep for two hours.”

As the Tates discovered, the father who hands the baby off to Mom every time he cries is unlikely to discover how to comfort his child. And if the the baby is, indeed, hungry, there’s always a bottle, whether filled with breast milk or formula. But here’s a news flash for new dads (and moms): The baby isn’t always hungry. Sometimes he wants to be cuddled or he’s sleepy or he’s bored.

David Smith of Allentown, Pennsylvania, says that perhaps because his daughter, Emma, was adopted, neither he nor his wife, Jenni Levy, assumed she would be the default parent. “We started out thinking we’d share things equally,” he says. “No one started with a leg up.” Smith invented the “patented baby jiggle,” which was far more effective in quieting his baby than anything his wife could do. There were times when Jenni would walk fussy Emma around the house, to no avail. David would come home and, with his jiggle, make her smile right away.

The key to the success of these dads is as simple to explain as it is difficult to pull off gracefully: Mom ceded control. As Brott says, “You married this guy for a reason. He’s not an idiot, right? He won’t mistreat or neglect the baby if you take your eyes off him for a few minutes.”

If you’re like me, you may be one of those moms who, when Dad’s in charge, comes out with such gems as “Dear, she doesn’t like her bath that hot”…”Darling, that’s not her favorite rattle. Use this one instead,” and the inimitable “Honey, don’t you know that one-piece chafes her legs?” Few things will deflate a well-meaning daddy faster than such “help.” So bite your tongue, get dressed, and  — to say it once again  — get out of there. And not just for an hour. Why not leave for a whole day? Visit your parents, hang out with a friend  — not only will your husband figure out what it takes to care for his baby, but they’ll solve problems their own way, together.

Embrace Mr. Fun

One aspect of child rearing in which dads seem to excel effortlessly is showing their babies a good time. Cristina Likins of Dallas works full-time, while her husband, Gene, has a demanding but flexible job in sales. When Gene isn’t on the road, he works at home. This lets him carve out time with their 2-year-old daughter, Sarah. “He’ll call me from the car and say, ‘Well, we’re going to the zoo,’ ‘we’re going to the train station to watch the trains,’ ‘we’re going to the mall where they have the little play area.’ I get jealous that I’m stuck at work, but I’m glad that they’re so close.”

Many men find that leaving the house is a good way to create time with the kids that’s just theirs. Plus, it gives Mom a break. Arny Schreer, who lives in northern New Jersey, creates what he calls “Daddy franchises,” activities that have become his to do with his two preschoolers. Saturday is spend-the-day-with-Daddy-day. “They come with me while I do errands  — especially the bank, where I like to teach them about saving  — and I mix in fun things,” he says. “We go to a bookstore, where I allow them to each pick out one book. We spend a little time at the table and read each of the stories, then go down and buy the books. Driving in the car, I pretend I’m a DJ and play everything from ‘Over the Rainbow’ to ‘Yellow Submarine.'”

While it’s great to get out and about (and in many ways, it’s easier than figuring out activities when you’re cooped up), time at home is important. One home-based activity men seem to love: roughhousing. Though it may seem like a male clich[E233], a substitute for deeper interaction, wrestling is a perfectly valid way of showing  — and building  — affection. “They’re like a couple of bear cubs,” says Jennie Roffman of Brookline, Massachusetts. “The minute Ian walks in from work, my three-year-old, Sam, just pounces right on top of him. It’s how they reconnect.” This kind of play helps kids channel aggression, test their strength, and connect with their dads in an intimate but unembarrassing way, says Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting.

As much fun as wrestling can be, a father’s involvement in the humdrum and everyday can add to a child’s security and trust. As with anything else, dads are going to do things their own way, whether it’s feeding, bathing, helping with homework, or putting kids to sleep. And many of them seem to have a knack for making daily rituals more fun.

Amelia Gold of Englewood, New Jersey, says that her husband lets their two kids, Joshua, 4, and Mikayla, 2, get far more dirty than she does. “We were having some people over for a barbecue,” she says, “and the outdoor furniture needed to be cleaned and hosed down. If it had been me, I’d have had the kids watch a video while I washed the furniture. But Brian had the two of them out there with hoses, buckets, and sponges. They were a mess.” Gold’s response? The same as when Brian and the kids garden, wash the car, and cook pancakes: “I make myself shut up about it,” she says.

Keep the Focus On the Child

As your baby becomes a child and begins to have opinions and interests of her own, you and your husband might have to make an extra effort to keep up. Dave Greenwald of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, was a jock dad, happily coaching his son Michael’s soccer and baseball teams. But around when Michael turned 8, it dawned on him that his son was more intrigued by flora and fauna than fielding and free kicks. Michael didn’t want to quit sports, but Greenwald quickly added father-and-son camping and fishing to his enthusiasms.

It’s one thing to head into the woods, however, and quite another to play with dolls. “When my daughter was four, she loved to play with Ariel from The Little Mermaid, and I couldn’t stand it,” says Cohen. “But then it hit me one day that I was telling her that her favorite thing in the whole world was stupid and boring. So, figuring that I could do anything for fifteen minutes, I decided to throw myself into it. Well, we were having rock concerts, the dolls were flying all over the room, we were laughing and giggling, and it was one of the best times we ever had.”

Similarly, Brott makes sure to keep up with pop culture and says his girls are proud that he knows the words to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera songs. Brott also makes sure to take some time off from work to go into their school to teach writing. “Not only are my kids proud to have me there, but I also get to know their teachers and friends, and that’s invaluable. It helps me keep up with what’s going on in their lives and shows the teachers and administrators that I’m interested, I’m a player, and not to send home letters addressed only to Mom.”

Don’t Get Stuck In a Role

Although there are certain activities and attitudes that seem more dadlike than others, it’s important to remember there are no rules about who does what. Even though fathers often take on the persona of Mr. Fun, there’s no reason men can’t do the drudge work of childcare and moms indulge in some messy silliness.

“I shouldn’t have to spend all my time shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking the kids to the doctor, taking them to the dentist, and taking them to school,” says Roffman of life with her two boys. “It’s not always fun. When it becomes routine for Mom to do the dirty work while dad time is a party, a relationship can suffer. He’s just as capable of calling and setting up a playdate as she is.”

Well, one can only hope. My older daughter is 11, and I’ve yet to get a call from someone’s dad asking about social arrangements. But as moms give up control and dads carve out more time to be with and enjoy their kids, who knows? I, like so many women throughout history, will be waiting by the phone.