This article reviews new research indicating that how a mother encourages a father, and how she responds to his efforts, plays a key role in how involved the father will ultimately be in raising the newborn baby. In fact, if the mother’s response to a father’s efforts is judgmental, he will put his own opinions aside regarding the amount of his involvement, in deference to her opinion. Main quote:
In fact, this encouragement was important even after taking into account fathers' and mothers' views about how involved dads should be, the overall quality of the couple's parenting relationship, and how much mothers worked outside the home.
"Mothers are in the driver's seat," said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.
"Mothers can be very encouraging to fathers, and open the gate to their involvement in child care, or be very critical, and close the gate.
"This is the first real evidence that mothers, through their behavior, act as gatekeepers by either fostering or curtailing how much fathers take part in caring for their baby."
The article goes on to discuss the implications of this research. First, it apparently has been long suspected that such gate keeping occurs, but had never before been confirmed. What is possibly more important, however, is that although the expectation regarding a negative response to criticism was there, researchers did not expect fathers to respond so much to positive encouragement by the mothers.
There seem to be several implications arising from this research. First, nothing new here, but mothers are seen by both themselves and by the fathers as the primary expert when it comes to child-rearing. However, fathers can and should play a direct, active parenting role. The article even concedes that at least some of the mother’s reinforcement for positive parenting by the father may come as a result of the father showing some initiative. That initiative may not sustain, though, if it is met with frequent criticism. Therefore, communication style becomes very important. Doctors and other professional care-givers can also play an active role in improving this communication, by observing the father engage in certain parenting behaviors (especially at the hospital), and modeling the types of reinforcement that will encourage the father to continue actively parenting.
Oh, and fathers, this doesn’t let you off the hook! Communication is the proverbial two-way street. If you are truly motivated to be an active father, work with your partner to receive the kind of feedback that is most helpful to you. If the criticism is warranted, discuss how it can be phrased. If it’s not warranted, discuss why you think so. The important thing is to not just retreat. Remember, she has just given birth, and is likely stressed for a number of different reasons. Cut her some slack, and discuss with her how you can be the best father you can be.