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Dad's Changing Role
by Dr. Susan S. Bartell

Everyone's life changes dramatically when a second baby comes into the family, and that includes Dad's life. But surprisingly, many dads tell me that little attention is paid to the way Dad's role needs to change when the new baby is born. And even less concern is given to the way Dad may feel about his, often unexpected, new role. Here, we take the time to help all dads and their partners appreciate the big shift that occurs, not just for Mom and the big sister or brother, but for Dad as well.

The way things were

Up until the second baby is born, there was only one child about whom to think and worry. Mom and Dad were able to focus exclusively on feeding, dressing, bathing and playing with their wonderful, brilliant and engaging first-born. For dad this meant coming home from work and being able to spend precious time playing before bed, or waking up in the morning to snuggle, feed or have quiet time before work or school. It meant spending weekends running errands as a family, having fun and otherwise focusing on nurturing your child's development, social skills and intellect. From the beginning, dad has been a careful observer of, or an active participant in, his first child's life. A comfortable routine is now in place. Mom and dad divide the chores and fun, and dad understands his relationship and role with his child. And now with another baby on the way, he expects to have a similar relationship with his next child.

The way things will be

Most dads are surprised and sometimes even resentful to find that things are usually very different the second time around! The change in a home and family that comes with having a second child are significant, and require a great adjustment on the part of all members. This is especially true for fathers during the first few weeks when mom is still recovering physically. But aside from needing to pitch in to help mom as she recovers, there are a number of longer-term, emotional changes that many men do not anticipate, and for which they are not prepared. Recognizing and understanding these can go a long way to being able to adjust to them successfully.

Splitting your precious time

Firstly, there are two children to be cared for, loved, and attended to, so the doting, concentrated time that Dad had with the first baby, will have to be divided between two children. Sometimes, a father (especially one who works long hours) has a difficult time adjusting to this because he feels that he barely has enough time to spend with one child, let alone two. He may resent the new baby for taking time away from his older child, and forcing change on his relationship with his first-born. Conversely, Dad may wish that the older child didn't need so much attention so that he can devote all his time to the new baby. If these sort of feelings arise, there is no need to feel guilty about them because they are a normal part of adjusting to having two children.

However, it is, of course, important to do what you can to avoid feeling resentful about either of your children, so you should talk to your partner about how you can spend time with each child, without depriving the other. For example, you can take your older child to run errands with you, or let him or her stay up twenty minutes later at night to read a story or color a picture with you. A good way to be with the baby is to tell your spouse you'd like to take over some of the routines such as bath time, feeding (you can feed pumped breast milk in a bottle), dressing, diapering etc. You and your partner can rearrange some schedules (like bath time) to accommodate this. Admittedly, this will keep you busy, and require emotional effort as well as less down-time for you, but the close relationship you will have with your children will be well worth it in the short and long runs!

The baby is mine the older one is yours

It is not unusual, especially when a mother breastfeeds exclusively, for a father to feel that his relationship with the new baby is practically non-existent. Some families fall naturally into the routine of the baby being Mom's responsibility and the older child being Dad's. This can feel comfortable for many fathers who are already very familiar with the routines, personality and needs of their first child. And often, this "division of labor" only lasts a short time, until Mom is up and about and in a routine with the baby. However, sometimes this split is uncomfortable for Dad because he feels he is missing out on so much of his new baby's early days, weeks or even months. And if a baby breastfeeds very frequently, it will, in fact, be very difficult for Dad to get much time with the baby until the time between feedings stretches out. The other issue is that after a period of time like this, Dad may feel frustrated that he is doing all the "hard" work of taking care of a toddler or older child, while Mom has the "easy" job of caring for the infant.

These are important and valid feelings, and in order to avoid strain in your relationship with your partner, it is essential for the feelings to be aired and discussed openly. In order to help you feel more included in the baby's life, and less resentful you may consider the following:

  • Suggest that mom express one bottle of breast milk a day so you have an opportunity to feed the baby (if your are formula feeding, sharing in feedings is not an issue).

  • When you introduce solids, ask your partner is you could be the one to do this "first" with the baby.

  • Plan structured time for yourself with the baby on weekends and evenings. This will also give your partner much needed time alone with your older child. Even if your time has to be interrupted for a feeding, you can take the baby back afterward to continue being with him or her.

  • When you run short errands you can take the baby with you, instead of your older child-just plan them between feedings.

  • Encourage your partner to discuss any ambivalent feelings she may have about "giving up" the baby to you for a period of time. Some mothers feel that no-one (not even dad) can take care of the baby as well as she can. So, be open to hearing suggestions that may make your spouse more comfortable giving up some control to you in this area.

A Bond for life

Society places so much importance on the "mother-child bond," that dad's role with his children is often overlooked by society and by fathers themselves. There is no question that when you have a second child, things change quite dramatically, and you may feel pulled in all directions. But the effort you make to bond with both your children (and more if you have them!) will guarantee a relationship with them for life. Both you and especially your children will benefit greatly from the 'fatherly' relationship that they can't get from anyone else.

Read more articles:
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by Anne Smith, BA, IBCLC

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