The individual roles that a mother and father play in childrearing vary widely. In “traditional” families the mother most often plays the lead role and the father is the primary provider and assists with childrearing. Today many different arrangements are common.
Whatever the arrangement, child psychology experts agree that it is important that both the mother and father play an active supportive and loving role in child upbringing. Children need (yes, need) to feel secure in both their physical and emotional environment in order to be able to develop a healthy emotional self.
Establishing parental roles
It can be very difficult with the stresses of day to day living to find a comfortable and healthy balance of parental roles. Parenting does not necessarily come naturally although it is easier for mothers to develop a maternal bond. Parenting skills depend to a real extent on the family histories of the new parents as most skills are learned from our own parents – for better or worse. Parenting books are perennial best sellers as each generation has to learn and adapt to its own situation.
Some couples negotiate parental roles and family size well before having children. This tends to reduce conflict. Many couples have children first and then try to find their places. Irrespective of that the stay-at-home full-time mother has the challenge of getting some relief from the difficult and all-consuming task of caring for young children. Let’s consider the following challenging case and look toward some possible solutions.
“Dear Positive Way, My Husband and I have two children under the age of three years, and he will not stay at home with them by himself so I can have time to myself to do anything. Whether it is getting groceries or going to dinner with a friend. He always makes me take them to my Mothers' house and freaks out. He doesn't talk to me when he wants to do something he just goes and does it. I feel like a doormat. If he does have free time he doesn't want to do family time he wants to go fishing. He always puts me a bad position because he will ask me if he is allowed to go, so that I look like the bad guy. I am not his mother and I feel like I am a second rate citizen in my own home. I am tired of being made to feel guilty about wanting to have a life that is sometimes out of the home. Because I am a stay at home Mom I never get time away by myself. What do I do?” Signed: AeMama
Balancing parental roles
In this case we hear some of the problems not uncommon in new families:
- Communication between husband and wife is a challenge.
- The wife is feeling stressed by a lack of personal time.
- The father appears more than reluctant to be sole caretaker even for a short time.
- There is plenty of guilt to go around.
Here are some approaches to consider for solving these problems
1. Communication problems: We recommend that you learn some communication skills. Yes, it takes skill to be able to communicate well and this is especially true when there are elements of frustration, guilt, anger, disappointment and other strong emotions. We have about twenty great articles that teach various aspects of communication skills. Please take the time to read them and choose those that you feel comfortable with. We highly recommend the book Couples Communication and our own book Talk to Me. In this case we recommend that the wife start by establishing family meetings as a routine part of the family schedule. This can be done slowly to minimize the resistance to acceptance. They key is to establish good communications before even touching the difficult topics.
2. Personal stress: Mothers need relief from the 24X7 challenge of raising children. Many find relief with outside childcare, groups of women in a similar family situation and community activities that involve children. Some women even go to work part or full time to get the adult stimulation that they may be missing when they only have toddlers to “talk to.” There is no one “right way” to find this relief. They key is to take action to find out what is available and to take advantage of those opportunities.
3. Disengaged father: Fathers need to be engaged in a positive manner in the childrearing. Some are so afraid of babies and toddlers that they would rather do almost anything else – as in this example case. His upbringing may give some clues as to what is going on. In any case, he needs to be taught how to take responsibility for his children and learn how to engage with them in an age-appropriate way. The wife, in this case might be able to help by creating family events where everyone is involved – including “dad.” This could start with something as simple as family play in the living room. Males relate to their children differently than females. They “learn to love” while the female generally has “ready made unconditional love.” As dad is more and more engaged with the children in this safe environment the mother can demonstrate what he can do and prove (without saying it) that they will not break just because she is not in the room. It will usually become easier over time as the children learn to communicate and dad can relate verbally. Even before this family play, however, it would be great if dad could be assigned to bedtime reading. Mom is also going to want to learn how to establish some boundaries and stop enabling his avoidance. This means creating change and setting boundaries.
4. Dealing with guilt: The best way to deal with guilt is to forgive yourself for past issues and to take action as listed in the first three approaches. No one can make you feel guilty. You accept guilt in certain situations. So, stop accepting the feeling of guilt and change the situations.
Parenting is the most important role that many people play in their entire lives. It can also be the most difficult and challenging job. Babies are not born with operation manuals. They are born with opportunity and possibility. It can be a scary job to take on that responsibility. Learning parenting skills is a great way to be the best parent you can be. There are thousands of books, a multitude of web pages and many local resources to avail yourself of in addition to your family support.
Don't forget to take time to have fun with your children! You can play outside or build puzzles indoors, whatever interests your child is what you should focus on. Having fun together builds bonds and strengthens healthy relationships.
Remember that one foundation for being a good parent in a family is to have a good relationship between mother and father. All relationships require commitment and the willingness to work to both create them and keep them healthy. We recommend that every married couple have “dates” every week if possible. Some dates may just be popcorn and a DVD after the children are in bed but others should be more fun. Make your dates.