Reader Sad About Dad writes:
Do you have any advice for young fathers forming attachments with babies and toddlers? My husband is an extremely affectionate spouse, brother and son, but he struggles with emotionally connecting with our fourteen-month-old daughter.
The pregnancy was unplanned, but we were married and eagerly anticipating having children a few years down the road. I spent most of my pregnancy depressed about the premature ending to our "honeymoon," but he was so excited and supportive. He would even stay up at night talking to our unborn child!
When she was born, though, he told me, "I see you and I see me, and that's cool, but I don't feel anything else." He has made similar comments over the past fourteen months. He is so patient with me, but his fuse is shorter with our daughter than anyone else. She runs to him with hugs and kisses, but he barely acknowledges her affection. He barely reacted the first time she called him "Daddy."
He shares parenting responsibilities generously, but only as a favor to me. He goes through (almost) all the motions, but doesn't seem to get any joy or satisfaction from being a father. He gets defensive and upset when I suggest parenting classes or counseling, but he finally agreed to visit a religious leader with me next week.
I am desperately worried about the effect this will have on our daughter as she grows. I know she's getting old enough to start picking up on his coldness. My husband is a good and loving man. Is there anything we can do to help him form a secure attachment with our daughter?
I feel terrible for you and for your husband. You are correct to be worried about the impact of his coldness on your daughter, but it seems that it is outside of his control right now. He wants to please you, but he feels apathetic at best (and, actually, probably resentful underneath) toward your child, which probably makes him feel very guilty on a deep level.
You say that your husband is a loving son and brother, so I will assume that he had a fairly well-adjusted childhood, although in other cases, an inability to bond with a child often indicates some early difficulties in one's own relationships with parents. (This may still be the case for your husband; only he knows if he felt secure as a kid.) I am thinking that your husband sounds like he suffers from what many psychologists call male post-partum depression, which I discuss in another reader question here. Or plain old ambivalence and regret, like this guy here.
Your husband obviously loves you very much, and he expected to love the baby the same way. But the baby actually ended up taking a large part of your attention off of him, which is entirely normal and appropriate, and he is probably reacting to this without openly stating it (because he doesn't want to sound like a jerk).
Many men struggle with feeling like second fiddle to a baby, especially in our society nowadays where, for many middle class people at least, dating and marriage pre-kids is often (at least in retrospect) an extended honeymoon of going out to eat and party, having loads of sex, traveling, sleeping in and other fun and low-responsibility activities with one's beloved.
Fast forward to now, when you probably barely want to touch him, at least in comparison with pre-kids, and you are both exhausted, stressed, and worn-down on a regular basis. Many men feel a greater sense of financial insecurity when they start a family, and worry more about providing. They also realize that they will never be able to just go out, get wasted with their friends and wake up in Tijuana or something because who's going to drive the baby to daycare on Monday when you have your OB appointment at the same time as dropoff? Et cetera.
This is very sad, since so much research shows that dads have a tremendous positive impact on their children. Additionally, if a child perceives rejection from a parent, he or she is less likely to be trusting and open in adult relationships later on; this is the entire field of attachment research.
It is essential that you try your hardest to get yourself and your husband into couples counseling. He is unlikely to go into therapy on his own, but he may go for you if you make a big enough deal out of it. Then, the couples counselor may be able to address these issues and express them in a way that resonates with your husband, and that motivates him to seek his own counseling.
Also, just as an aside, make sure you are not criticizing your husband's parenting, making him feel like he doesn't do things "the right way," or in any way making it harder for him to bond or feel secure or confident as a dad. Focus on what he does well, like doing the childcare even if he looks unhappy about it, or the few times that maybe he does play with your daughter. And see if you can make more one-on-one time for you and your husband together, so that he knows you still love him. I am sure you say you do, but maybe since he is so in love with you, he doubts that you still feel the same post-baby.
Another point is that many parents catch their parenting stride at later ages of their kids' lives. I myself always hated the toddler stage, except now with my third, since I guess I am more experienced (and I don't have a newborn and a 1.5 year old now). Maybe your husband isn't into babies or toddlers, but once she can talk about something interesting, he'll be excited.
Good luck, and I hope your husband can grow into fatherhood and be the dad your little girl needs. Till we meet again, I Remain, The Blogapist Who Says, At Least He's Doing The Stuff, Even If He's Not Thrilled About It.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.