My friend has just found out he’s going to be a dad for the first time. Unable to resist the temptation of giving him unsolicited parenting advice, I told him that he should make time in the early weeks and months after his child is born to learn how to be a parent.
When he looked at me as if I was speaking gibberish, I went on to explain that it takes time and practice to develop parenting skills — not to mention parenting confidence.
Not only do you need to learn practical things like how those nappy tabby thingys work, and bathing and burping skills, you also need to learn how to interact with children.
This is particularly so for men, who, in our culture, have often been trained out of being unselfconsciously playful and affectionate — two of the most important things kids need from the adults in their lives.
I told my friend that if he didn’t learn to parent at the same rate as his partner then the skill and confidence gap may grow so large that he’ll never catch up. Quite possibly, he’ll end up with a pissed-off wife who will have to pick up the slack, and him resenting the fact that he doesn’t have the skills to bond and play with his kid.
Despite this, my friend dismissed my advice outright. According to him, parenting ability is either something you have or you don’t. And if it turns out he doesn’t have it, well, it just wasn’t meant to be, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
To which I have this to say: bullshit.
Imagine saying this about any other area of life. I bet if he really wanted to play golf and sucked at it first time on the green, he wouldn’t just accept it. No, he’d get out there every chance he could and practice until he got as good as he could. The same applies to parenting. It’s learned, not innate.
I was not born with natural parenting skills. In fact, before I became a mother, children terrified me. I rarely played with dolls as a child, I have always preferred the company of adults over children, and I would have sooner signed up for root canal than hold a friend’s baby.
When I was pregnant with my first daughter I held out hope that my parenting skills would get automatically downloaded from nature’s cloud as soon as I launched my childbirth app.
It didn’t happen.
But it wasn’t an option for me to opt out of parenting simply because it didn’t come easy to me. So I read books and blogs and watched other parents and asked lots of questions. It was my belief that I could learn to be a good mum that made me work to be the best one I could.
This attitude, that parenting skills are innate, is highly convenient when it comes to maintaining gender roles and the unfair distribution of childcare and associated domestic work. Because we incorrectly assume that all women are naturally maternal, the notion that parenting skills is a genetic lottery applies mostly to men. It allows men to bail on parenting when things get hard. As in: “Sorry honey, you’re just so much better at this than me.”
It also gives dads a free pass on investing time and energy into learning to parent. There is a reason why parenting books are bought and read almost exclusively by women.
Of course, some people do have better kid skills than others. You only need to walk into a kinder or early childhood centre to see the exceptionally skilled educators to appreciate this.
But let’s not forget that these educators who are “naturally nurturing” also have many years’ experience and tertiary qualifications.
When I think of my friends who seemed more “naturally” suited to caring for children than me, almost all of them also had had prior experience with children, whether it was younger siblings, cousins or babysitting jobs. Backing up their “natural” abilities was also hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours of practice.
With the breakdown of extended families and the village, many of us don’t get nurturing experience before we become parents ourselves. Instead, we have to learn on the job. We make mistakes and we get better. And seriously, if I can learn how to nurture and care for children, I reckon anyone can.
Whether intentionally or not, fathers who decide they cannot learn to nurture children are not only selling themselves short, they’re robbing their child of the opportunity to have the best dad possible.