A Father's

Socializing Adults: From Husband to Father

Largely because of the lessons boys and girls learn when they're young, by the time they begin to marry or form adult relationships of their own, their attitudes about gender and parenting are already firmly in place. After years of training, for example, women have bought into the dominant view that mothers are biologically predisposed to nurture children. As a result they have no trouble seeing themselves as mothers whether they're married or not. Men, too, have internalized the myth of the superior mother. But for them, fatherhood and fathering are inextricably linked with marriage, or at least with being in a committed relationship.

Not surprisingly, family researchers have discovered in recent years that men's satisfaction with their relationships is a major factor in determining how involved they will be with their children. The more satisfying men's marriages are, the more involved and happy they are in their fathering roles. But the more unhappy and volatile their marriages are, the less involved they become and the lower the quality of that involvement.

This marital satisfaction/father involvement connection may actually start even before men become fathers. Researcher Shirley Feldman and her colleagues found that expectant fathers whose marriages were rated as "satisfying" during the third trimester of their wives' pregnancy were subsequently more involved in care giving and play with their six-month-old infants.

In addition, psychologist Martha Cox and her colleagues have found that the quality of a father's parenting is better when his marriage is better and that a supportive marriage can go a long way toward overcoming his lack of preparation for parenthood.

Even babies know when their fathers aren’t happy in their marriages. Eleven-month-olds, for example, are less likely to look to their fathers for help in novel situations (such as seeing an unfamiliar person) when their fathers are in distressed marriages. As John Gottman found, men in unsatisfying marriages tend to withdraw from their wives and, perhaps from their children. Children whose fathers are unhappy or overstressed "act out" more and suffer more from depression than children whose parents are in less stressful marriages. And kids who watch their parents fight are frequently more aggressive, feel more guilty, and tend to be more withdrawing.

Does the quality of a marriage have as much impact on mothers as it does on fathers? Not according to psychologist Jay Belsky and his colleagues, who conducted a series of home observations of mothers and fathers when their infants were one, three, and nine months old. Other studies confirm Belsky's results. Adolescent fathers, for example, have more positive interactions with their infants in families where there are high levels of mother-father engagement. Mother-child interactions, however, were completely independent of the mother's relationship with the father. Overall, said one group of researchers, the quality of the marriage, whether reported by the husband or wife, is "the most consistently powerful predictor of paternal involvement and satisfaction."

Given the connection between marital satisfaction and paternal involvement, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that fathers who are in supportive and satisfying marriages bond more securely with their infants and toddlers. What is a little surprising, though, is the way mothers benefit from the additional support their happy husbands provide them. Studies in both the United States and Japan have found that the more emotionally supportive a father is, the more competent a caregiver his wife is and the better her relationship with their children.

©2007, Armin Brott

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It's clear that most American children suffer too much mother and too little father. - Gloria Steinem

A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of Blueprint for Men's Health: A guide to a health lifestyle, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner and Father for Life. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts “Positive Parenting”, a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com

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