© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002, 2003
Empathy for a Father
Before we had kids, I felt like my husband and I really understood each
other, but now it's almost like we live on separate continents . . .
With good reason, many mothers say they wish their partner sympathized
more with their situation. But the other side of the coin is also often
true: that a father wishes his partner understood HIM more. Since one of
the best ways to receive more understanding and consideration is to give
it - and since most of our columns focus on addressing the needs of
mothers - let's take a moment to explore empathy for a father.
For simplicity, we'll write as if we were addressing a mother, but a dad
can certainly read this piece and see what parts fit for him. We'll draw
on Rick's experience as a dad and our conversations with fathers to
suggest how it may be for your partner to be a parent; this is a
composite, a generalization, of a father that will not fit the partner
of any woman in every way.
- Now I'm a dad -- As profoundly as you, he loves the child you have
made together. He has many of the same feelings you do, like happiness
when the baby first curls her tiny fingers around one of his own.
Yet since he probably spends less time with children than you, it is
quite possible that he feels less sure of his skills. Feeling awkward or
inept is uncomfortable for many men and makes it hard to ask for help.
Maybe he's asked you what he could do and been told he should already
know. Maybe he's tried to dive in and help and then been told it's all
wrong. He picks up your underlying attitude about his parenting skills,
and the way many mothers talk to each other about their partners is
quite disdainful. He may experience you squeezing him out of the parent
role while complaining that he's not involved enough.
- Tugged in different directions -- He shows his love for his children
and you in part by stepping up his efforts as a provider. Yet that tends
to draw him into working longer hours when you wish he'd put more energy
into your children and home. Unfortunately, his workplace almost
certainly couldn't care less about the needs of his family, so he's
stuck between a rock and a hard place.
He's probably more engaged in child rearing and housework than his own
father was. Nonetheless, if you are like most mothers, you'd still like
more involvement and help, so he feels uneasy and resentful that he is
not coming up to the standard of what you want in a partner.
- Married to a mother -- He is awed at your ability to make a baby and
deeply grateful that you have enabled him to have a child. He probably
appreciates your sacrifices more than he has been able to say.
He's also worried by any fatigue, depression, or other health problems
that have developed since you became a mother. But when he offers
well-meaning suggestions, like you getting more exercise or using more
child care, there's a fair chance you get irritated, because you want
empathy rather than problem solving, think his idea is impractical, or
feel he's trying to make you give less to your kids. After a few rounds
of this, maybe he stops trying to help you.
- Where did my wife go? -- He loves his child incredibly, but his
relationship with you is still a priority in itself, not merely as a
framework for raising children.
He feels keenly the loss of the attention, energy, affection, and love
you have shifted from him to your child. It can easily seem to him that
you regard him as little more than a means to your ends. One father
said: I go out in the world like a caveman who brings home the meat. I
drop it at her feet, she says "thanks" and goes back to our daughter.
It's like I'm not in the room. And this shift in a mother's attention
away from her partner is made painfully concrete by the disinterest many
have in sex.
- Does my wife understand me? -- You cannot make your husband understand
you, but you can try to understand him: that much is in your power. You
could ask him about the description of a father just above. Or you could
simply observe him for a while without any assumptions, wondering how it
feels to be him deep down inside.
Since you give understanding to your children all day long, you might
have "empathy fatigue." So it may take a conscious decision to bring
understanding to your husband. But if you do, he will notice your
interest and appreciate it and be more empathic with you as well. And
when the two of you have a better idea of the feelings and wants of each
other, you will be more able to solve problems together.
This column is offered freely to parent-related organizations. If you
know of another newsletter that might like to carry it besides the one
in which you are reading it now, please encourage that organization to
contact Rick Hanson at the email address below. Or just email Rick with
the contact info and he will approach the organization.
(Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an
acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son,
ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of
Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate
Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at
www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or comments at
email@example.com; unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be