Career before children? Dads, let me share with you how I blew it with our first three children. Our first two came at a time when I was learning to be a doctor, and the third as I was getting a practice started. I bought into the philosophy of putting career pursuits ahead of everything. Having grown up without a father, I had no model of the importance of the father in child rearing. Besides, Martha was such a good mother. I felt I didn’t need to be available. As with many fathers, I planned to get involved when the boys were old enough to throw a football. Big mistake!
When one of our children would misbehave, I would either overreact or under-react; but Martha knew just what to do. Most of the time she reacted in the right way, and got results. She had a handle on disciplining our children; I didn’t. And because I didn’t, she had to become the full-time correction officer, as well as the chief nurturer. I also realized that she was a sensitive disciplinarian because she knew the children so well. She knew them because she was in touch with them. She nursed them, carried them, and responded sensitively to their cries. Not only did she know them, they knew her and respected her wisdom. “How did you know that they were about to get into trouble?” I would ask Martha. “I just knew,” she would reply. The light went on: not only does the parent develop the child, but the child develops the parent. Our children had helped Martha develop her sensitivity toward them. Meanwhile, I was losing at both ends. I wasn’t around my children enough, so they didn’t respond to me.
Know your child. Lesson number one for fathers: In order to discipline your children, you have to know them. And to know them, you have to be involved in nurturing them. Except for breastfeeding, there is nothing about babycare that father can’t be involved in to some extent. I discovered I needed to hold our children more and open myself up to respond sensitively to their cries as best I could. I needed to realize that they needed what I had to offer as their father. My family needed me to be available to them.
HIGH PRIORITY – HIGH YIELD
I once attended a seminar on time management where the speaker advised trimming obligations down to those that were high-priority, high-yield. After the seminar, I told the speaker he had just described the juggling act of parenting. Rid your agenda of low-priority, low-yield tasks that suck up your energy, yet yield little return. Instead, concentrate on those, which give a good return on your investment of time—being a dad.
No regrets. Being available takes time. What about my profession? The turning point in my fathering came after several older fathers (on their second marriages) came in with their wives for their newborn’s checkup. Many expressed regrets that they hadn’t been involved in their older children’s lives. Now they had the time for these children, but the children didn’t have the time for them. I wanted a “no regrets” old age. I imagined how I would feel when I was fifty and my children were grown. (At the time I didn’t know that at age fifty I would still be fathering babies.) I didn’t relish the idea of feeling “I should have done this…” or “I should have done that.” I decided to change. At first, I feared my career would stall, but then I realized that in my profession I could go back and restart the tape at any point, but the tape of parenting and childhood goes in only one direction—forward. Kids pass through each stage only once.
A job change. My children needed me, not my resume. They wanted and needed a father to wrestle with them and play with them. They needed a father’s deeper voice to read them to sleep, not just a dutiful “goodnight.” I turned my attention toward being a father—and a husband. I not only had to connect with my children, I had to reconnect with my wife. I freed up weekends and more evenings by turning down the position of Chief Resident of Pediatrics, at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, the largest hospital in the world. We went camping a lot. We took up sailing. I got to know and enjoy our two boys and managed to finally convince Martha that we could have another baby. I was more involved this time and it was better.
Child teaches old dad new tricks. Then came our first daughter, Hayden, whose birth would change my life. This bundle of energy came wired differently from our other children. She craved being held, shunned any attempt to schedule feedings, and cried when put down. She inspired us to coin the term high-need baby. Father involvement with Hayden wasn’t a choice it was a necessity. Because she strongly objected to being put down, Martha needed me to be available to play “pass the baby.” She was in our arms by day and in our bed by night. There were days when she nursed constantly. She craved skin-to-skin contact and sometimes fell asleep on my fuzzy chest to give Martha a break. Hayden was developing my sensitivity. She grew to trust me and I grew to know her. A paternal sensitivity was developing in me that I had never had before. This newfound sensitivity carried over to my relations with all my children and with my wife. When the father is doing what is needed, the whole family functions better. My being around and involved provided the framework for family discipline. By the time Hayden was three, I realized what it takes for a father to become a disciplinarian: A dad must first know his child before he can set limits for his child.
Dad, not a pinchhiter. Mothers and fathers profit differently, and our children profit from that difference. One of the myths of modern fatherhood is that fathers are portrayed as mere substitutes for mothers, pinch-hitting while mom is away. There is nothing optional about father involvement, nor is dad just a hairier version of mom. The father’s input into his children’s lives is different from the mother’s; not less, different. Babies and families thrive on this difference. We thrived and added number five, Erin, and number six, Mathew.
Buddies from birth. With baby number six, I made my fathering motto the Army slogan, “Be all that you can be.” Beginning at his birth, Matthew gave me the opportunity to be all that I could be as a father. Our birth attendant didn’t make it to the birth in time, so I got to catch Matthew—an experience greater than being quarterback at the Super Bowl. That first touch from my quivering hands Matthew may never remember, but I shall never forget. I was hooked! We were buddies from birth.
“Father nursing.” Because we thought Matthew would be our “last baby,” I didn’t want to miss anything. A few months after Matthew was born, I temporarily moved my pediatric practice temporarily into our home. (Actually, we turned part of our large garage into a pediatric office. My teenage patients called it, “Dr. Bill’s Garage and Body Shop.”) This allowed me to be around Matthew between patients. Sometimes after Martha nursed Matthew, I would “father-nurse” him by simply holding him or carrying him around in a babysling—opportunities to be close to Matthew that it took me six children to discover. I knew that Matthew sensed that my body was different. As he lay in the “warm fuzzy” position, his ear was over my heart, his chest and tummy were draped over mine and his body moved rhythmically up and down with my breathing while my hands embraced his soft, little body. My breath warmed his scalp as he nestled under my chin; he was discovering a warm corner in this different “womb.”
The male touch. As I practiced these male touches, Matthew got used to my body: the different breathing sounds, walk, touch, and deeper voice. In fact, in the “neck nestle” position, fathers have an edge over mothers. The male voice box structures vibrate more noticeably, and babies can feel these vibrations against their head. These touches are not better than mothers, just different. Matthew thrived on that difference. He liked being in my presence, like a child given two nicely different desserts. Matthew’s response to my father-nurturing, and my amazement at my own feelings, helped me discover a new level of fathering and new value in my contribution to parenting.
A sexier male. Not only was my newly discovered aptitude for fathering good for Matthew and me, it was good for Martha. Because I hadn’t been around enough to learn baby comforting, Martha would get exhausted from doing it alone. Now, as I became more available as a baby comforter, she became more comfortable releasing Matthew to me, and she realized how doing so helped all of us. She liked watching me with Matthew—and she knew that my tenderness as a father would spill over into tenderness toward her. The time I spent with Matthew also freed Martha up to care for herself. This helped her to be a better mother for all our children and a happier wife for me. This new side that Martha was seeing made me more attractive to her and even improved our sex life.
FATHER TO FATHER
Watching a man nurture a baby really turns on a woman.
After a year, I closed my home office and moved into a nearby medical building. But even though I worked outside the home, my priorities were inside the home. I was hooked on fathering. When away from Matthew, I thought about him. When we were together, we were truly together. Our bond forced me to put balance in my life, giving priority to my family above the demands of my pediatric practice, teaching and writing. When outside commitments competed for my time, I felt stretched. But my attachment to Matthew acted like a strong rubberband pulling me back home. The rubberband never broke because I never allowed it to be stretched that far. It’s amazing how one little kid can change a grown man.
From dad to daddy to dad. Matt and I are still incredibly close. He is fifteen-years-old. The attachment continues. As Matt develops from one stage to another, my development as a parent—and as a person—goes up a notch. When he began Little League, I wanted to be involved so I signed on as coach. When he entered scouting, I volunteered to be the scoutmaster. These are roles that I might not have found the time for if I hadn’t been hooked on my kids. By the way my career hasn’t stalled one bit.
My kids are not finished with me yet. We have added two more children to the Sears family pack. My eight children are training me to be a better person and father—because I’m there for them. Attachment fathering pays off; in disciplining children, we become disciplined persons.
Discipline comes more easily to an attached dad. It seems less strained and more intuitive. I can guide our children because I know them. They obey me because they trust me. My learning process as a dad has convinced me that many fathers have a tough time with discipline because they are not connected to their kids. Unconnected kids may obey out of duty or fear, but they don’t have a dad to be close to and trust.
Attachment fathering opens up a dad to the child and visa versa. I notice a difference in disciplining Matt. We connect during each interaction. For example, when I ask him to do something he looks me straight in the eye and says, “Yes, dad.” The combination of eye contact and direct address personalizes his response. This reflects a mutual trust between us. Matt trusts that my request to do something is right and I trust he will obey. Matt wants to please me. He understands the authority in my body language and tone of voice. Harsh words and heavy hands are never necessary to discipline Matt. How much of this is his temperament and how much is due to our right start together I will never know. But what I do know is this style of fathering gives me a handle on discipline I did not have before. As Matthew progressed from “Dada” to “Daddy” to “Dad” our relationship grew more valuable.
I realize that because family and career situations are different, many dads are not able to rearrange their lives around their children. But whatever path you choose, take time to get connected with your child. This will prove to be your best long-term investment. I guarantee it!