When I was a child, my mom performed the minutiae of child-raising while studying from home; my father worked outside the home (and, let’s face it, caught up on the jolling that getting married in your early twenties had robbed her of). When my father did come home, he told my brother and me his renowned personalised goodnight stories; but whether by choice or circumstance, he left decisions regarding our diet or daily routines, our clothing or teeth-brushing regimes, to my increasingly angry mother.
She accepted the disciplining tasks inherent in childcare, my father avoided them, while mutual resentment escalated. So far, so average. Their marriage lasted ten years. In many ways, my father was your textbook doormat dad.
Disciplinarian or doormat?
Any parent has felt that disinclination to do battle when a meltdown of apocalyptic proportions threatens about something as inane as putting on PJs. Sometimes, after a long, hard day with a hard-headed two-year-old, you’re tired. You have no fight left in you.
Should you give in or is it important to stand your ground? Two theories vie for prominence: The“disciplinarian” parent says: Do not give an inch! You are contributing to the creation of an antisocial, entitled brat who will not be able to consider others’ feelings when he’s older. For the sake of his happiness, your own, and everyone he comes into contact with, you should be firm in your boundary-setting.
The “doormat” parent says: You should try to say “yes” more often, and “no” only when you really need to. Rediscover your own sense of wonder and fun as you parent your child. Oh, and when they’re screaming blue murder about bath time, echo their emotions in order to teach emotional vocabulary. Each family’s natural parenting style probably lies somewhere between two extremes. So the next question is, why do the roles so often polarise into Mom the Monster and Dad the Dogooder?
In traditional family set-ups, Dad is away from home (physically or psychologically) more than Mom. Additionally, we live in a wildly sexist country, and many fathers see childcare as women’s work. Statistically so few dads are a part of their children’s lives that those that are might feel they shouldn’t be criticised for the job they are doing. But to hold involved dads to a lower standard simply because they compare well to deadbeat dads is surely lowering the bar, and patronising.
Other dads feel guilty for having been away at work all day, and have missed the children – so when they do see them, they want to focus on the fun, relationship-building stuff, not the nagging, have-you-eaten-your-peas routine. They don’t want to be the bad guy on two counts – once for not being there and again for being a jerk when they are.
When dads aren’t there for the grind of the parenting work, they may never learn how to become inured to the daily – heck, hourly – wails of protest about supper time,or any of the myriad rules that kids like to butt their heads against Every. Single. Day. It’s a short step to becoming actually afraid of your child’s anger, as Michael Bahler admits in a New York Times columnin which he admits to being a doormat dad. Women are supposed to be more verbal or communicative anyway, so a man might reason that if she seems to have it under control, he can remove himself from the challenge of conflict-and emotion-management altogether.
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Many fathers have authoritarian fathers of their own as their parenting role model, and if a dad wants to do differently by his children, he may find he simply has no idea how to. He may find the very idea of discipline dangerous.
“The transgenerational transmission of attachment is common – we love like our parents do,” says Johannesburg counselling psychologist Jade Paterson. “But you can make a conscious decision to be different to your own parents. A father with a nasty disciplinarian as a role model can find a safer way to create boundaries with his own children.” Therapy is a good place to start.
A father in that position may bottle up his emotions until he explodes in a fit of uncontrolled rage – and the shame when that happens can cause him to retreat from his family even further. In a situation like that, it’s clearly better for the children to know that firm limits are in place rather than regularly seeing unsafe anger (with emphasis on the “regularly” – we all lose our tempers sometimes).
“Anger must be expressed in a safe way,” says. “Kids can be taught it’s okay to be angry and to name the feeling. Don’t teach children that anger is dangerous.”
Why is mom so angry?
But let’s put ourselves as moms under scrutiny too. If we’re doing the bulk of the childcare (as we are, usually even if we work an equal number of hours outside the home), we probably don’t take kindly to criticism of our parenting style from a partner who doesn’t pull his weight. A situation arises where we’re “allowed”to call dads “doormats” in the media,but they are not “allowed” to retaliate and call us “control freaks”, for example.Many men walk on eggshells a little bit when it comes to antagonising an already angry woman.
Canadian dad blogger Kenny Bodanis puts it this way on his blog mengetpregnanttoo.com: “Would a daddy blogger writing about his wife as a ‘Doormat Mom’ be as well received? I imagine the response would be: ‘I may not be perfect, but after the daily responsibilities of work, raising children, helping to plan extracurricular activities, and trying to hang on to some form of social life while attempting to prevent our house from resembling a war zone, I don’t also need to be labelled a “doormat”, to be analyzed by the blogosphere.’”
Could we be at fault too?
“A doormat dad does not exist in isolation,” says Jade. “A family with a child has a triangle of relationships, and each side of that triangle is very important. But the relationship starts out as a ‘dyad’ of mom and baby, from which Dad is initially excluded.”
Pioneering UK paediatrician and child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the phrase “primary maternal preoccupation”, a term for that intense time at the beginning of a baby’s life when a mom, quite rightly and appropriately, sets aside her own identity for a while so that she can help her baby process and filter his experiences through her. In this way a mom allows a baby to become dependent on her, and starts to form human relationships.
“Eventually, the father (or another partner, or gogo) must enter the relationship and form a triangle out of the dyad,” says Jade. “It helps separation between Mom and baby, which must happen for the health of both the mom and the baby. I think Dad’s role is sadly underplayed. His job is to disentangle the dyad, and open up some space. Dads do that with their logical, practical side, which is in touch with and connects the rest of the family to the outside world.”
“Baby feelings are messy,” continues Jade, “but Dad has a grasp on reality, so when it all gets too intense and too much for Mom he holds them all and contains some of Mom’s bad feelings too. He starts his own relationship with the baby and here claims his partner back. Ideally, this also helps Mom come back to herself, and to her own body.”
The problem is that an anxious new mom might find it very hard to separate from that baby and resist intruders to the dyad. (Alternatively, a new dad might not want to penetrate the dyad, for his own reasons.) “The dynamics reinforce themselves,” says Jade: “She thinks he’s going to drown the baby, so now he’s nervous, it ends up that he never baths the baby, and she resents him for it! Voila: there’s your setup.”
Ask yourself why you find it difficult to hand a task over to the dad: “Are they your issues or his?” asks Jade. “Take the risk and entrust him with responsibility.” Mothers are more enmeshed in their small babies, and therefore not as robust to criticism as dads are.
But even men can feel like they are doing it all wrong when they are constantly criticised. “Dad is a safe container from the earliest days – he must accept Mom’s out-of-control feelings at first. That’s his job. But it’s not okay if that continues to happen and damages him,” says Jade.
To many dads, the one avenue they feel is left open to them is to be fun (and a parenting pushover) so that they will be liked by at least one member of the family – the baby! But, says Jade, “this makes Mom become even more rigid and inflexible in return! If you instead try to relax your boundaries it gives him room to take up another role.”
Tension over who does what in terms of childcare is also not good for your relationship. “Even if both of you have a good relationship with the baby, tension between you impacts on the baby’s development,” says Jade.
If you find yourself stuck in a negative pattern like this, consider attending a Babies in Mind workshop. The courses are offered nationwide and deal with newborn issues, including the role of the father. See www.babiesinmind.co.za.
Different strokes are okay
None of this means that you must force yourself to become more doormatty and burden your partner with disciplinary duties if the current role division in your family works for you and makes you both happy. “Your baby can handle two different parents and parenting styles,” says Jade.
“He can learn: this is how it is with Mom, this is how it is with Dad, just like later in life you have different relationships with your boss, colleague, or sister. It’s okay that Dad is not Mom. If your relationship is the same with everyone it’s still a dyad after all, and you haven’t learned to relate within a triangle!”
However, Jade cautions: “Remember that boundaries are very safe for children and they like them even if they get upset about your rules. They must know they can survive being upset, else you are teaching them to be scared of their anger. It is very important for kids to be able to throw a tantrum and then be okay afterwards. You must be able to be consistent and loving.”
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A further caution: “If there’s good reason for the rule then don’t let your child walk all over you,” says Jade. (Driving where your child wants to go aimlessly – fine. But not when you’re late for Grandma’s visit.) “There is a risk of not letting your child have to tolerate any frustration that could make it hard for them to cope when things don’t go their way.”
As a consolation, the head-butting stage is at least restricted to the toddler years (and maybe some teen years– “something about teenagedom re-evokes the intense emotional experiences of babyhood,” says Jade). Tempers should settle as the child grows older – and obtains, perhaps, a sibling.
Because we suspect doormat dads exist best in a household with only one monarch whose every whim to obey. We don’t know about you, but we’d love to read Bahler’s column when his son has a baby brother or sister. We’re betting the golden age of unlimited baths, 11pm bedtimes and ambling drives through the neighbourhood will have come to an abrupt end.