The Marginalization of Dads

When Tim* and Julianne Penn*’s daughters were young, Tim tucked them into bed and told them stories each night. With both parents working, as the girls got older, Julianne took care of the domestic chores and the nurturing and daily care of the girls, while Tim managed the household finances, mowed the lawn, coached the girls’ soccer teams, and sat on the school board. By the time their oldest daughter Rita* was in third grade, Julianne started to feel that her role as the nurturing and giving parent was more important than her husband’s, and openly disparaged Tim’s contributions to the family. At the same time, Tim began to notice that his daughters sided with their mother in conflicts, and sensed resentment from all of them. By the time Rita was 12, Tim, plagued by the feeling of failure on the home front and feeling unwelcome in his own house, took refuge in fishing, golf, and the computer. Julianne suggested that she and Tim try couples therapy, but Tim refused to go. Last summer, when Rita turned 16, Julianne filed for divorce. Their marriage fell victim to Tim’s progressive marginalization in the family, a condition which fed upon itself, creating growing resentment and alienation. Tim claims that he never saw the breakup coming, but after going to individual counseling and taking a good look at his 20-year marriage, he realized that his marginalization had begun years before. Now he regrets that he and Julianne did not do anything to correct the wayward course of their marriage when there was still time to save it. Maura Lehr, MSW, a clinical social worker and family therapist with a private practice in White Plains, says she can spot the seeds of marginalization in families early on. "Couples need to talk about their expectations of each other before and during marriage, and not fall into their roles mindlessly," she urges. “In many families, mothers are the center of the family’s emotional life. Because dads aren’t used to dealing with problems or setting limits, kids don’t come to them when something emotional is going on. It becomes Mom’s role. Marginalization occurs because eventually Dad backs away and lets Mom do it all. “Peter* is definitely marginalized,” says Sara Huston*, of Bronxville, of her husband. “He doesn’t know who his girls are anymore, who their friends are, or what they’re doing half the time.” She and Peter have two daughters, ages 15 and 18. When Peter tries to ask the girls what’s going on in their lives, he says they find it annoying to fill him in. “Their term for me is ‘clueless,’” he says, “but my role has more to do with my schedule and our lifestyle.” Sara has always been more involved with her daughters because as a writer, she works at home and established rituals, such as reading to them each night and helping them with homework. Sara and the girls eat dinner together at 6pm, and Peter eats alone when he arrives home from his software job in the city several hours later. But Sara accepts their different parenting roles because she knows that Peter still has a strong, loving bond with his daughters. “If I really needed him to play a greater role,” Sara says, “I’d be a lot more frustrated.” Peter also understands that his wife’s personality contributes to the balance in their relationship, and adds, “I know that if she were more of a team player, I’d be more of a team player, too, but Sara is a control freak, and it’s in her nature to take over.”

Where marginalization begins Men and women naturally fall into and lay claim to certain parental roles because of societal expectations, says Armin Brott, author of the newly revised The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year and Father for Life. "Men are judged on their role as providers, and in the same way, women are rated on their motherhood skills. If they share that power with men, what does that mean for them as women?” Women are judged by society on how their kids look and behave, so it’s hard for them to relax their standards and let the dads take over. For some fathers, he explains, marginalization begins as soon as a baby enters the picture. “Many men are afraid of making mistakes with the baby,” he notes. Women, who learn simply by spending time with the baby, are often just trying to be helpful with their husbands when they take charge at first. For example, if the baby is crying, Mom may take her from Dad to comfort her because she has figured out how to do it quickly, whereas Dad hasn’t had the chance to practice his own parenting skills. Such a situation may become unhealthy if Mom begins to feel that Dad can’t take care of the baby as well as she can. “Fathers need to say, ‘Honey, I can handle this. I need to practice and discover what works for me.’ Moms need to let their husbands make mistakes, and dads need to allow themselves to make mistakes in order to learn,” Brott advises. “If marginalization begins early and escalates,” he warns, “Dad will never have the chance to grow along with his kids and pass on the benefits of his involvement.”

One couple’s traditional solution This is not to say that couples must share equally in parenting. According to Happily Married with Kids, by marital therapist Carol Ummel Lindquist, Ph.D., “Happy couples don’t necessarily share childcare equally… But they do each have a sense of appreciation for what the other brings to the marriage and they communicate that appreciation.” In order to achieve a good balance, she continues, "couples need to make a conscious decision about their priorities and the division of labor in the marriage." Elaine* and Mark Gage,* of Mt. Kisco, made a conscious choice about their parenting roles long before 7-month-old Zack* was born. Elaine does not work outside the home and is responsible for Zack and the house, while Mark’s job is earning money as an agent in Manhattan. Elaine says, “I chose someone who would agree to this arrangement, because this is the life that I want. And Mark actually gets the best part of the baby, playing with him after work when Zack is happy. I don’t ask Mark to change Zack’s diapers because he doesn’t ask me to go to work.” For now, these roles work so well for Elaine and Mark that they’re thinking of having another child. But Elaine adds, “Some day I may go to work as a teacher and Mark will retire.”

A two-career couple solution For two-career couples, the situation is more complex. Jeff Seibel, C.S.W., a Manhattan psychotherapist specializing in couples therapy, says that when women are working, they inevitably carry more than half the burden of childcare even if their husbands are supportive and willing. Some couples, Seibel observes, find that “the arrival of a baby drives a huge wedge between them, whereas others use it as an opportunity to improve and expand their mutuality and cooperation.” Scott and Marilyn Baron of Bedford, both therapists who work in Manhattan, exemplify working parents who have used childrearing to fortify their marriage. They have been married 16 years and have two sons, ages 14 and 11. Scott confesses that he was attracted to Marilyn precisely because she didn’t fit the traditional mold and because he knew he wanted to be very involved in raising his kids. “The marriage came with an implicit agreement about sharing and splitting roles,” he says. From the beginning they have been equal parenting partners, with Scott leading Cub Scouts and sewing Halloween costumes, and Marilyn playing baseball with the boys. They are fortunate to be able to schedule their work week so that they alternate days at home with the kids. The primary downside of this arrangement, says Marilyn, “is that we function like a single parent household. We never have a family dinner all together during the week. But we still feel that we gain more than we give up.”

How marginalization escalates Both Marilyn and Scott have noticed an increase in young mothers like Elaine Gage who are choosing the old-fashioned-mom role. Scott expresses concern that these women may eventually chafe at this path. “Then she can either talk to her husband about her feelings, or begin making unilateral decisions about the kids and the household,” he explains. “And since society supports an individual’s right to be happy, she may eventually decide she doesn’t want to put up with a marginalized husband any more.” Resentment that’s left unchecked will in time destroy a relationship. Many divorces Marilyn has observed in her therapeutic work with couples occur “not because husbands are having affairs, but because women are getting fed up with their marginalized husbands,” she says. “They are a drain on the relationship. Women feel as if their husbands are more like an extra child than a partner.”

How to deal with marginalization For a relationship embittered by marginalization, communication that is non-blaming and non-critical is essential, says Jeff Seibel, adding: "It’s also important for couples to find opportunities to recognize and praise the positive behavior that they support." If the relationship is too emotionally charged, couples therapy may be necessary to identify pragmatic approaches. Some degree of marginalization and conflict about parenting roles are natural and predictable challenges in raising a family — factors of the natural differences between women and men, their particular expectations, outside stresses, and a lack of societal and extended family support for parenting. Recognizing this is half the battle. How couples then deal with it is what determines whether a marriage will survive or disintegrate. Communication and mutual appreciation are key. Dr. Lindquist concludes, “In a good marriage with kids, people change often. Learning how to change together and support these changes is the biggest task you face when you have children… Succeeding at learning to change gracefully sets the stage for a long and happy life.”

Helpful Tips The following suggestions for preventing marginalization were offered by our interviewees.

Advice for Moms —Don’t be a gatekeeper. Let your husband figure out his own parenting style and develop confidence as a dad. —Adjust your standards. Realize that it’s OK if your kid’s socks don’t match sometimes. —Ask him to do his part, but don’t ask for “help” because that makes it seem as if whatever he's "helping" with is really your job. —Praise him even when you know you could do it better. —Go on strike once in a while. —Switch roles with your husband for a day. —Plan family vacations.

Advice for Dads —Take the initiative and do everything you can to make yourself more available to your kids. —Value the “guy things” you do with your child, such as rough and tumble play. —Create special times or rituals with your children and stick to them for as long as you can. —Seize every opportunity to do things for or with your kids that they might initiate. —Be a “male mother,” i.e., do things that your wife would usually do, and encourage your wife to participate in activities you might normally do with your children. —Don’t wait too long to get involved with your kids. The longer you wait to step back into their lives, the harder it will be, as older kids might be angry, scared or resentful.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.