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Help! I Don’t Think I Love My Baby Boy

What happens when a father doesn't feel like he loves his new son?

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“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly advice column in which Fatherly’s Parenting Editor Patrick Coleman provides frank answers to reader questions. Want evidence-based answers and some common sense morality? Email advice@fatherly.com. We got you. Want a justification for some parenting decision you already made? Ask someone else. Patrick is busy.

 

Fatherly,

My kid is four and all the parents of kids in her preschool are getting them into stuff like music classes and ice skating classes and soccer classes. Every time I’m picking her up the other parents are asking me if I have her signed up for this thing or that thing and it started when my daughter was 3-years-old.

I want her to have fun and learn and all that, but that’s why we have her in preschool in the first place. Also: all those classes are fucking expensive. And I don’t want to spend a whole bunch of money for a class that isn’t going to do anything for my kid because she’s only four years old.

I guess that’s the biggest question I have. Will these classes help her love or get better at sports or music? Does it not matter if she’s doing this extra stuff or are there other ways to get her interested in stuff without paying a whole bunch of money?

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Broke Dad,
Burlington, Vermont

 

Preschool pick up is a terrible source of guilt and anxiety. It one of the first places where parents start to rub up against the ragged edge of competitive parenting. Your angst about being asked if you’re signing your daughter up for extracurriculars is very much connected to a sense of what I’ll call FOMUP, or Fear of Messing Up Parenting. But you need to internalize what I’m going to tell you. Keeping your kid out of the classes is not messing up. Your money can be better used elsewhere.

Facts: Kids don’t need classes that young. They need to play. Do music and sports classes offer an opportunity to play? Sometimes. But, there’s also a chance that play is ruined by parents or other kids who are taking the classes way too seriously. It’s a crapshoot, honestly. If your kid is in a class and winds up hating dance because there’s too much pressure to be good at it, they’ve been done a terrible disservice. There is always that possibility.

Kids learn best through experience. That’s true too. But, the experience isn’t just about doing. You can help your kid build interest simply by exposing her to new activities. Have you ever taken her to just watch a soccer game? Have you gone ice skating together, just the two of you? Do you have an instrument in the house she can make a melody on? Have you ever taken her to a dance recital? These are all places where you can spend your money outside of the extracurricular industrial complex. If she shows a real interest? Go ahead and dip a toe in.

And there are plenty of chances to dip a toe in. Some extracurricular classes and activities have preview days or offer free classes. Look out for those. Give it a chance, but also give yourself permission to walk away if your kid isn’t particularly interested. Trust her.

And consider, too, your daughter will get a lot of this stuff when she gets into grade school. For instance, my kid just started playing floor hockey in gym class in second grade. I’ve never taken him to a hockey game. He’s playing and learning the rules in school. If he decides it’s fun and something he’d like to pursue, then I’ll give him a chance. Exposure to sports and arts will happen whether either of you likes it or not. And falling in love with an activity early is no better than falling in love with it late. It’s loving it at all that counts.

But the vibe you get from anxious parents at preschool pick-up has very little to do with fostering love. It’s likely they believe an early commitment to extracurriculars will give their children an early edge. They are probably hoping that they’re getting on an early path to top tier University. But you need to rest easy knowing that your kid’s job at this point in her life is to play. That is how she will learn. That is how she will develop skills for education. So that’s what you should support, FOMUP be damned.

 

Fatherly,

I feel really bad about writing this but I don’t think I love my baby. I don’t hate him and I’m changing diapers and doing all the stuff dads are supposed to do but being a dad isn’t really something I’m enjoying.

My son is cute and I guess I like him, but I don’t know if I am feeling love. To be honest he’s kind of boring. I thought that being a dad would be super hard and that he would be doing all of this interesting stuff but he’s five months and he just kind of lays there and plays on his play mat. I just stare at him when I’m home and I don’t know if there is something wrong with me.

Isn’t it automatic to love your baby? How can I start feeling more like a dad is supposed to feel about his son?

Dead Inside
The Internet

*

You should not, by any means, feel guilty about your lack of emotional connection to your son. You can only feel what you feel. Every parent has an individual experience of parenthood. Some take to parenting very naturally and they feel all the big emotions about their child. Others take more time to develop a strong bond with their child. Some parents never really bond with their child until they are older. Some parents who bond strongly with their baby have tremendous difficulty maintaining that connection when their child reaches puberty. The families you see in the commercials or on stock photos aren’t real. They just share enough superficial qualities with enough people that they can act as a visual shorthand for the American dream.

The truth, rarely shared outside of close parent groups is that sometimes parenting is hard and boring as hell. It’s not uncommon for parents to slander their children in private, calling them jerks and assholes. That’s because kids can be jerks and assholes. They can also be wildly uninteresting, even during the explosive period of development during babyhood. Your experience is not as atypical as you might think.

At the same time, you’ve told me a lot about who you are as a dad. And I think you’re selling yourself short. You may not be feeling the love with a capital L, but you are there. You are with your kid and you are changing diapers and doing things that dads are supposed to do. And you’re doing it even though you don’t enjoy it. That tells me that you feel some sense of commitment. You have a moral compass and a desire to provide. You are present. That’s more a father than many kids in this world have ever had. I commend you for that.

My advice to you is to be patient. That spark will come. Just keep caring for your son. It might take a long time, but just by simply doing and repetition — simply by being there — you will create a relationship with your son. Just be open to what that relationship looks like. It might not be intimate and full of hugs and smiles, but not every father and son relationship has to look like that. I only ask that you remain present and available.

But also — and this is important — if your current emotional state is markedly different than the way you felt before your child arrived, you may be experiencing depression. Many fathers report a period of depression and anxiety after their child is born. The good news is that you can get help for depression. If you feel like you are in crisis, or if your thoughts are particularly dark in regards to your child, I strongly encourage you to find a mental health provider right away.

But as it stands, I will just ask you to be mindful of how you feel. Be open. Know that your experience of fatherhood is valid and it will likely change. Give it time.