On Being a Good Dad.
Interview with Armin Brott
By Bill Bruzy
When it comes to getting good information on parenting for men Armin Brott is the man to talk to. Author and co-author of five groundbreaking books for dads Time Magazine has called him “the superdad’s superdad.” A prolific writer and researcher Armin has appeared in the pages of “The New York Times Magazine,” “Newsweek,” “Men’s Health,” “Parenting,” and many other publications. He is also a frequent media guest on shows such as “Today” “Fox News” and he also hosts “Positive Parenting” a weekly radio show in the San Francisco Bay Area.
His “New Father” series of books are first-rate guides to the intricacies of being a dad. Beginning with “The Expectant Father” he has embarked on a project that will take us through the life cycle of parenting. With humor and a clear accessible style he offers something dad’s have needed for a long time… good information.
Bill Bruzy You’ve published a number of books on fathering. How, besides just being a dad yourself, did you get into this arena as a writer?
Armin Brott Actually it started before I became a dad. My then wife was pregnant with our first child and I started looking around for resources to help me figure out what it was I was thinking about, worrying about, and going through. There are endless resources for women, mothers groups, prospective mothers groups, the O.B. she’s going to see, her friends, and millions of books and magazine all over the place. There was essentially nothing for men.
So I started putting together some thoughts. It ultimately became “The Expectant Father.” It was the result of my own thinking, hundreds of hours of research, interviews, talking with people who wrote studies and coming up with a good understanding of what it is men go through in a pregnancy. That was the beginning.
All the parenting books are geared for mothers. They occasionally mention dad can do this or that but it’s mostly for mothers to tell their husbands what to do, or for mothers to figure out clever ways to get their husbands to do more around the house.
What I found, in my research and looking at other people’s research, is that men have always wanted to be involved but they get pushed out of the way by a lot of different factors. The biggest one is that they have to go back to work.
But men are looking for different kinds of ways to be involved but a lot of women feel very threatened by a guy who wants to be involved. It’s an interesting thing. It makes sense psychologically so there is this very subtle and not at all malicious gate keeping. I think women are not intending to be mean about it but they have this idea that it’s kind of a joke, like her husband doesn’t know what he’s doing, or he can’t handle something so they, the women, will want to do it all themselves. Unfortunately that’s the same sort of attitude that keeps women from advancing in the workplace because men can feel threatened by a woman who might advance financially beyond them.
BB So what do men go through in pregnancy?
AB The bottom line is they go through a journey that is just as profound as what women go through psychologically, but men are basically a trimester behind. For women the first couple of months they are excited about it, wild about it, they know it’s going to be happening and they are anticipating all sorts of good things.
In the second trimester women tend to turn inward a bit and focus on wondering what kind of mother they are going to be. Am I going to be like my mother? Am I going to be good at this? Can we afford this? They become contemplative internally. And the last trimester she tends to focus outward, on the husband in particular. Is he going to be here for us? Does he still love me and find me attractive even though I’ve put on weight? The focus is on him. That’s the backdrop.
So the first trimester for men there is not a lot going on. We can’t feel anything, can’t see anything. She’s vomiting and having physical signs this is happening but for the men it’s not uncommon to hear that for the first couple of days they were excited about the pregnancy and then they forgot about it. It’s not mean or irresponsible we just don’t think about it.
But what happens is the second trimester kicks in. You go to the doctors office and hear the heartbeat, see the ultrasound and maybe even feel a couple of kicks in there every once in a while. You see some concrete signs something is going on. That is when guys tend to get excited. So they’re excited but at that point the wife is turning inside, into herself. So the guy wants to talk about how exciting it is but she’s already been there and done that.
Then in the third trimester he begins doing what she was doing in the second trimester. He begins looking internally and asking what kind of father am I going to be? What does it mean to be a good father? Am I going to be like my dad? Not like my dad? Is that a good thing, a bad thing? How do we afford this? What do we do with this kid … I have no preparation, no idea what I’m doing and where am I going to get the skills to do this sort of stuff? So he’s focusing on himself and worried about it and she’s focusing on him too. What that means is the last trimester, for guys, can be a particularly stressful time.
BB How, generally speaking, do women and men differ in parenting?
AB There are a couple of emblematic things. One is men tend to be more physical with their children than women. They tend to play with them more, interact with them more. Women are much better at dealing with small babies, psychologically speaking, because they don’t expect any kind of a response. But men feel more comfortable and more at home with someone that can throw the ball back to them.
The other thing is something you’ve probably seen in every single park. If a kid starts climbing up something the father’s response is “keep on going!” The mother’s response is “take it easy, be careful.” Were speaking in generalities here but that speaks to men sort of pushing their children or encouraging and supporting independence and women not doing that. It’s not a negative thing. Women are supporting security.
That’s one of the reasons I feel it’s so critical that children have both parents, whether they’re divorced or not, because they both play a very important role. Kids need to get both of those things, somebody to help them with independence and somebody to let them know there is a safety net should they fail.
BB So is male nurturing and intimacy more physical?
AB One of the sad things we’ve done, vocabulary wise, in our society is that we’ve defined intimacy in a female kind of way. Intimacy involves telling secrets, crying, those things. I remember, and I’ve talked to a lot of other guys, one of the most intimate experiences I’ve ever had was playing catch with my father. He’s thirty feet away but we did that a lot and I remember feeling incredible intimacy with that. But that doesn’t count as intimacy because we weren’t talking about our emotions. But you see guys on the football team and they slap each other on the butt. That is a kind of intimacy. It’s just different. For nurturing you do not have to be holding and cuddling and breast feeding your child to be nurturing. You can be encouraging independence, teaching skills, playing games and showing the kid the way of the world. I think that’s extremely nurturing.
BB True, any man whose seen “Field of Dreams” is brought to tears by that image of being able to play catch with your dad one more time. Okay, but now a lot of men are single dads, your recent book is about that. I guess one of the biggest things I hear about is custody and the conflicts around settling those issues.
AB There is no winning in child custody wars. Children are very aware that they are half mom and half dad. If one or the other is made out to be horrible or evil or disgusting and not to be seen or talked to that says something to the child about their own worth.
The most important thing you can do is maintain a civil relationship, to the extent possible, with your spouse. Then you should get as much time as you can with your child. That means not fighting and dropping bombs on people and having knock-down drag-out horrible battles. It does mean standing up and saying I’m important to this child, and the child is important to me, and I think it would be more beneficial for all of us if I had 50/50 custody. That’s my thing.
I talk about this a lot in my groups and point out that when women are the sole custodians of the children their options are limited. They can’t go to school, they can’t get a job, there are all sorts of limitations if men can’t take the child fifty percent of the time. It opens up horizons for women that they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s a good thing for everybody.
BB What are the best and worst things a single dad can do?
AB I think the worst thing, generally speaking, is to fade away and not be involved in the child’s life. It’s an easy temptation, especially when guys get the usual every other weekend and a Wednesday afternoon custody situation. The good-byes are sometimes too painful, the sense of not being valuable, needed, or an important part of the child’s life can lead some guys to figure it’s better for everyone if they just take off. Most will pay the child support but they just won’t be there physically, but the kids need the physical and emotional support much more than they need the money. That’s one of the worst things.
The other worst thing is to have a hostile relationship with the child’s mother, to badmouth the mother or use the child as a spy, asking them what that boyfriend is like, that kind of thing. That sort of stuff is creepy and it’s damaging. So those two things are the worst things.
The best things are the flip side of that. Maintain a good relationship and let the child see that you can have major arguments in your life and you can resolve them. You don’t have to be horrible to the other person and you still can maintain a relationship. It teaches kids a lot about fighting and relationships.
Don’t use the kids as weapons, don’t pry, and most importantly, be there. Even if you are stuck with every other weekend don’t go … don’t leave. Remember that the kids need you and they don’t need to go to Disneyland every week. They’d be perfectly happy going to the park because they just need the time and the attention and the feeling that they are loved and appreciated which they can get from their dad in a dad kind of way. I think guys need to understand how critically important they are to their kids.
BB Are we changing in terms of father’s capacity to participate in their children’s lives?
AB Men have always had the capacity to participate it’s a question of whether they have been given the opportunity or they are willing to stand up and take the opportunity or insist on the opportunity. That’s what is changing. Guys are kind of coming out of the closet so to speak. They are being more forceful in their desire to have more custody if it’s a divorce situation or if it’s not a divorce situation to take more time off from work, or turn down a promotion that would take time away from their kids, cut back on hours to be with kids, take paternity leave.
BB What about men’s rights groups. I often don’t know who to refer to because some of them are pretty committed to their anger and not very helpful. Who is a good source for men in these areas.
AB I think “The Men’s Health Network” is one of the prime organizations. Their focus tends to be on men’s health but I’ve been pushing for them to recognize, with some success, to recognize that fatherhood is very much a health issue. It helps men’s health because there is a significant correlation between what kind of relationships they have with their kids, the amount of time they spend with their kids and their own mental health. The same with the kids.
The organizations I worry about are the one’s bashing women, the bitter and angry groups. You can be bitter and angry, a lot of guys have a perfect right to be, just do it on your own time. They’re missing the idea that they’re hurting their kids by expressing that too much.
BB Do you think the men’s movement had much of an impact on all this.
AB No. I did a book called “Throwaway Dads” and I had a chapter in there on the men’s movement. In a similar way that there is not really a father’s rights movement because there are so many different fragments there have been a number of men’s movements. The mythopoetic people, like Robert Bly, probably helped a lot of guys reconcile with their own fathers. But I don’t think they’ve done anything to help men be better fathers in the present. There is a feminist men’s movement that I don’t think has done anything to help men be fathers either because they are supporting women to a kind of extreme extent. It’s not a bad thing. There are the divorced fathers groups, the Promise Keepers, the church groups and those may have had something to do with fathers, helped in some way, but they put things back into some fifties idea of the traditional family and I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. So I’m kind of skeptical about a lot of them. I don’t think there is a cohesive movement that welcomes everybody.
BB In all this work what’s the most important thing you’ve realized?
AB Men are critical contributors to their children’s development. Kids need both a mother and a father. Fathers have the capacity to do it just as much as women do. There is no biological thing that makes women better at it, it’s an on-the-job training kind of thing. Men have to get off their asses and do it. Not be afraid to take the initiative or make a couple of mistakes.
Resources: Armin’s website provides a portal to numerous resources at www.MrDad.com. The National Center for Fathering offers a magazine “Today’s Father.” For a free issue and information contact them at www.fathers.com. Parents Without Partners can be contacted at www.parentswithoutpartners.org/ and also The Men’s Health Network is a good national resource for fathering and all kinds of men’s health issues. Their website is www.menshealthnetwork.org/. Also in Austin chcck out "The Dad's Show" a long running radio show covering topics of interest to dads. Their website is www.dadshow.com