Choose Your Role
In many parenting relationships, the mother's more authoritative caregiver status means the father has less involvement with the children. The main problem, fathering experts point out, is that many dads are all too happy with this arrangement. Dr. Christopher Green, MD, pediatrician and parenting author of Babies! A Parent's Guide to Enjoying Baby's First Year, identifies this "learned helplessness" as an act that allows dads to get out of unsavory parenting tasks by feigning incompetence. His suggestion is for the parents to work out "the ground rules of cooperation and shared responsibility from the very beginning." In my own experience, this can involve taking the night in shifts with sick kids and having whoever's closest change the diaper or make the bottle.
In all fairness, most dads wouldn't consciously choose to avoid fulfilling their children's needs; however, some mothers make it too easy for them to do that. Fathering guru Armin Brott points this out in his book The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-to-Be, Second Edition. He describes the common scenario in which Dad picks up the baby to change his diaper, and when the baby starts to cry, Mom steps in and says, "Here, let me do it." Brott's counsel is similar to Dr. Green's: Dads should arrange with their partners not to take over for them if they start struggling with the child. In fact, Brott cites research showing that parenting involves more behavior that is learned than innate, which means that mothers and fathers alike have to learn to become parents—it's just that mothers typically get much more practice.
If dads are content to parent passively, letting their spouses shoulder most of the burdensome tasks, they miss out on crucial bonding opportunities with their young children. Real love means work, as M. Scott Peck observes in his book The Road Less Traveled. The corollary here is that if dads don't put in the work, they deprive themselves of developing genuinely caring feelings for their kids. What's more, they also risk facing a lack of demonstrated love from their partners, who are either too busy with or engrossed in the children to pay attention to them. In his book Becoming a Father, Dr. William Sears suggests that if men don't actively involve themselves in caring for the children from the newborn stage onward, their wives will "pick up the slack" and develop an attachment to the child that can leave dads feeling alienated.