With Father’s Day approaching, I want to take a moment to celebrate the unsung paternal instinct. Even though it’s somewhat retrograde when stated explicitly, I feel like the notion of the mother’s instinct–some superior sixth sense that governs female parenting decisions–is still widely assumed.
That is, in parenting matters where there’s disagreement between mother and father, mother is innately more right. Egalitarian and progressive as I’ve always believed myself to be, I have found myself falling into this trap. It venerates the mother and marginalizes the father and, perhaps worse, can lead to decisions that are less beneficial than children.
Because, dear reader, the paternal instinct can be a brilliant thing. Here’s why.Okay, before I actually tell you why, I need to make this disclaimer: The definitions of the maternal and paternal instincts that are to follow are mine alone. They are my observations, based on my particular cultural vantage point and my life and my therapy practice. So what I’m calling “instinct” is really just shorthand, since at least some of it may be culturally reinforced tendencies.
Whew, disclaimer over.
What I’ve noticed is that the maternal instinct is often to pull a child closer, while a father’s is more toward letting go. That’s not to say that men aren’t loving and affectionate and nurturing toward children; rather, it’s to say that some of the nurturing takes a different form.
A father may nurture by encouraging a child to explore independently, by expressing utter confidence in the child with few check-ins. Or it may be through more vigorous play. You notice that at the pool, the fathers are more likely to be the ones tossing their kids high in the air. Or they’re more likely to be hanging out and chatting or reading in a lounge chair, looking up less often, figuring that their kids will be all right until they communicate otherwise.
Mothers tend to do more scanning of the area, more anticipation of possible trouble. If a child falls, the maternal instinct compels them to hug the child and express concern over potential injuries, rather than to suggest that the child is okay and can go right back to playing. And what this can mean is that a mother is less personally fulfilled, feels less free herself, than a father does.
That’s where the paternal instinct can be superior to the maternal instinct. By letting the child go, the child can learn to trust himself more, and the father can feel less beholden. It can be win-win.
Now, this is not to celebrate lax parenting–the abdication of responsibility in cases where intense supervision is essential. What I’m saying is that there are different situations where either the paternal or the maternal instinct has its benefits, and that we all benefit when we’re willing to examine those situations individually, rather than blanket assuming that one is superior.
Our instincts guide us, but they do not have to dictate how we behave all the time. There’s a lot of room for engaging in healthy dialogue about what the best course of action is, and for learning for our partners.
I know that for myself, I can stand to learn from how my husband reads a book on the floor next to my daughter while she plays alongside him, independently (as my instinct is to comment on what she’s doing all the time, introduce new games, etc., often to the exhaustion of both myself and my daughter.) I want my daughter to have the experience of being found incredibly interesting; I want to hold her close.
My husband is helping her have the experience of being self-sufficient, and knowing she can engage him if she wishes. He’s being less intrusive.
Both our approaches have virtues at different times and places. The key is, knowing when to be paternal and when to be maternal, when he should act like me and I should act like him. It’s about finding the balance, and not presuming the supremacy of one approach.
So this Father’s Day, I sing the praises of my husband, for all the ways he is different, and for all I can learn.
Father and son surfing image available from Shutterstock.