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Many small children these days spend at least one night a week with someone other than their mother. Usually, this is a result of shared parenting plans, worked out as part of a divorce. Certainly shared parenting is a good idea and studies support the active involvement of both parents in the life of infants and older children.

But a study from the University of Virginia found that babies under the age of one who spend at least one night a week away from their usual home were insecurely attached. In fact, 43% of babies with weekly overnights at their fathers’ house were insecurely attached compared to just 16% of children who visited their fathers less frequently.

Attachment is established by about age 10 months. Secure attachment appears to provide lifelong advantages in social relationships and self-confidence.

Notice that there’s no magic in staying every night with Mom. If the father is the more-connected parent and the child spends most of her time in Dad’s home, then the same issue would be a factor in overnight stays at the mother’s home. It’s not that mothers confer any advantage. It’s that infants need consistency and even a one-night-per-week disruption of that damages the formation of secure attachment.

Notice also that the problem with inconsistency isn’t limited to divorced parents who share parenting. Families in which the more-connected parent travels extensively for business and is away from home one night per week may find the same problem with attachment develops. While in this case, the baby is at least sleeping in his usual crib at night, attachment with a main caregiver may be at risk.

So what can parents do? One of the researchers said, “I would like infants and toddlers to be securely attached to two parents, but I am more worried about them being securely attached to zero parents.” Ensuring the future mental health and social strengths of babies seems a worthy reason to adjust parents’ lives.

1. In families affected by divorce, parents should limit severely the number of nights an infant spends away from her usual home. Instead, babies can spend more time during the day with their secondary caregiver.

2. In families in which frequent travel takes the primary caregiver away, efforts could be made to make the alternate parent the primary one. This parent could work from home, be responsible for all the care and activities a main caregiver provides, and otherwise fill the role of main parent. Obviously, it is best if this arrangement is established before the baby is born, instead of trying to change things after the mother goes back to work after her maternity leave.

3. For all families, results from the study suggest that after a child’s first birthday, weekly sleepovers can gradually be introduced. By the time a child is an older preschooler – age four or thereabouts – he can divide his time equally between Mom’s house and Dad’s house without ill effect.

No one ever said that having a baby would be convenient. Catering to the attachment needs of a small child can seem unnecessary, especially since the effects of poor attachment may not be noticeable right away.

But children need a sense of security and care. It’s up to moms and dads together to make that so.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

There’s two parents here, right? So why does it often feel like you’re doing this all by yourself? How can you inspire your significant other to take on a more equal role in raising your kids?

(I hear this complaint about unequal parenting most often from women about their husbands. But the problem certainly could apply to mommies from the daddy point of view, especially if the man works at home while the woman works away. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll speak to this issue from the woman’s point of view.)

So what’s happening here? Why don’t men see what needs to be done and then do it? How can you fix this situation to feel less put-upon and less stressed?

Your Role
As always in this sort of thing, it’s a good idea to look at ourselves first. So how do you see your own parenting role? Do you see yourself as the only one who can parent correctly? Are you uncertain that your husband knows what to do?

If you think this way, then you’ve set two hurdles in your path: you might expect your husband to do everything your way (and you may even criticize him for doing things his way) and also you may feel that you cannot leave the children with him because you are the center of your children’s lives (and no one knows how to do what you do). These are hurdles you have created. You can also dismantle them.

Fathers learn how to be parents on-the-job, just as mothers do. So they’ve got to have freedom to try things out and see what works. Mother’s-way is not the only way. Dads might do things differently and that’s just fine.

In addition, you and your children are not two halves of a single being. Children will adapt to nursing from a bottle now and then and they will settle down soon even if they cry for you when you leave. Recognizing this will permit you to have a life of your own and pursue your own interests. It will permit you to leave your children in their father’s care for an afternoon or even an entire day.

Your Partner’s Role
How does your husband see his parenting role? Does he believe his role is confined to being the bread-winner? Is he waiting for the kids to be old enough to need coaching in sports? If he sees his role in a limited way and you’d like to expand his possibilities, then you’ll need to have a little talk. Actually, many little talks.

If you and your hubby haven’t talked pleasantly about your roles and responsibilities, then that is your first step. Someday when things are going well and there’s a space for conversation – maybe in a family walk around the neighborhood – bring up the idea of engaging more in the children’s lives. Without being critical or complaining, point out how great he is with your child. Tell him you’d like to make it easier for him to have a bigger role.

“You know, honey, little Clement loves being around you. It’s so cute the way he wiggles when you come by. I’ve been wondering if you’d maybe like to feed him in the evening…”

Then see what he says. Take it from there.

Realize that if your man isn’t doing much with the children now, one conversation might not have much visible effect. You’re planting the seed. More pleasant conversations, matched with increasing pleasant opportunities for Dad to step in, will need to follow. See if you can shape your guy’s behavior and make change over the next several weeks, instead of expecting instant results tomorrow.

When your husband takes some initiative, be careful to be only positive. If he asks for directions, be happy to give them but feel free to make it clear there’s not only one good way. Do not act as his evaluator and critic. How he does things is how he does things. Never try to catch him in a mistake or gloat when things go wrong for him. Never say “I told you so.”

If your man was raised in a household with rigid gender roles, so that he has no observed experience of the sort of behavior you’d like, then your job of persuasion will be more difficult. If he has inherited attitudes towards “woman’s work” that block his perception of a more progressive viewpoint, then you may need some help in encouraging him to change. Depending on your level of weariness with his behavior, marriage counseling (if he will go with you) or personal counseling (if he won’t) may help you deal with the reluctance you’re seeing.

For Most Of Us…
We women create this single-parenting problem by being too critical, being too directive, and being too tied to our children. This is a natural extension of the protective feelings we have for newborns but we hang onto these feelings longer than we could. And then we complain about feeling stressed and stretched even as we make it hard for anyone to help out.

The solution in large part lies in re-envisioning our parenting role and along with that re-envisioning our husband’s parenting role. Talking, sharing, solving problems.

And being pleasant and encouraging is the way to do all that.



© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.