Why Men Fear Small Babies

New fathers are reluctant to take paternity leave for a lot of reasons. One might be sheer terror.
Jon deJong/Flickr

I'm an unabashed fan of paternity leave. I took two months myself (not all of it paid) and I cannot imagine not having done so. My wife, my child, and I are all happier as a result, I'm fairly confident.

Fellow men, take as much paternity leave as you can. Seriously, as spelled out in a new essay in our magazine, you get to contribute to gender equality at the cost of more time with your child.

And yet, Liza Mundy's essay demonstrates just how hard it is to get men to make this trade. Policymakers in progressive countries couldn't just make it possible for men to take leave; they had to make it super-duper attractive: 

So policy makers decided to make men an offer they would feel ashamed to refuse. Norway, Iceland, Germany, Finland, and several other countries offered a variety of incentives to nudge men to take leave. Some countries offered them more money, which helped men feel that they were financially supporting their families even when they were at home. Many also adopted a “use it or lose it” approach, granting each family a total amount of leave, a certain portion of which could be used only by fathers.

Why this would be the case is complex. There a lot of answers one could give that focus on men in the world, men at work. Men don't want to get left behind by their peers. There is a stigma against men spending time away from their jobs. Etcetera. 

And those things, I'm sure, are a large part of the problem. 

I want to address a different, more personal category of reasons for men's seeming unwillingness to take as much paternity leave as possible: fear.

Let me grossly generalize, based on my own limited friend group and set of associates: men are terrified of babies. (I know I was before I spent 1,500 straight hours with one.)

We are scared of these creatures for good reason. Babies are tiny things that don't talk. They're fragile. Their hold on life is tenuous. And no one ever taught us what to do with them.

No one taught us how to coo and rock, where to put our hands, or what the right way to hold a bottle is.

What if the baby cries? What if I can't get the baby to stop crying? What will it say about me if I can't get the baby to stop crying? 

This situation is exacerbated because men lack what is known in many households as "The Boob." As in, "I don't know why he's crying. Maybe I'll give him The Boob." 

Men don't have the go-to move of breastfeeding, which a very large percentage of women (at least in the American west) do. 

Under these circumstances, many men retreat into the default stance that they are "useless" during the first few months of a baby's life. I can't tell you how many well-meaning men have told me that they felt helpless dealing with a newborn. Many only found their purpose and parental commitment after many months, or even years. 

Our midwife gave us a simple directive as we left the hospital. Turning to me, she said, "You do everything but breastfeed." Turning to my wife, she said, "You breastfeed."

This is where my long parental leave proved exceptionally important. Even if I'd been all in but had only had a couple of weeks off, I don't think we could have taken this directive as seriously as we did. 

Because if you're only gonna be out of work for two weeks, what's the point in working through the hard parts of figuring out a child? It's much easier to just pass the kid back to Mom and let her deal with it. 

If you're going to spend nine weeks with a newborn, it is worth it to get over the short-term pain and fear. If you learn how to become useful, then you have a great platform on which you can keep building a parenting partnership. 

From a policy perspective, I think what my experience suggests is that if we want men to take more paternity leave, there have to be ways for men to learn how to take care of babies before they make the decision about how much paternity leave they're going to take.

At the very least, that would let us isolate how much of a role fear of babies plays in men's thinking about this very complex set of decisions. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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