Is it natural to nurture?

Adam Katz-Stone does some soul-searching about becoming a father.

My wife and I are expecting our first child in January. The panic set in around mid-July.

It occurred to me that I had no idea how to be a parent. I figured I could change diapers and wipe noses, but I wondered about this ephemeral quality called "nurturing," which I keep hearing that women all possess intuitively.

Did I, as a man, have this ability inside me already? Or would I have to find it, steal it, make it somehow on my own?

I asked my friends in cyberspace, a few dozen guys around the world who participate in a conversational email list for full-time fathers. These are stay-at-home dads, just like I plan to be, so maybe they would have the answer. Here's a short version of what I asked them...

"My own experience has been that, despite Alan Alda and the '70s and it being OK for men to cry etc., most men are not encouraged to be nurturers - to be caring listeners, to be sensitive to others' feelings, to provide for the emotional needs of those around us. It isn't something society values or encourages in us.

"As a result, we lack role models. Sure, I know plenty of 'feeling' men, but by and large they spend so much time feeling their own feelings, if you see what I mean, that it is hard for me to imagine them in the role of caring nurturer, which I suppose requires a degree of selflessness, a willingness to put our own feelings aside in the interests of our children, our spouse, etc.

"So: how does a man become a nurturer? How does he learn to become a parent - not just in the sense of being willing and able to change diapers, sing lullabies, etc. but in a more profound sense? How does a man learn, or teach himself, to become the father we all have in our imaginations: the mythical Male who is strong and wise, and also caring and compassionate; who knows what needs to be done or said, and is able to do it and to say it?"

One of the first replies came from a dad who really summed up what is at stake for men who are struggling to make sense of their role as parent, teacher and friend to their children. "I believe that becoming a father is the final step into adulthood, and if you avoid interacting with your child, or are prevented from it, you cannot grow up," he wrote.

So it isn't just about being a good dad: it's about being a full and complete human being.

My cyber-friends generally agreed that the popular media today offer little beyond traditional male stereotypes. Religion hasn't been much help either, allowing for masculine nurturing only in "certain male deities, semi-deities and perhaps a handful of saints, all of which instances place 'male nurturing' somewhere well outside the domestic sphere," as one man wrote.

Many seemed to share my confusion about the expectations that modern Western society has for men. "We live in a time where there are no clear signals to adolescent boys about what they are supposed to grow into," one man wrote. "Boys are being told these days to show their feelings, but when it comes to dating these 'softies' do not seem to be particularly successful, so the theory contradicts experience."

He said (and I think I agree) that the mixed signals do not become any less confusing in adulthood. "I'm not entirely sure whether crying and showing feelings should really be encouraged too much in men, because in emergency situations - your house on fire, for instance - you are still expected as the man to rescue the crying women and children, to display strength that gives others the support they need to survive the situation."

Some of the men offered practical advice on how to nurture. Steve wrote that it is important to "put the needs of your spouse and children before your own" and to "listen to your kids. Instead of using their questions as an opportunity to launch into a monologue of your life and opinions, address their issues with wisdom, strength, caring and sincerity. If this produces emotion, that is okay."

Another dad put forward a warning about expectations. He said he went into his role as a parent imagining "that every moment was going to be warm fuzzys." In fact, he said, those times occur all too infrequently. "We just have to grab them when we can, between changing diapers and breaking up spats."

Another dad took this one step further, observing that changing diapers and breaking up spats may in fact be the very essence of nurturing. Hugging, sharing feelings, wiping away tears are important, yes. But for a small child, the constant caring presence of a parent, filling up the ordinary spaces of everyday life, sends a potent message: I am here for you. That IS nurturing, even if it expresses itself in such mundane acts as picking up toys and washing up dishes.

Another writer suggested that women's attitudes may play a pivotal role in whether a man is able to evolve into the nurturer he wants to be. "I think it's essential that one feels supported in this endeavor," wrote this father of two. "When I hear about situations where the dad is constantly monitored by the mom every time he tries to do anything with or for the baby, and is corrected whenever he doesn't do it 'right,' I thank God my wife has always been so confident and trusting in me. This has given me the confidence that what I am doing is right, or at least OK, and to trust my instincts."

As a father-to-be, I think the most reassuring advice that I received came from a dad who summed up his experience this way:

"How does a man get to be a nurturer? In the same way as a woman. Give him a baby, and let nature take its course."

Here's hoping he is right...

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