His is often the face the newborn sees, looming out of the dimness of the delivery room, open-mouthed with wonder at the creature springing into being from his wife's very body. Men who witness the birth of their child almost invariably react the same way, says Dr. Kyle Pruett, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center; they are "taken over" by the experience, electrified to realize that they have brought a human being into the world, a new life whose fate is inextricably and eternally bound up with theirs. Women, he adds, "describe the experience quite differently. Long before the baby's born, they've already been taken over."
As for the newborn, no one knows just what he makes of Daddy a that first encounter with his father; almost certainly, not much. But before his first year is out, the urgency of his needs-for nourishment, for stimulation, for comfort in a crazy world where a snug, warm diaper can inexplicably transform into a cold and sodden clump-will lead him into a relationship with his father that psychologists call "attachment" but that parents are pleased to think of as "love." Sometime around the sixth to eighth month, the human infant, among the most defenseless creatures on God's earth, will become attached to the adults who take care of him--to prefer them to strangers, to notice their absence, to seek comfort from them. This usually happens earlier or more strongly with the mother but mostly just because she's more likely to be around in those early months. Anyone who provides regular care for the baby will become the object of his or her attachment--even if the care isn't especially good or loving-in-eluding fathers and babysitters.
Which is not to say that babies don't distinguish among adults; on the contrary, they can tell mother from father as early as six weeks, or (depending on which studies you accept) even three. Almost invariably, they make the same distinction, becoming calm in the presence of the mother, aroused and stimulated by the approach of the father. The interactions between infant and father, as between infant and mother, follow a pattern that transcends social class and cultural expectations. Each mother has a distinctive way of cradling her baby, and will hold him that way nine times out of 10, Pruett says; a given father, by contrast, in 10 tries will pick up his baby nine different ways, including upside down. That is so, he adds, even for fathers who stay at home with their infants while the mothers work. Mothers make more use of toys in playing with their children; fathers are more likely to employ their own bodies as portable, interactive monkey bars and rocking horses. "Even when they are the primary caregivers," Pruett says, "fathers do not mother."
And that difference is apparent all through the years of early childhood. Dr. Robert Moradi, a psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine, has been studying young children and their parents, in separate "Mommy and Me" and "Daddy and Me" groups, for several years. Fathers, he says, help the child "individuate"; they are more willing than mothers to let a child out of their sight, and on average will let a baby crawl as much as twice as far before retrieving her. When a child confronts a novel situation--a dog, a stranger, a new toy-mothers instinctively move closer, offering the reassurance of their familiar presence; fathers tend to stay back and let the child explore it for herself. Both modes of parenting-the reassuring and the challenging-contribute to a child's emotional growth. Research shows that infants whose fathers took an active role in their care were less likely to cry when separating from a parent or in the presence of a stranger.
And that's only the beginning of a lifetime of good things that flow from having a father actively involved in child care. "Children whose fathers help care for them are less likely to become violent; 'they have higher IQs, better impulse control, better social adaptations-all of the elements of mental health are better," says Moradi. And if that isn't persuasive, consider Pruett's finding that "men who have been involved in the physical care of children under the age of 3 are significantly less likely to become involved in the sexual abuse of children." The very intimacy of feeding, of changing diapers and bathing, seems to inoculate men against subsequent sexual arousal, not just in relation to their own children but to others as well. Moreover, Moradi asserts, controlled studies with inner-city men show that those who take care of their children are less likely to join gangs and commit violent crimes. Few forces are as powerful, and as under-used in our culture, as this sacred bond between father and child, the magnetic attraction of strength for weakness, the "attachment" that begins with dependence and grows into love.