Modern Day Seahorses

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


There’s a large range of responses by parents and other adults to newborns and infants.  Many people are not comfortable with infants because they find very young children are unresponsive and therefore boring or frustrating.  Other people go to the opposite extreme finding infants fascinating, their every tiny response deeply thrilling.

My father, my husband John, my son Peter and his son Josh were totally absorbed, fascinated and thrilled even by newborns.  John’s father, on the other hand, was a perfect example of the man who was delighted by the fact that he had a son but had no interest in them when they were babies.  Other than financially, the thought of taking care of them, did not exist.

There was a well known story in John’s family:  one day when John was an infant his mother left the house to do some shopping and his father was left to watch over the baby.  When she got home, she found the infant John in his buggy, wrapped warmly and placed in front of a totally open window in the freezing Illinois winter.  Madame, John’s father is reputed to have said, your child stinks. 

While this may seem extreme to us now in the 21st century, John’s father was behaving normally, in line with the gender related expectations of the time.  Fathers were not expected to relate to their very young children; not to talk to them or carry them or feed them or bond with them.  Fathers’ expressed their love for their family by taking care of them financially.  And that was the norm.  Mothers provided the warm emotional comfort babies needed and fathers provided the supporting livelihood.  And when I was a child this was still normal and my father who loved taking care of his children was a great exception.

But years later, in the late 1950s when John was an Air Force jet fighter pilot stationed on Okinawa I was startled to see how close the pilots were to their children even when their children were newborns.  Fighter jets were new and those pilots were among elite, roughly akin to SEALS or Special Forces today.  Most of them that I knew wanted to join the newly organized astronaut program and be among the pioneers shot into space for the first time in history.

These extraordinary men had no fears about their masculinity and felt no need to conform to other people’s expectations.  Their self esteem and confidence were well earned and deep.  Not vulnerable to teasing about being sissies, they were free to enjoy “feminine” feelings of protecting and nurturing as well as masculine ones like strength and bravery.

It’s very likely that my second husband Allen was the normal unresponsive, unemotional, and uninvolved father when his kids were young.  He grew up very poor on a farm during the depression as his father lost his jobs.  Allen left the farm when he graduated from high school and joined the Coast Guard as a black shoe sailor.  Most of his life was devoted to his career as was normal, and he succeeded, becoming one of the few “Mustangs” who rose to become a Captain.

The only thing he ever talked about that involved his playing with his two children was his weekly horse ride with his daughter when she was in her teens.  Not surprisingly, his relationships with his children were distant when I came along after his wife had died and his children were adults.

Some years after Allen and I were married, my son Peter flew his wife back to the United States from Trinidad as she had become seriously ill.  As a result, he had to single handedly sail their boat back to the mainland.  Allen, the professional captain, was thrilled when Peter called and asked him if he’d like to join him in Georgetown in the Bahamas and sail back together.  While they had always liked each other, during this journey they bonded.

More years passed, Peter and his wife divorced, Peter remarried – and his new wife gave birth to a daughter.  In the photographs taken at the time, Allen is clearly thrilled, but terrified of moving while he’s holding the infant.

Peter was a new model of a man for Allen.  Ambitious and successful, Peter would come home from work, change his clothes, pick up the baby and start to cook dinner.  And once Peter had his daughter in his arm, he never put her down; He was simply thrilled to hold her.

Increasingly, Allen wanted to be like Peter.  As Grace got bigger he’d pull out his small bag of kiddy tricks:  he’d cross his legs and pull her onto his foot of the higher leg which went up and down while he sang the nursery rhyme Hickory, Dickory, Dock.

Slowly his stiffness melted and Grandpa Cap became a very special person in Grace’s life.  It was endearing and poignant when, with tears glistening, he’d say to me, Thank you so much.  This is the happiest time in my life.  I never knew it could be like this.  It took Allen almost 80 years to be able to connect with young children.

In today’s world, at least the world of the educated professionals, fathers are heavily involved with their children – and mothers are often involved in their work.  Surely, part of the payoff of these changes is women will learn that not every important relationship at home or at work involves disclosures of intimacy.  Many women have learned that even important relationships can revolve around what people do and not about how people feel. 

And even though men’s relationships with men are usually fraught with cutting humor and impersonal discussions about business or sporting events, through their experiences with their children, men have been learning some relationships reflect less doing and more feeling. 

This is a great outcome to the changes begun by feminism, aided by the rise in two-career families.  People with a larger repertoire of responses, who are comfortable with connecting through both doing and feeling, will be much less likely to fall prey to the liability side of their potential responses – and that is surely a very good thing.




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