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There’s no reason men can’t be as competent a parent as women “if you don’t count the bosoms business”, says popular parenting author, cartoonist and broadcaster Kaz Cooke.
True to form she has produced a no-nonsense guide to the early years, Babies and Toddlers, two decades after releasing the popular tell-it-like-it-is guide to pregnancy Up the Duff.
Why dads need to speak up
Dedicating an entire section to dads, she advises fathers who feel ‘frozen out’ or elbowed aside when trying to learn to bond with their babies to speak up and talk about it.
She points out that the swap from “floaty pregnant woman”, to new mother “with all the raging hormones and exhaustion and bosoms akimbo-but-off-limits” can be confusing for fathers.
“At times men are treated as useless in advertising and by relatives and sometimes their partners. Mothers don’t have their work to go to and they want to feel like the expert at home and men can get squeezed out,” Kaz says.
“Men have to get in and learn how to read books and get to know their kids. It’s important for kids to feel like their dad wants to get to know them. It doesn’t always have to be qualitative time, sometimes quantitative time is fine. You can just lie around and have a chat.
“A lot of blokes particularly in those early weeks really aren’t aware what to do. Their partner might be having a crisis of body image or whether to breast feed or not. Everything is new for everybody and everyone is so tired and the baby can’t tell you what is wrong. I get it. It’s instinctive to put your hands up and walk slowly out of the room.
“There is this amazing new generation of dads who want to be involved, know their kids and play with their kids and work out what kind of discipline will work for them. There is such a beautiful world of new dads trying to work it out. And sometimes they need a bit of help.”
Practical hints and tips for fathers
Kaz offers dads practical hints including toddler tips such as “it’s better to herd not lead”.
“Men are used to the idea of striding off like they are the Pied Piper with a toddler behind them but you can’t do that. They don’t follow you like ducklings follow a mother duck,” she says.
“You see dads striding confidently off and the kid is two and a half and they see something interesting on the crossing and they stop and start fiddling with a bit of tail light and the lights change and dad has no idea. It’s just a matter of adjusting.
“It’s not a surprise that dads aren’t prepared. They just haven’t thought it through. It’s the human race. You often just delay what is in front of you. It’s not until the baby has arrived that they see how much sleep they are losing and what’s required.
“They might feel like a lot of women do - all at sea - and they aren’t sure what to do and in some families the older generation kind of assumes looking after babies is just for women.
“What I’m trying to do is say to them ‘this is what your partner is going through’. New dads and sex and dealing with what can be incredibly volatile emotions while trying to communicate with your partner is tough.
“Women have a part to play too though. If your partner is saying 'you’re beautiful and gorgeous and I’m attracted to you', women need to believe that and it can be hard because of all that palaver on Instagram. But do you know anyone who looks like that?”
There is this amazing new generation of dads who want to be involved, know their kids and play with their kids and work out what kind of discipline will work for them. There is such a beautiful world of new dads trying to work it out. And sometimes they need a bit of help.
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The importance of partnership
Kaz says the juggle between parents when one is working and the other stays at home raises the importance of partnership in a relationship.
“A partnership is so crucial even if you’re not together as romantic partners. In a real partnership it’s about understanding what the other person is going through and at least trying to empathise.
“The partner who is not at home, goes and works all these hours and they have to go home and do another shift and they don’t know how exhausting it is for the partner at home.
“That communication is about respect for what the other person is going through. That is so hard when everyone is sleep deprived even when everything is perfect and you don’t have a baby with special needs. That partnership is so important.
“You have to show a really united front against other people interfering like in-laws and others who have ideas about how things should be done.
“It can be a juggle when there is one at home and one at paid work and the one at home can feel like ‘Cinderella in a cyclone’. They are exhausted. They are keeping the baby alive, but they have to do all the housework because the other person is at work.
“That can feel like drudgery and they’re thinking ‘I don’t have an income and independence’. Those are things they have to talk about. Whose money is it and who has control of it?
“Ideally it is good to get this sorted before the baby arrives.
“Then there are stay at home dads when you reverse all that. Then they don’t feel welcome at mothers group or they are treated as heroes with bizarre over the top praise for doing what women do without comment – ‘You have wrapped the baby how marvellous!’.”
Empower men with messages about what they are good at
Kaz says men need to find areas of expertise and be empowered with an understanding of the things they are good at.
“A lot of gate keeping very often happens with the older generations. They have almost never seen a man who stays at home and then there’s men themselves who look at other men staying at home and say ‘you lucky bastard’, looking down at him. It comes from sexism that’s given a little twist.
“We also have to look at what our definition of a successful dad is. It matters if the children are safe, it doesn’t matter if the child’s pants match their top.
“Men and women will do things differently. It is about respecting what the other partner is doing. If he’s done the dishes and taken the child to the park, it doesn’t matter if he forgot one sock.
“It’s about extending kindness in the situation. Women tend to say ‘that’s hopeless let me do that’. That attitude means one partner can end up feeling sidelined. It’s so important that dads, right through the teen years, take a step back and say I don’t understand that.
“Mother's instinct is not something you are born with. You have to get to know your baby. It’s a mixture of instinct and knowledge. The idea of women’s instinct is too much pressure on women, like they have a magic power and it leaves men out of the equation, like you’re never going to get it.
“That whole idea can be unhelpful. We have to be careful of how we talk about instinct. It’s not a magic power. That’s why I want to bring these experts together and put the experts on the page for people.”
We also have to look at what our definition of a successful dad is. It matters if the children are safe, it doesn’t matter if the child’s pants match their top. Men and women will do things differently. It is about respecting what the other partner is doing. If he’s done the dishes and taken the child to the park, it doesn’t matter if he forgot one sock.
Practical information for parents
Kaz’s signature humour and cartoons pepper the book translating evidence-based advice from medical experts into bite-sized information parents can understand whether they are “reading it in a quiet moment or a slight panic”.
“I think there’s a few things about my books that make them popular and one of them is that these are books that don’t judge people and assume that you know things already,” she says.
“They are also local and have a lot of practical information about where you can go for help. If you have American or UK books those crisis numbers for support groups or medical stuff are no use at all.
“Also I draw the cartoons and write the books in a friendly way so it’s like getting it from a friend.
“Over the last 20 years we have really refined the design and zeroed in on how to find things in the index. If it’s information you need immediately it’s there on the page and it’s easy to read, but if it’s a subject like toddler’s emotions we have fun with it and the text is not so ‘bang, bang, bang’. But something you need urgently when you need to know whether to take the kids to the hospital or call an ambulance, it’s practical and useful. People like that.”
Kaz says so much information for parents is based on intentionally scaring people.
“People are scared enough with a baby – especially a new baby. I want to stop that rather than play on that. After all these years and updating the books every year people get to trust me.
“There is so much information that I call ‘what I reckon’ and that’s good and fine, but it can also be wrong and you might kill someone if you do that.
“’What I reckon’ or ‘what I’m trying to sell you’ is what a lot of parents come across on the internet.
“They are getting wrong information and people trying to sell them stuff. It’s just so unfair when people should be doing their own research but they are so busy they can’t be research scientists so there has to be a way to help parents find the right information.”