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Book Review : Fathers Becoming Full Partners in Parenting

December 25, 1985|JOHN V. LOUDON | Loudon is editorial manager of Harper & Row, San Francisco, a free-lance writer and the father of a 2-month-old girl. and

The Birth of a Father by Dr. Martin Greenberg (Continuum: $15.95)

A quiet revolution is happening. Fathers all over are coaching the labor and delivery of their children and then sharing child care equally with the mothers. Stories of famous fathers involved with their infant children--Garry Trudeau and his twins, Kurt Vonnegut as househusband, David Stockman breaking off a congratulatory call over his $2 million book advance to feed his daughter, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the delivery of his fourth child--betoken a new era. The inveterate assumption that mothers are the primary caretakers of children is being eroded.

In this context, Dr. Martin Greenberg's book is most welcome. It encourages fathers to be full partners in parenting, from prenatal decisions through labor and delivery to feeding, changing, comforting and entertaining their infants. It offers convincing evidence of the benefits of being more than good providers and stoic patriarchs. And it brims with practical advice on how to become a fully participating father.

Greenberg, a San Diego psychiatrist with two sons, draws on his extensive research into the relationships of fathers and their infants, but he is most eloquent when he speaks from his experience with his first son Jonathan. In a key, if misdirectedly academic chapter, Greenberg analyzes the seven stages of engrossment --his inelegant term for the father's captivation and expansion as he falls in love with his infant. The rest of the book shows how this process happens and can be enhanced.

Writing with warmth, enthusiasm and concreteness rare in books by doctors, Greenberg doles out useful advice. Fathers can spend valuable time with their children by taking them for walks first in "portapouches" and then in backpack carriers, talking and singing to them from the earliest days. He suggests "secret weapons" to comfort crying infants, including the "football" and other holding positions, swaddling, etc., emphasizing resourceful flexibility as vital to successful parenting. In a chapter for wives, he urges them to support fathers with eager praise and not to undercut their efforts by adopting a critical attitude of natural superiority.

Still, while the book is helpful, it hardly represents state of the art fathering. Although Greenberg encourages fathers to participate in the birth of their children, he doesn't sufficiently stress the burgeoning option of alternative birth centers that provide homelike settings for labor, delivery and recovery and rooming-in of the father and infant, with all the necessary medical resources at hand if needed.

He nicely alternates references to infants as male and female throughout the book, but his pronominal preferences betray his assumption that obstetricians and pediatricians are routinely male, whereas more and more couples are finding women doctors and midwives most sympathetic and helpful to co-parents. He implies throughout that even an actively involved father at best only plays supporting actor to the mother in the lead parenting role; but once fathers wake up to the true joys and responsibilities of fathering it seems gratuitous and inappropriate to stop short of fully equal parenting. He fails to advocate such alternatives as fathers bottle feeding expressed breast milk, participating in the growing movement for on-site child care in the workplace, taking responsibility for the infants' care half the time, and so on.

Nonetheless, the encomiums from Benjamin Spock, T. Berry Brazelton, Fitzhugh Dodson and Norman Cousins that trumpet the book's appearance are not misplaced. Any new father would profit from reading it. For far too long, fathers have been peripheral to life's most vital and challenging enterprise, and they and their families have been the poorer for it.

"Because," as the Reebok ad says, "life is not a spectator sport," it is proper and rewarding for fathers to become true parents, caring for and delighting in the miracles of life they engender. We have good reason to hope that these new dedicated fathers will have better marriages and better children, and incrementally help to make the world a better place. It is hard to imagine that fathers who feed and diaper and comfort their children will be so eager to play heartless war and corporate games with lives entrusted to them.

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