Elon Musk is a busy man, between urging Kanye West to run for US president, challenging Johnny Depp to a cage fight and, well, being one of the world’s biggest celebrity oddballs. It’s probably no wonder that he’s finding it hard to add ‘being a hands-on dad’ to his to-do list.
Recently, Musk — who along with his partner, Grimes, memorably named his newborn son X Æ A-Xii — spoke out about childcare responsibilities. Now a dad-of-seven (he has six children with his ex-wife Justine; their first son Nevada died in 2002), you’d think that life right now would be a haze of sleepless nights, white noise machines and dirty nappies. Alas, no. And his own parenting approach has more than a whiff of toxic masculinity about it.
“Well, babies are just eating and pooping machines, you know?” Musk has said. “Right now, there’s not much I can do. Grimes has a much bigger role than me right now. When the kid gets older, there will be more of a role for me.”
Ask most new parents, and they will likely recall a chaotic, frazzled and disorienting adjustment period. Not much to do?
Surely Musk must notice that amid the blizzard of changing, soothing, holding, feeding and clothing, there is plenty to do. Still, Musk evidently fancies himself in the role of the ‘fun’ parent, and plans to come into his own when interaction with his son becomes a two-way street.
He’s not the first famous dad to dodge the dirt and drudgery of hands-on parenting, preferring a more ceremonial role instead.
Last year, Russell Brand waffled on about his ‘mystical’ and ‘reflective’ attitude to parenting, while noting in the next breath that he didn’t bother himself with practicalities like changing nappies (subtext: he prefers to brag ad nauseam about being a dad than actually being a dad).
When Boris Johnson, he of the indeterminate number of children, merely intimated that he might get ‘stuck in’ to changing nappies with his new son Wilfred, he was lauded as a new age Athena Man.
‘Maternal instinct’ has a lot to answer for; this idea that women are born knowing exactly what to do with their newborn baby. It lets the secondary caregiver off the hook, noting that they couldn’t possibly get in the way of vital tasks like breastfeeding and changing. They’ll be just over here, bingeing on Netflix until they’re needed, thanks.
Dr Anne Kehoe, a developmental psychologist and chartered member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, notes much of this conceit is societal, despite the efforts of several men to roll up their sleeves and get involved.
“Some new dads are overwhelmed, and others are culturally not used to the idea [of being hands-on],” she says. “The definition of fatherhood is changing all the time.”
Whatever about the cultural implications, the myth that perpetuates around men and parenting often means that fathers lose out on a life-changing experience they’ll never get back.
“There’s a lot of anxiety around babies, especially for first-time parents, and the more care that the secondary caregiver can offer, the more attached they’re going to feel. It’s amazing what it does — you hear a lot of dads talking about how the experience has ‘rewired’ them, and they’d never felt a love like it.
“From a developmental perspective, building a bond with a baby as a caregiver increases oxytocin, known as the love hormone,” Kehoe notes. “All the basic stuff — playing, holding, changing, dressing, helps the caregiver to naturally bond with the baby, which leads to the child having that secure attachment with their second parent.”
With his other children, Musk notes that he is definitely the more ‘Willy Wonka’ parent; the one who gets to pull out the impressive big guns.
“If I have a trip for Tesla to China, for example, I’ll bring the kids with me and we’ll go see the Great Wall,” he has said.
On which, Kehoe notes: “From a child’s perspective, the simple and free things — going for a walk, playing together — are the ones that the child will remember, and the ones than will impact on their self-esteem. Of course, most parents are juggling careers and just doing their best, but it works best when parents fill in for each other as caregivers.”
Offering advice to new dads, Kehoe adds: “Babies have more needs than just food. They need people. They want to be held and soothed. A lot of dads are dismissed as bumbling or just not knowing, and this needs to change. It can affect the confidence of secondary caregivers.
“People can be self-conscious about not naturally knowing these things, but just ask. Watch YouTube videos on things like bathing a baby. All of these new skills need to be learned.”