Helping New Dads Transition to Parenthood

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I was telling a friend who has three kids—and works with pregnant women during delivery & postpartum—that I’ve heard a few new dads share the following:

It was hard for me to deal with my wife’s total focus on our newborn. It seemed like our relationship no longer existed for her, and I felt useless with our baby.

How did my friend respond? She said those dads are immature; they need to grow up and embrace parenthood, and accept changes in their relationship.

I couldn’t disagree more; not about adapting to the role of parent or tackling relationship changes, but about her belief that these guys’ reactions signal immaturity, and her assumption that their shifts are (or should be) seamless.

There are lots of good reasons—physiological, psychological, historical*—that most women who give birth turn their attention fully to their babies, not least of which is the fact that they’ve likely spent a lot of the preceding 9+ months tending to, connecting with, or at least curious about the child/ren they’ve been carrying.

Plus, hormones heighten most moms’ emotional bonding with newborns and literally trigger physical responses, like lactation, that enhance that connection and, in the case of breastfeeding, often decrease sexual desire.

While bonding with infants is assumed to be a natural phenomenon for mothers who give birth (indeed, for all women), we’ve staked a claim to the desirability of fathers bonding with their kids only in recent decades.

Despite that claim, baby- & birth-prep classes remain so focused on moms and babies that some men wonder why they’re there, or wish they were integrated more, or that their exclusion were acknowledged and understood as potentially challenging.

Don’t get me wrong. Lots of new dads make these shifts smoothly, but those who don’t—and I might add, women who don’t (not those with postpartum depression, but those who, for example, prefer older kids to newborns, or don’t like being pregnant)—often find themselves in hostile territory if they admit what they really feel.

What to do? In the absence of revamping the way baby- and birth-prep classes are taught—which I’d love to do, by the way, to be more inclusive of dads/spouses and to address relationship changes post-kids—here are some preliminary ideas:

1)   There’s a Relationship Coaching concept called Deep Democracy: all voices—even and especially unpopular ones—need to be heard on a topic. So my first suggestion is that we encourage expecting and new dads, and expecting and new moms, too, to voice a full gamut of opinions and feelings about their experiences, even if those opinions make us uncomfortable or aren’t socially acceptable.

Just because we express an opinion does not mean we won’t be attentive parents or spouses; what it means is we need to express ourselves and deserve to have our feelings understood (even if you don’t agree with us).

2)  If you’re expecting a first, or second, or third child, consider writing a short letter to yourself (yes, you read that correctly), to your relationship and your spouse (I suggest both of you do this), in which you fill in the blanks (see below).

Why a letter? So if either or both of you feel alienated from your experience as a new parent, or from each other, you’ll have a quick way to try to reconnect:

What I want for myself as a new parent is [fill in the blank].

If I don’t feel what I want to feel, as a new parent right away I want to support myself by [fill in the blank].

If you don’t feel what you want to feel, as a new parent right away, I want to support you by [fill in the blank].

What I appreciate most about our relationship is [fill in the blank].

Some of the things I appreciate most about you are [fill in the blank].

What I want for us, as a couple, after our baby arrives is [fill in the blank].

What I want you to remember about how I feel about you, even if I don’t have the time or energy to tell you after the baby’s here, is [fill in the blank].

3) Heck, even if your baby or toddler or older kid/s’ already here, try to find a few minutes to write that letter anyway!

When you’ve finished your letters, give each other a copy. Put your letter and the one your spouse wrote in a place where you’ll be able to access them again easily, in case you need to be reminded of your connection with each other and yourself, and need some support in navigating the challenges of parenthood.

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & parenting!

* I can’t resist noting that our ideas about motherhood and fatherhood are impacted as much by history, as other factors. Here’s an interesting piece about that history in the United States: http://bit.ly/eG78ty.

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11 responses to “Helping New Dads Transition to Parenthood

  1. I have two kids. Ages two and one. I made sure I was part of the process from the beginning. I did everything I could from going to classes with my wife to preparing healthy foods for baby and mom. I understood beforehand the bonding experience between mom and child.

    I did my best to bond as well all the way from talking to the babies before they were born to loving on them as babies.

    I also tried to serve my wife in anyway possible. From cooking to cleaning.

    I wanted what was best for mother and child and I believe but don’t know for sure…that my actions caused my wife to give me the attention I needed too. For us the transition worked out fine.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to respond, and I’m glad that you felt engaged in the process with your kids from the start. I imagine that most moms who read your comments–“I also tried to serve my wife in any way possible”–might be especially impressed. 😉 What I’m increasingly struck by–as I speak to more and more expecting couples and (new) parents is the diversity of experiences, both as individuals and as part of a relationship, that people (moms and dads alike) experience. I strongly believe that as long as we can speak honestly about those experiences, and respond to each other supportively and with compassion, that we’ll learn to navigate the challenges and delights of parenthood very, very well!

  2. Thanks for giving this topic some attention and for thinking about it in a compassionate way.

    I often ask dads what they imagined when they learned they were going to be fathers. Many of them describe a scene with a toddler or pre-schooler – playing catch, wrestling, walking in the woods. Their first visions of fatherhood skipped right over the tiny & helpless infant stage. They don’t have a template for their role during those first months look like.

    Dads can be reminded that their babies will need them to help with all the aspects of basic care. Dads and infants benefit from the bonding that can occur during diaper changes, baths, putting to bed, feeding, etc. It’s a great thing to begin building that connection from the first moments.

    One of the side effects of this level of involvement may be a reduction in the feeling of alienation from ones partner. You share the responsibilities, she isn’t doing everything and can take time to widen her focus. It can also reduce resentment and tension because the weight is spread a little more evenly.

    Thanks again for exploring this topic.
    @STRONGFathersME

    • I really appreciate your input, Brian, and am especially grateful for your insights about the “blind spot” among some dads regarding the infant stage of their children’s lives. I couldn’t agree more that there’s no template–for dads, at least–for that phase (and, I suspect, some moms too feel at loose ends, especially if the bonding they’ve been told is supposed to come so naturally to them doesn’t seem that way and, here, I’m not referring to post-partum depression).

      You’re so right that the dad-bond can, indeed, be fostered from the start and that involvement might well reduce the feeling of alienation. I think that surfacing all of this before we become parents, admitting aloud that bonding isn’t always an automatic, or instinctive, or an easily navigated process can go a long way in giving all of us permission to both have feelings and experiences that might be “out of the norm” (though I’m not convinced of what the norm is, to be honest) and, also, inspire us to more consciously explore how we might build those bonds, reduce that alienation and foster more connection with our babies and partners alike.

      Again, thanks for your compelling insights!

  3. Thanks for highlighting this issue, Rhona.

    It is amazing to me that this is the response that so many men get when they express their honest feelings. Not surprising that so many men hold back.

    The first bricks of the parenting relationship are established even before babies are born. If partners can’t share and work through their honest feelings early on, they set in motion a cycle where one parent becomes primary, and the other a participant. This cycle can last for life, which leads to many frustrations both for the primary caregiver and the “participant.”

    Thanks for providing some great tools to begin the conversation in a productive way.

    • Thanks so much, Matt. I’m especially grateful for your comment that the “first bricks,” as you call them, of the parenting relationship are established before babies are born and, given that stressors on our relationships often increase with the arrival of babies, is it any wonder that so many couples report a decrease in relationship satisfaction after they have kids? I also wholeheartedly agree that our communication style–or our communication habits (which include NOT communicating about some feelings, or not responding well when a spouse communicates feelings that we don’t feel comfortable hearing)–contributes to the whole notion of a primary and secondary (or “participant,” as you call it) parent. Unless we consciously make the choice to break that cycle, and to craft our romantic relationships and our co-parenting with spouses in a different way–a way that fans the flames of mutual understanding and respect (even if we don’t agree with each other’s sentiments, even if we don’t share them)–then I completely agree that it’s a cycle that can last for life. Here’s to breaking that cycle!

  4. Great piece Rhona, thank you.

    Becoming new parent is such a HUGE transition, so much more profound and complex than many of us anticipate. The feelings that come along with this transition are so strong, and often extremely unpleasant.

    I’d like to comment on a couple of things:

    1. About parents finding themselves in “hostile territory if they admit what they really feel”, thank you for pointing this out. I personally think this is a big issue amongst parents, and is an even larger contributing factor in the rise of postpartum depression (including dads too). Parenting is not fun much of the time. It’s hard work; with babies it’s lonely, and there is honestly little reward for some time. Personally, I didn’t enjoy breastfeeding or caring for newborns at all. I felt trapped, abnormal, guilty, and ultimately angry at myself for not being happy because hey, I really wanted kids! I now realize that parenting culture today simply doesn’t invite honesty about these feelings, and I for one would really like to see this change. I want to hear more honest dialogue about the negative feelings that new parents experience. So let it out, people. Say what you really feel!

    2. Dads should be made to feel included more, you’re absolutely right. I co-teach a newborn care class with Beth Donnelly Caban and will make a point to bring partners more into the class and help them feel empowered and engaged. One thing I do routinely address is how important it is for new moms to INVITE and ENCOURAGE dads to participate. I believe that often new moms unintentionally “take on” the primary parent role and hold it tightly. In order for there to be more balance, new moms need to step back a little bit and allow dads to really be an active part of parenting. It can start in the hospital and take them through college!

    • Thanks, Natalie, for your comments. I’m especially grateful to have a mom chime in about how hard parenting is, and, also, about your own personal experiences of breastfeeding and caring for a newborn. Unless we’re able–to ourselves, in our relationships and, dare I hope, in society-at-large–to voice the full range of our feelings about becoming and being parents, including those considered “unpopular” or outside the norm (or what we, culturally, think is the norm) and unless we feel understood and accepted–which isn’t the same as being agreed with, by the way–then we’ll continue to struggle internally, in our relationships and, I suspect, feel alienated from our wider community. And though I’m not a psychologist or medical professional, I can’t help but agree with you that, at least to some degree, these factors contribute to some postpartum depression. Brava that you’re going to integrate partners more into your newborn care class (and let me know if I can help with ideas on how to do that!) and that you and Beth Donnelly Caban already address how important it is for new moms to invite and encourage dads to participate. The topic of moms unintentionally taking on the primary parent role has now come up a few times in the last week–in comments here and in conversations I’ve been having–so I’m grateful for you to raise that important subject again. Thanks again for your honest and engaging comments.

  5. Many thanks Rhona.

    It’s a pleasure to connect with you. I’m continually humbled by the complexity of the issues involved, and endeavor to help families feel empowered and THRIVE through the traumas of new parenthood. There is a lot of joy, but so many other things going on…

    Cheers!
    Natalie

  6. I couldn’t agree more with you. Thanks again, Natalie.

  7. Hello! Thank you for explanation and yes, i agree that there is a srtong bond between mother as she gave bitrh and a child, but i want to mention that often daughters have really strong bond and understand each other better with fathers.I ‘ve published an article how teenagers become parents, i hope it will be interesting for readers:
    http://cheapessaysonline.com/blog/the-transition-to-parenthood-our-sample-paper/

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