In many ways, new fathers appear to have it easy. They are spared the physical and emotional discomfort of pregnancy. They don’t endure the pain of childbirth. They also don’t spend the weeks and months of new fatherhood trying to get used to a body that has inextricably changed and no longer feels familiar. While men don’t have the physical signs to show for it, the transition to fatherhood is no less profound, exhilarating, and daunting. In my work with new parents, I am often reminded that the feelings and worries experienced by dads can be somewhat overlooked. What’s more, a lot of men have trouble talking about them.
What is my Role?
Some fathers question their roles in the early weeks and months, when typically mothers are the primary caregivers. As a new father it’s easy to feel a bit left out. However, research tells us that fathers’ relationships with their newborns make a significant impact right from birth. Actually, it starts long before birth, because babies begin to recognise their father’s voice at around 22 weeks of pregnancy. So when that bump starts to grow, it’s time to get talking.
The most important thing dads can do for their newborns is to simply spend time with them – cuddling, rocking, talking, singing, and settling. Getting to know each other in a hands-on way is good for everyone. For inexperienced dads, on the job training is the best confidence and relationship builder of all. And the benefits for babies are vast. Several studies suggest the quality and quantity of baby-father involvement directly impacts language development and children’s sense of security growing up. There is also research showing that babies with strong attachments to their dads tend to have fewer behavioural problems later on.
Not surprisingly, research also tells us that when mothers view their partners as competent - when they provide encouragement, and believe that parenting is a joint venture - men are more likely to be involved and value their roles as fathers. The key is mothers viewing their partners as competent. This is an issue many couples struggle with, and it comes up regularly in my work with new parents. Because mothers tend to spend more time with their newborns than their partners do, they clock up many more practice opportunities, and can feel that the way they have learnt to do things is the only way. So whether it’s changing nappies, settling a fussy baby, or managing the bath routine, dads can easily get left behind in the skill development stakes. An all too frequent result can be mums hovering on the sidelines offering unsolicited advice, or worse, taking over and doing it ‘properly’ themselves. The result? Dads can feel inadequate, resentful, and less motivated to try the next time. The impact of not letting dads learn on the job can be mums feeling unsupported.
Where has my relationship gone?
Becoming parents calls for huge adjustments in relationships. Changes in roles, workloads and finances, not to mention the sheer exhaustion of caring for a baby. These pressures can impact even rock solid partnerships. Worries about how a baby may or has changed their relationship are among the most frequent concerns voiced to me by fathers.
Some fathers experience feelings of helplessness as they watch their partners overwhelmed by tiredness, or having difficulties breastfeeding. Some women experience postnatal depression, and dads often feel at a loss as to how to ‘fix it’, feeling inadequate that they are not being able to make everything OK.
For other dads, it’s the loss of emotional connection that has been chipped away by the constant tension of tiredness and frayed patience. They can feel like they’ve lost their best friend amidst the unfamiliarity and daily grind early parenthood can bring.
Some fathers talk about feeling in competition with their babies - for time, attention, and affection. Even while understanding their partner’s all-encompassing focus on their baby, dads can feel invisible or fearful that there’s not enough love to go around.
The reality of course, is that the birth of a baby can test even the strongest relationships. Even good relationships can stumble under the weight of it all. But the good news is that the overwhelming majority tend to bounce back again once everyone is getting more sleep, things settle down, and issues like sharing the workload are resolved.
Remember, parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time and practice for both of you to adjust to being mum and dad, to learn the ropes, and to find space in there for each other. Here are some points to consider:
· Communicate with each other. It’s a vital ingredient in sharing your worries and doubts, asking for support, and working as a team
· Practice empathy which means being open to each other’s experiences and feelings, especially the ones that are different to yours
· Avoid competing about who has it tougher – nobody wins this one and it’s a certain resentment builder
· Seek professional support if worries become too big, anxiety or low mood become habitual states, or you need help adjusting to the change. Remember, dads experience postnatal depression and anxiety too.
This post was written by Dr Karola Belton
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Posted by Dr Renée Miller