Tuesday, October 26, 2010

And Baby Makes Three - Part 4: The Realities of Becoming a Dad

In the first 3 installments of this series, we talked about the joys and challenges of couples’ transition to parenthood. We’ll finish this series with two posts about how this transition differs for men versus women. While most of the studies of early parenthood are focused on moms, recent studies have explored parenting from the dads' perspective. We realize that each father enters parenthood in his own way, but there do seem to be some generalities that come up again and again. In this post, we’ll share a few these findings with you.

Lost in the Shuffle

Many fathers reported feeling left out of the picture during their partners’ pregnancies. Visits to the doctor or midwife were centered on the mother’s condition and feelings and many dads felt there wasn’t time to get their own questions answered. Prenatal and childbirth classes weren’t much help either because very little time was spent on topics directly related to being a father. Support from friends and family tended to be focused on the mom's needs as if she would be the only one affected by the birth of the baby. While dads wanted to support their partners, they felt that little useful information or advice was offered to them.

Dealing with Reality

Just as many mothers anticipate what their babies will be like, fathers spend much of pregnancy imagining their new lives with a newborn. The babies in parents' dreams are often nothing like the real thing. Many men have little experience caring for babies and some new fathers know almost nothing about newborns or how to care for them. Fathers in the studies reported feeling frustrated because they wanted their babies and partners to be happy yet they didn't have the skills to be much help. Dads were overwhelmed by the work needed to take care of babies and the sudden radical changes in their relationships with their partners. They relied on trial and error, friends, and their partners to help them build their confidence as new dads. Over time, they learned how to recognize and address their babies' needs. Despite their new abilities, many of the dads found that their efforts weren't recognized by friends, family, or professionals. They were still seen as the "second string" when it came to parenting and the lack of recognition of their importance in their babies' lives was a big source of frustration.

Building a Bond

In the 1960s (of Mad Men fame), the stereotypical man went back to work the day after his baby was born and accordingly, he had very little to do with his child until he bought him/her a basketball as an 8th birthday present. Those days are long gone. Most of today’s fathers want to play an active role in their children’s lives. Dads in the studies enjoyed spending time with their newborns and feeling that they were providing the care their babies needed, especially when their babies were able to respond by calming down or smiling back at them. Dads sometimes thought that feeding was the only way to bond with babies and some fathers of breastfeeding babies reported being disappointed that they had to “wait” to bond with their babies until breastfeeding was over. Of course, Secrets readers know that feeding is only part of parents’ connections with babies. Dads who understand baby behavior can play a powerful role (no matter how their babies are fed) as the “translator” of their babies' “language” (especially for sleepy and sore new moms) while providing a consistent source of love and comfort to their babies.

Building baby care skills helped fathers in the studies feel more confident, connected, and in control. They learned how to support and protect their new families through trial and error, from other dads, and reading. We know we have dad-readers out there and we hope that you’ll share your questions with us. Let us know what’s confusing you; we’re here to help.

Next time: And Baby Makes Three - Part 5: The Rocky Road to Becoming a Mother

Goodman JH. Becoming an involved father of an infant. JOGNN 2005; 34: 190-200.
Deave T, et al. Transition to parenthood: the needs of parents in pregnancy and early childhood. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2008; 8:30.

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