Becoming a parent is easily one of the biggest changes that we experience in our lives. Traditionally, during pregnancy and postpartum the focus has been on women: mom is the one carrying the baby, preparing for labor and delivering, and then perhaps doing the heavy lifting of breastfeeding; more often, it’s moms who choose to stay home with their baby; it's moms we watch for signs of the baby blues. “How’s mom doing?” is a common question during pregnancy or after the birth; if we ask how dad is doing, it’s often brief and cursory. Dads—you might wonder “where am I in this equation?”
As a marriage and family therapist with a focus on new fathers and couples with small children, I hear these things from both women and men. I have always felt that new parents needed extra support, but it wasn't until I became a dad that I realized how few supports are offered to dads. In being a therapist, a dad, and facilitator of the Portland New Fathers Group, I've been privileged to see the tremendous variety in dads' experiences.
Whatever that experience is, what dads go through is just as real and valid as what moms do—and “how dad is doing” is incredibly important to a healthy child and family. So, dads, let’s start by acknowledging that some of the factors that affect moms after the birth of a new baby may affect us, too: sleep deprivation; a radical change in focus from our self and our relationship with our partner to a focus on our baby; social isolation; lack of family support; financial stresses; lack of spontaneity; disconnection from our partner; decrease in sex and intimacy; and lack of free time. And this list doesn’t even incorporate the added impacts when there are complications.
If a family has multiples, or experiences a premature birth, traumatic birth, complications after birth for the mother or baby, a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), etc., both moms and dads are affected in ways that we often don’t realize. A dad who witnesses a traumatic birth can be affected by Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even if his partner doesn’t develop it herself. A baby who is in the NICU may only be able to have one visitor at a time, and that's often mom. A mom having severe difficulty breastfeeding may be struggling in herself, and dads may feel helpless in the face of this—we can’t fix it, and we can't even give our partner a break by taking a turn with breastfeeding. As dads in these situations, our feelings of powerlessness can be overwhelming.
Even in situations where trauma or complications aren’t present, dads can also suffer from postpartum depression and anxiety, though at a lower rate (just over 10%, as compared to up to 20% for moms). Many people aren't aware of this, in part because it looks different—generally speaking, we, as men, aren’t brought up to easily talk about our feelings, or show sadness or other emotions that may be considered “signs of weakness,” in the face of new and challenging circumstances. Rather than opening up when experiencing depression and anxiety, men often withdraw from friends and family and become irritable. We may end up looking like we don't care or are uninterested, pushing people away rather than asking for or seeking the help we need.
So, now that we've acknowledged the cracks in our armor, you may be wondering, "what's the next step?" We all want to be competent, loving dads who support our partner and care for our children. We all want to raise healthy, happy, well adjusted kids, even if it doesn't look the same for all of us. Here are a few ways, over the years, that I’ve seen dads work toward being the best dads that they can be:
Show up. Being present and doing the best you can is more important than "doing it right." You don't have to be perfect.
Get some realistic expectations. This is the new normal. It won't be like this forever, but things aren't going back to "the way it used to be,” either. Take into account that you have a lot more obligations and responsibilities, and you just aren't going to be able to get as much done as you used to. Make sure your expectations—for yourself and for your partner—are reasonable.
Know that what you are going through is normal. It's common to be concerned about your ability as a father, whether it’s worrying about the impact of your own experiences as a child, or just feeling the pressure of taking on a new, big role.
Take the bull by the horns and figure out what kind of dad you want to be. We often don’t have good examples of what a loving, caring father of a baby should look like and end up doing the best we can by feel. Build your confidence by looking to sources both local and virtual for new role models—learn from parents you think are doing things right.
Seek out other dads. Social isolation is at the root of a lot of our problems. Meet some other dads in your neighborhood, go to a support group, or join a dads meetup (or a group/forum online, if getting together in groups isn't for you).
Try not to mourn the relationship you had before kids. Be aware that relationship satisfaction takes a real nosedive after the birth of a child for most people. It will come back over time. Figure out how to do things that fill you up as a couple in new ways. Don't get hung up on having to do the things that you used to do.
Don't freak out about the lack of sex and intimacy. It comes back, but it may take time. You and your partner will figure things out, but right now that isn't the focus. Be patient.
Know that you don't have to carry everything alone. It’s not just about you anymore. Ask for help so you can take care of yourself - for your sake and for the sake of your child, your partner, and your relationship.
Don't wait until you are in a crisis to look for support. If things are getting really rough for you, your partner or your relationship, find a therapist. A therapist is non-judgmental, is there to help you get to a more healthy place, and will keep everything you talk about confidential. Cost can be a concern, but depression, anxiety, and marital conflict take a tremendous toll on you, your partner, your baby, and your relationship. Divorce or other severe long-term problems end up costing more in the long run.
The most important thing to remember…this hard time won't last forever. Acknowledging it and doing something about it will make it far easier to manage and may even help you enjoy it more.
Click here for Sam's list of resources, including books and Portland-area support groups.
Sam Stevens is a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Portland, OR. He has a practice focusing on new fathers and couples with small children, and facilitates the Portland New Fathers Group, as well as volunteering for Baby Blues Connection. He speaks regularly on the topics of postpartum depression in men and the adjustment to fatherhood. You can find out more about Sam and contact him at his website, or see the schedule for upcoming dads’ groups at meetup.com.