From Man to Dad: How Fatherhood Changes Men

by Bruce Linton, Ph.D.

Dad holding his newbornUntil recently little work has been done on men and fatherhood. Historically, it has been assumed without much reflection that if a father was providing economically for the family, he was making his contribution. A successful economic provider was a "good father." Mothers were expected to provide the other essentials that their children needed.

All this has changed today. Research shows that the less fathers are involved emotionally in the day-to-day lives of their families, the lower self-esteem, sociability, and problem-solving capacities their children have.

Transitions to Fatherhood

There are four emotional transitions that men pass through as fathers that mark their character and define who they are as men.

  1. The first is the man's understanding and resolution of his relationship with his own father.
  2. The next involves the way confusion and emotional uncertainty, usually at pregnancy or birth (or through adoption or becoming a stepparent) present him with an opportunity to become more flexible or more rigid as a man.
  3. Third is the ability to be dependent and allow others to be dependent on him.
  4. The last is how is he able to form affiliations with other fathers and move from isolation into community.

All these transitions lead the man/father to a greater sense of purpose in his life -- what I like to call a deepening of his soul. Fatherhood can humanize a man like no other experience I can think of. The most profound contribution we have to give as men can be manifested through our parenting of the next generation. Ultimately, when we reflect on who we are as men we must ask how have we affected the lives of others.

Relating to Your Dad

Masculinity and fatherhood are socially constructed. As times change, our expectations and constructs for who we are as men adapt to the social and cultural needs of our families. This social flexibility is a positive quality for us as men. It liberates us from having to model ourselves after the past, and gives us the freedom to create what is most relevant for us and for our families today. This is not easy work.

Many dads fear that because their own father was not a "role model" for them that they don't know how to be a parent. The relationship a man has with his own father is one of the underlying themes he needs to resolve to become, not only the father he wants to be, but also the man he wants to be. Our own independent psychological life is not easy to achieve. The influence of our mothers and fathers runs deep. As men become fathers, their relationship with their own fathers seems to intensify. The working-through of the issues between father and son continues even after the father's death.

Recently, I was consulting with a father in my psychotherapy practice whose father had committed suicide. He came into therapy because his wife had been concerned about his seeming lack of interest in their young son. At first he complained about how much work demanded of him and how he was just tired, not uninterested in his son. He also remarked that when his son became more complex and -- interesting, -- maybe around five, he was sure he would have a closer relationship with him then. All of these insights seemed reasonable. When I asked him about his own father, he had a very strong reaction.

His father had been quite involved with him as a baby and a young child. He had very positive memories of his father and of the pride his father felt for him. His attachment with his father was quite strong. He said his father's suicide took him by complete surprise and he was depressed for a couple of years after his death.

man and dad walking and talkingThe more we talked about his father, the more the loss of this close, important relationship seemed to dominate his life. He had found it difficult after his father's death to develop close relationships. Not until he met his wife and experienced her steadfast commitment to him could he trust that people could be depended on. He began to recognize that the loss he felt from his father's unexpected suicide had undermined his confidence and trust in people. If he couldn't count on his father, whom could he trust? And as the therapy progressed he recognized with sadness and tears that he was keeping a distance from his own son to protect him. He was trying to protect his son from what had hurt him the the loss of his father. He realized that if his son was not close or attached to him, he would need not suffer the pain of losing someone so dear, so important.

When he could understand that he was projecting his pain and loss onto his relationship with his son, another wave of sadness came over him. He realized how much his son needed him. He became aware of how he was holding himself back from giving his son what he needed, his alive and interested father. He said it was as if he was treating his son as though he had already died! The therapy continued, and as he experienced the depth and grief of his feelings for his own father, he became able to enjoy and parent his own son. He began to separate out his feelings of himself as a father from his feelings about his relationship with his own father. Although this may be a dramatic example, the pattern is clear with every man I have spoken with over the years. When they became fathers, the need to understand the relationship with their own dad was psychological step that led to their own autonomy.

Confronting Disorganization

The second transition that occurs through parenthood and adds dimension to men's character is when they confront the change and disorganization a child brings into their life. As I mentioned earlier, to be masculine is to be in control. We have been socialized as boys to feel that control of our emotions is what makes us strong and desirable. In order to maintain that sense of control we need to cut ourselves off from about half of our emotional life -- the fears and worries we all encounter.

Childbirth and parenting brings with it such uncertainty. It has often been referred to as the "crisis" stage in the couple's relationship. I think this term "crisis" misrepresents what is really happening. The connotation of "crisis" is that something has occurred that shouldn't have, and now we need to make things normal again by returning to the situation before the crisis.

In my research I called this transition to parenthood phase for men the "emergent" phase. It seems that rather than a "crisis" occurring, a new definition of the man as a father is "emerging." He cannot go back to the way he was before, and must attain new potential in himself as a father. This new potential asks him to give up a degree of self-centeredness.

Before they have children, both men and women often don't realize how much flexibility and free time they have. After the baby is born, this is so severely reduced that it is probably the most difficult transition the couple has to understanding that their life now involves a third person, who, particularly in the early years, needs one-on-one care. Responding to this transition can humanize us. Being independent, focusing on their own needs, not being "committed," is often depicted in the media as a romantic and attractive lifestyle. Hollywood worships the "eternal adolescent.". The man who becomes a parent is usually dealt with in a comic fashion. We don't have a positive and life-affirming image as men as young or new fathers. We don't see fatherhood being pursued as a life choice for men. Finding value, fulfillment and creativity in parenthood is not an image Hollywood has found a way to cash in.

The confusion and uncertainty brought about by birth and the early years of parenting ask a man whether he can value and love others outside of himself. It challenges a man to feel himself as part of a group, his family, whose survival and emotional well-being he is part of.

I remember a young father I was seeing as he and his wife were preparing to become parents. He was certain that having a baby would not slow his life down. He was planning on taking up windsailing soon after the baby was born. He had also planned a trip to Mexico for them when the baby would be about 6 weeks old. He was unable to see that having a baby would change his routines, and that by creating and planning he was reassuring himself that he needn't look at the confusion and uncertainty he was feeling.

After returning from a very difficult trip to Mexico, getting little sleep, and unable to do the things he used to while on vacation with his wife, he was wondering what had happened to their life. In the weeks that followed he was able to admit that not only wasn't he prepared for parenthood, he had no idea what to expect.

Out of the confusion and uncertainty which this young father fought hard against, he regained a sense of working in the present, and grew more focused on his current experience, and what it meant to him now. Maybe it was a necessity of survival, but his personality was shifting. At the end of therapy he was a less driven person; he seemed more at peace with the disorganization at hand. He commented on how much closer he felt to his wife and child. He still had plans and adventures for the future, but they did not take him away from the present. In our final sessions he talked a lot about how becoming a father had centered him in his life and day-to-day experience. He was much less concerned with proving to others what an exciting and interesting person he was. He seemed more open to change and more aware of the value of his everyday experiences with his wife and child.

Depending on Others

The third transition a man undertakes when he becomes a father is allowing himself to be dependent on others. As John Wayne personified the man who could do it all for himself, today's dads need to be able to need and value the need for others to depend on and to be depended on.

It is becoming clear to couples today that economic survival is interdependent. Both husbands and wives need to work. There is more gender equality in the workplace and home. Men have begun to appreciate that today it takes two parents working together, depending on each often just to get by financially. But more than financial dependency, it is emotional dependency that is changing men.

As men we have been raised to believe that if we need to depend on someone we are weak, helpless, and, worst of all, powerless. The old joke about "no matter how lost a man may get he'll never ask his wife for directions" illustrates this idea!

When men feel the vulnerability of their own children it can lead them to an appreciation for how much each member of a family needs each other and how much they need to depend on others to feel whole. The opposite can also happen. Fear of the vulnerability and defenselessness a man encounters in his own child can cause him to shut down, become removed. It is a powerful experience to realize we were all once at the mercy and good wishes of adults to guide us and nurture us till we could care for ourselves. If we as men were never able to feel we could depend on others, then having others depend on us seems almost intolerable.

In a special case I consulted on, this dependency became alarmingly clear. This man had a three-year-old son and came into therapy with his wife because they were having difficulty with their sex life. They were not having sex very often and he was both angry (which he expressed quite well) and hurt (which he hid very well). He demanded that his wife agree to have sex at least twice a week or he would either leave her or start having affairs. This was a tense and frustrated couple both sexually and emotionally. She felt also like she wanted to have sex more but often felt exhausted and more of the housemaid than his wife. As we talked it became apparent that in a marriage that is monogamous he was dependent upon his wife for sex. No matter what threats he made, no matter what other plans he might act on, if he wanted to remain monogamous (and in this case married) he needed to see that he needed and depended on his wife sexually. He struggled with the idea that he would have to depend on another to get his needs met.

We explored this theme of needing to depend on another to get his needs met. It took us back to his childhood were he was the good little boy who didn't need anyone. He remembers how his parents use to comment on how he was so mature that he hardly needed them. He began to understand how difficult it was for him to "ask" and not "demand" when he needed something. In fact, the couple had never had a dialogue about their sex needs in the relationship. It had been an argument of who was not being responsive to whom.

Over time he worked, as did his wife, through the dependency needs they had with each other. He began to feel more permissive with his son. He felt more comfortable with his son's fears and immature behavior. At one point in the therapy he commented on how he was going to give his son time to grow up and not be rushed as he was.

Connecting with Community

The fourth transition from man to father is the most difficult, but perhaps the most rewarding. It is also a transition that can make the other three transitions much easier. Understanding our relationship with our fathers; moving through the uncertainty that parenthood presents; understanding our dependency needs -- all are phases leading us to be more emotionally caring, kind, and empathetic men. When we can share this journey of adult development with other dads we can learn from each other's experiences. I believe it is the isolation that we as men grow up with, the real lack of contact with other men, that makes our emotional lives so difficult to develop. We have to figure out so much on our own. It is hard to imagine that when we become fathers -- the most important transition in our lives -- we are often without other men to share and learn with.

This fourth phase is the affiliation and community phase where we must find away to connect with greater community. Part of this happens naturally when our kids enter kindergarten or first grade. We naturally meet other men. But in the early years of parenting, when it is most essential to have the support of other fathers, we are often alone.

In the fathers' groups and workshops I conducted the old adage that men don't express their feelings just doesn't hold true. The fathers in my groups are overflowing with emotion on all the "transitions" I have just written about. What is missing for these men is not that they have difficulty expressing their feelings, but that they have few or no opportunities to do it. In a safe environment free from competition and one-upmanship, focusing on the importance of parenting, rich and important stories are told. Fears about the instability of marriage, angry, sad and abusive stories of our own fathers, stillbirths and abortions, work and family issues, dealing with in-laws, finding time for ourselves and our wives, concerns for schools and the environment, the meaning of sex in our lives' all are topics which father-to-father we discuss, argue, cry, and laugh about together. The men who come to these groups have to go to some trouble to be involved. It is not easy, readjusting schedules and having the willingness to make a commitment to a group of men. Concerns about how to have a close relationship with other men are often difficult to understand. What comes out of this experience with other fathers? The men have commented that talking about fatherhood with other dads has certainly given them more confidence in parenting. They also are clear that they understand much more about who they are as men. When I ask them how fatherhood has changed them as men, the response has been they feel they are more sensitive, compassionate, tender, warm and understanding.

Our children, our wives, our society will all benefit from such a wonderful group of truly good men, that our children (and us, dad-to-dad) have helped us become.

Bruce Linton, Ph.D. is founder and director of the Fathers' Forum programs for expectant and new fathers. He is a former contributing editor to Full-Time-Dads magazine, and columnist for Parents' News in San Francisco, California. He is the author of "Finding Time for Fatherhood." Bruce is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapists and received his doctorate for his research on men's development as fathers.

Copyright © Bruce Linton. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.