Helping New Dads Transition to Parenthood

by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC

I was telling a friend who has three kids -- and works with pregnant women during delivery and 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."

Transitioning to Fatherhood

dad with newborn sonHow 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 and 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 necessarily those with postpartum depression, but those who, for example, prefer older kids to newborns, or don't like being pregnant, or don't always enjoy breastfeeding) -- 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. Listen to one another. 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. Write a letter. 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'm not feeling what I want to feel as a new parent right away, I want to support myself by [fill in the blank].

If you're not feeling 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. Share with your partner. 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.

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.

Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a professional relationship coach and founder of Parent Alliance®, a resource for expectant couples and parents with young children who are committed to ensuring their relationships thrive after they have kids. Rhona received her training from the Coaches Training Institute and the Center for Right Relationship and is accrediated by The International Coach Federation. She is mom to a pre-schooler and will be welcoming her second child this summer. From her office in Los Angeles, Rhona coaches couples across North America.

Copyright © Rhona Berens. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.