by Bruce Linton, Ph.D.
When a couple has a baby, it is a profound transition in their lives. It is the most important change in their adult life. How becoming a parent affects each of them as individuals and as a couple is still not well understood in our culture.
Of all the Western industrialized countries, the United States offers the least support for family adjustment and development. Politicians would like us to believe that we put a priority on family life, but the reality is just not so. How a man makes the transition to parenthood and how a baby changes his relation to his wife is a very important area for us as men to understand.
When a baby is born, the focus of the new mother's attention is on the baby. This is part of the normal developmental process. Mothers become preoccupied with the baby's needs, often to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. This is part of her biological makeup.
Most new fathers are unaware of this normal "maternal preoccupation" and are often surprised and frustrated at how abandoned they may feel. We have no information about what to expect after a baby is born. Men have very little preparation for this intimate part of life. Childbirth preparation classes often help us share with our wives the experience of pregnancy, but we are unaware of what to expect emotionally after the baby arrives. So what's a dad to do?
As a new father feels the emotional withdrawal of his wife's attention, he can take comfort in knowing that her total attentiveness to their baby is normal. He may begin to notice he has feelings of anger and hurt. Often the time after the birth may stimulate unconscious feelings that remind the father of his own childhood. But what about his normal feelings for attention and intimacy?
Intellectually, a father can become aware that he is participating in an intimate, common and normal experience of the biological foundation of life. He can take comfort in knowing that as their baby adjusts to being on the outside rather than inside of its mother, this intense connection needs to sustain itself for a while.
He can also be active in sharing and bonding with his wife and baby by participating in this great mystery of getting to know himself and his wife in their new roles as parents, and becoming acquainted with this new being called their child. He can begin to get a glimpse of his own vulnerability as the uncertainty of his new role and relationships begin to evolve.
Often the new feelings a man uncovers when he becomes a father press him to overwork, perhaps to drinking or to an affair, all ways of trying to escape from the pain of feelings he may be having about the change in relationship with his wife. Even when he is aware of the biological calling for his wife's intense intimacy with the baby, he still feels his own intimacy needs neglected.
What I found in my research on new fathers is that throughout history men have had other men, other fathers, with whom to share the transition to parenthood. The joy and the loneliness, the fear and confusion were emotions men were able to experience with each other. This was a natural intimacy that men had between them.
It is something that we have lost in Western industrial countries. Historically, at the critical times in our lives, we have always had a community of men friends to turn to. Without this important relationship in a man's life, all his intimacy needs, especially for understanding and comfort, are demanded of his wife and his marriage.
The stereotype persists of men that "they don't share their feelings." What I have found in my work and research is that men don't have opportunities to share their feelings. In my father's groups and my all-day workshops we never seem to have enough time to talk, discuss and share all that we want to. The fathers comment on how unlike their wives, who have many groups available, they have no place to go to specifically talk about the changes they are going through as men and dads.
We need to be able to establish an intimate relationship with a group of men not only when we become fathers, but throughout our lives. We need the companionship, intimacy and support that we can offer each other. Building and maintaining relationships is not easy with the pace and mobility of life today.