From Partner to Father - The Importance of Expectations Management

by Sylvia Brown

Have you ever wondered what an expectant Dad usually hears from his male friends? "Buddy, once this baby is born, you can forget about sex for the next six months." If I were about to become a father, probably a little unsure about my new role, this advice would not be particularly comforting.

Why do women persist in thinking that once the baby is born, they will just walk off into the sunset? And why don't childbirth educators discuss the importance of "expectations management" and good communications?

It is undeniable that the arrival of a baby, especially the first, transforms the relationship inside a couple. Three people now must share love, time and energy -- the exclusive nature of the couple's relationship comes to an end. Moral and material responsibilities dominate, lives must be better organized, improvising becomes difficult, if not impossible. New conflicts can arise on matters that both partners thought resolved, especially regarding values and important decisions such as education and religion.

Today, a further challenge faces parents. When they become mothers, many women judge their partners according to a new criterion: their ability to be "good fathers." With her newly acquired protective instinct, even the most relaxed, easygoing woman will become over-critical if the father does not live up to her image of an ideal Dad. Yet he is often caught between the weight of tradition and modern expectations.

A woman has the advantage of a progressive preparation for motherhood over the course of nine months. She carries the child not only in her body, but also in her heart and in her mind. Once the baby is born, she benefits from an extremely intimate relationship. The father-child relationship, however, is external and more abstract.

Once home from the hospital, the baby and its supplies seem to take over the house. He is expected to stand close by the mother-child unit, but cannot enter into it; to instinctively take over all the housekeeping; and to have a sudden, burning desire to change diapers. It is hardly surprising then that he feels left out of the magic bubble. He may feel sexually frustrated, clumsy and useless around the baby but not dare admit his feelings.

A new father may feel threatened, now that important decisions seem to be made in terms of their impact on the baby. He may be jealous of the woman's reproductive powers, which seem to bring her happiness and attention. He may feel a strong burden of responsibility, as well as stronger financial pressures to succeed. He may feel overwhelmed by his spouse's emotional dependence. He may be frustrated to find that his spouse appears to be perpetually engrossed in the baby and makes not time for him alone. He may be alarmed by the baby's fragile appearance. Older fathers may be especially worried that the baby will cramp their lifestyle.

To make things worse, some mothers go out of their way to point out their partner's faults and clumsiness in handling the baby, so as to reinforce their role as primary caregiver. Conversely, some men prefer to delegate all tasks concerning children to the mother (possibly as their father did with their mother) or idealize her maternal abilities as a way of justifying their non-involvement with the child.

None of this need happen if communications remain good within the couple, if the partners feel that they can express their wishes and are attentive to each others' needs.

Mothers, remember that your partner cannot always guess your needs. Your spouse does not instinctively know what to do and may in reality feel lost. Don't become a prisoner of stereotypes. One major cause of postnatal tensions between partners can be eliminated by avoiding the roles of "father hen" and "perfect mother." Re-establish frank, open communication. Try to respect each other's uncertainties. Ask yourself, "How would I react if I were only a spectator and not the main actor?"

Give your partner precise tasks to fulfill. Make him feel needed. Find time for yourselves as a couple (some 90% of couples go out less after the birth of a child) -- you need outside activities! Having children satisfies a basic need for many women. But all women also need adult relationships. A child will never replace the lover and partner.

Sylvia BrownSylvia Brown wrote Post-Pregnancy Handbook: The Only Book That Tells What the First Year After Childbirth Is Really All About -- Physically, Emotionally, Sexually (Published by Griffin Trade Paperback) in response to her own frustration at the lack of comprehensive information for the mother in the weeks and months after childbirth. This is her first book.

Trained as a nurse/midwife at Columbia University, Mary Dowd Struck, R.N., M.S., C.N.M., has been a senior vice president for Patient Care Services at Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, since 1986 and has been a teaching associate in obstetrics and gynecology at Brown University School of Medicine since 1994. Before her current appointment, she was both a nurse and administrator at hospitals across Rhode Island and New York.

Copyright © Sylvia Brown with Mary Dowd Struck. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.