Finding Fatherhood: The Transition to Being A Dad
by John Carr, LICSW and Bri Pastro
The Zencare team loves to bring you articles from experts in the field. In this article, we speak with John Carr, LICSW, an expert in men's mental health, including the adjustment to fatherhood. His practice is located on Newbury Street in Boston, MA.
You work with many expecting and new fathers– what are common emotions you see coming up in the time leading up to and after birth? How do you help your clients with this emotional time?
I see a full range of emotions come up for expectant dads-- from excitement and anticipation to fear and anxiety. The one that usually brings them to see me is the fear and anxiety and usually it’s connected to a fear of “failing” or doing damage or in some cases fathering the same way their dad did. For many expectant and new dads these fears or anxieties are not conscious and often manifest itself in other ways like overall restlessness or sleeplessness, physical symptoms like heightened “doing”, such as: working harder or longer hours, preparing or feeling like they should be preparing the baby room, doing more house chores but often feeling like they are getting very little done. All this excessive energy can sometimes turn into irritability, annoyance and being short tempered.
One of the first things I’ll do is to help the expectant or new dad discover the thing right under his nose-- that they are about to or just had a baby. I help them connect the feeling with the experience of being or becoming a new dad. These emotions and the accompanying behaviors are generally not associated with being or becoming a new dad, so they find it really helpful to realize and name- “oh I guess, this is having an impact on me.” Being reminded that having a bay is a major life event and comes with some challenges is often really helpful-- especially for the guy who operates as if he is impenetrable.
The next thing I do is to help them express it or talk about it. In parenting speak we often ask our children to use their words, this is what I invite guys to do. The more they come to trust me the more open they express how they feel. For many guys there is no place to talk about their feelings so they find it relieving and cathartic to just vest and process the experience.
How do you work with fathers who may not have a positive reference point for parenting, or who may want to improve upon the parenting that they experienced as a child? How do you help them prepare for this new role when they haven't seen it in action?
I believe all parents are working off of an “internal map” that guides them through the job of parenting. Everyone’s map is different and is comprised of their parents, their memories and a variety of other influences like culture, values, beliefs and principles. This “map” becomes their reference point. The challenge often comes when they look for a reference point and they have none or it’s really hard to find. This is typical, since it’s very common that father absence and or abuse/neglect is so common. Many of the dads that I see didn't have a positive or present father in their life. This is one of the reasons why they are struggling. Depending on how long I end up working with someone and how strong the alliance is will influence how much I become a father figure for them. While I don’t intentionally try to parent or reparent them, by mere fact that I am older than them, am male and have more experience as a parent I do end up parenting or guiding them. This often proves to be a life-changing experience for my clients and for myself as well.
Preparing to become a dad is hard to do. It’s kind of like driving, you eventually just have to do it. That said, the preparation period is important and can be useful to do at least 3 things; 1) learn as much as you can about fetal/infant development, 2) learn what your wife/partner is going through along with the stages of pregnancy, labor and delivery and 3) pay attention to what you are going through. In addition to educating them on these three things I also provide questions to consider as they try to anticipate how they will be as a father. In some cases, I will have them develop a “mission statement” that describes how they want to be as a dad.
All of this is useful and so welcome because for the most part, nobody has asked them how they are doing, so this gives them a chance to get in touch with who they are and how they want to be.
How can new fathers balance their excitement and need for involvement with feelings of inadequacy that might come up in relation to their partner? What are ways that men can find usefulness?
This question reminds me of a quote from parenting guru of the 50’s Haim Ginott, who said: “the greatest need of a parent is to be needed.” New babies are needy and dependent upon both parents for different things. The new dad who wants to be helpful, but it often isn’t clear how he’ll be needed; he often goes through a period of adjustment as they try and figure out how best to do that. The excitement and need to be involved along with the anxiety are both real and both exist. If I could do one thing for the male species it would be to teach them that a variety of feelings (sometimes opposing feelings) are natural and inevitable and can be a sign of mental health. It can be hard for many guys to comprehend that a positive feeling (excitement) and a negative feeling (inadequacy) can exist and sometimes exist simultaneously. When it comes to parenting and emotions I am a big believer in both and thinking. The experience of parenting will be both enjoyable and frustrating; hard and easy, boring and tedious and exciting and adventurous. A great trick that is worth trying out (for yourself but also your growing baby) is to validate the feeling and not necessarily the behavior that accompanies it. For example, if you dad, are jonesing to be home to be with your baby yet work or some other obligation is preventing that, give yourself permission to feel (validate) that feeling. To validate the feeling doesn't necessarily mean act on the feeling, it means honoring and respecting the fact that you have the feeling. To validate could mean just expressing the longing or desire. Too often, what I see men do is one of the 4 “D’s”- Deny, Dismiss, Downplay, Distract themselves from the feeling that can’t be satiated.
The usefulness part of the question comes over time as the couple adjusts to what needs to get done. One of the biggest factors to this is getting clarity on what your role is. Some of the typical roles are: Protector, Provider, Teacher, Nurturer, Soother and Player (the fun one). Every guy does it differently and every dad will struggle with it. This can be hard for many men. To not be able to quickly resolve an issue can leave some men feeling super inadequate. It takes time for the new dad to figure out his role and how he can be most useful. One of the things I do is assess, with him, where his tendencies and strengths lie and then try to determine how those will fit into the needs of the family. The thing I try to remind them of is that becoming and being a parent is like learning a new sport, with new skills and rules and it takes time to get good at it.
John Carr, LICSW is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Boston, MA. He specializes in working with male clients, especially expecting and new fathers, as well as adults seeking help with anger management. John is the author of "Becoming a Dad: The First Three Years," a book on fatherhood, which has sold more than 40,000 copies.