When Mika drove his wife and new daughter home from the hospital, he felt a wave of relief wash over him. Nine long months of standing beside Bailey through so many changes – her body stretching, her energy-draining, her excitement when little Sammy shifted inside of her – had finally come to a close. Nine long months of knowing he was a part of it all… but feeling so slightly alone or left out.
How can a man be a good first-time dad? To become a good first-time dad, new fathers should get involved early during the pregnancy, work to sustain strong and positive communication habits with their partners, and share in the tasks and bonding practices of parenting once their baby is born. Connecting should be the highest priority, as families grow together over time naturally.
Facing the Bias Favoring Mothers
The transition into parenthood is one that is often associated with feelings of exhaustion and confusion. It is also a time of new beginnings, joy, and exhilaration. Despite the classic complaint of “babies don’t come with user manuals,” most new parents can know that there is an overwhelming abundance of information available to help them learn from others about their new family experiences.
From parenting classes to online databases to literal volumes of self-help books and parenting magazines, new parents have access to more information now than ever in the history of parenthood.
However, a lot of this content feels alienating to the men learning to become great fathers. In sifting through the plethora of information, it becomes abundantly clear that parenting education and outreach is heavily mother centric.
Historically, parenting matters have been handled largely by women. It follows, then, that resources dedicated to advising and preparing for that great adventure tend to be tailored toward the specific needs of women. Pre-birth classes and support groups often leave new fathers with a feeling of isolation and role confusion during their wives’ pregnancy.
More and more researchers are hearing from first-time fathers that they don’t feel that today’s commonly available pre-natal classes cater to their specific needs. It is clear that in the present age of egalitarian parenting practices, a new kind of education is called for.
What It’s Like to be a Scared First-Time Dad
While a couple experiencing first-time parenthood together are facing many of the same challenges, the ways that men and women respond to and internalize those experiences are vastly different. Research shows that many recurring complaints are reported across studies:
- Expecting fathers report feeling alienated in prenatal classes. The prominent focus on what their partner should be doing and expecting in preparation for the birth of their infant has little impact on their own routines and leaves them wondering what their role should be (Entseih & Hallström, 2016).
- Both mothers and fathers frequently report feeling unprepared for the ways that their new baby’s arrival will impact their own relationship. The changes in the quality and frequency of communication and the changes in the couple’s sexual relationship are often reported as a surprise (Devito, 2010).
- Many new fathers report feeling particularly lonely while bearing witness to the blossoming mother-infant relationship. Men cannot or are discouraged from participating in many of the bonding behaviors that mothers engage in with their newborns (Nystrom & Ohrling, 2004).
- New fathers reported feeling unprepared in terms of parenting skills. They felt left in the dark in regard to many of the day-to-day tasks of caring for an infant (Entseih & Hallström, 2016).
New fathers experience parenting challenges that are independent of the challenges experienced by new mothers. New dads need support through the challenges they face alone and with their spouse. However, they may struggle to find solutions that meet their unique challenges.
Despite these challenges, new fathers often report feelings of excitement for getting to know their child and hope for their relationship.
Becoming a Dad for the First Time
Many first-time dads feel stressed out, overwhelmed, and somewhat lost about what to do next. While becoming a dad for the first time seems overwhelming, the benefits of paternal involvement are lifelong.
- Fathers who were active in prenatal parenting education and present during checkup appointments tended to have better overall physical and psychological health (Plaintin, Oluyoka, & Ny, 2011).
- Fathers who are satisfied with the relationship they share with their partner are more likely to interact with their children in ways that promote prosocial behavior and literacy (Cabrera, Shannon, & Mitchell, 2009).
- Father engagement during a child’s early years facilitates cognitive development, as well as promotes prosocial behavior in boys and positive mental health in girls (Sarkadi, Kristiansson, Oberklaid, & Bremberg, 2008).
Dads-to-be often report feelings of joy and excitement about the arrival of their new baby, and seek to offer the best experience possible to them.
So, what can a dad do to get in the know about pregnancy and fatherhood to ensure the very best for his child?
Shift Educational Paradigms
Recent studies have confirmed that a new approach to prenatal education may be more beneficial in giving new parents the sense of confidence they are desperately seeking. Research increasingly suggests the importance of the participatory adult learning approach to prenatal parenting education.
Traditionally, prenatal classes are facilitated by health care professionals and involve little discussion or collaboration from participants. These classes often keep expecting mothers and fathers in one large group. One study found that when the group of parents spent three of the sessions divided into gender-based discussion groups, fathers tended to feel more included and accounted for (Schmied & Cooke, 2002).
The value of connecting with other people cannot be overstated. When new dads are looking for parenting classes, consider opting for classes that encourage a discussion group aspect.
It gives new fathers a great opportunity to connect with other men who are dealing with many of the same challenges. When expecting fathers had an opportunity to build relationships with other expecting fathers, their anxiety and feelings of isolation were reduced.
Additionally, expecting parents should look for parenting classes that spend ample time discussing changes they can expect to their marital relationship. This can prepare new parents for the reduced time they will have to devote to each other and in turn reduce feelings of isolation, abandonment, and loneliness.
These classes will also teach communication skills for participants who are trying to remain connected through the trying transition into parenting.
While the Parenting and Family sections of bookstores are still largely devoted to the needs and experiences of women, many new What to Expect-style books has come out in recent years with dads specifically in mind. Most of these books use gentle humor and first-hand accounts to inform and advise new and expecting fathers.
Dads-to-be can find information on managing finances for a growing family and ways they can support their pregnant partner’s health. With the changing tides of shared parenting tasks, it’s reassuring to see support literature for fathers peppering the shelves.
Dads can feel prepared for tackling their new role with step-by-step guides to everything from diaper changing to car seat shopping.
Managing the Relationship
Much of the literature available to men include advice on how to interact with their partner throughout the pregnancy in ways that promote a strong relationship and healthy communication. Maintaining a strong foundation in the marital relationship is a key component to easing the negative experiences of becoming a parent (e.g. – feelings of loneliness, role strain, anxiety, and depression) (Gottman, Shapiro, & Parthemer, 2004).
One fantastic resource for couples seeking a stronger connection is The Gottman Institute. Researchers there have built an incredible assortment of resources for couples, parents, and professionals. John Gottman’s book Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work has been a foundational resource for many family scientists.
Being an Excellent Partner
When it comes down to it, many of the relationship work habits new fathers are advised to practice are beneficial throughout the relationship. Practices like the ones promoted by Gottman and his colleges serve to build resilience, gratitude, and collaboration into a relationship so that the couple can stay standing together in times of stress and strain.
One of the most frequent complaints from new parents is that there is so much to do once the baby comes home. Both parents often feel exhausted and out-of-sorts as they adjust to their new family member’s schedule. New mothers often take the bulk of the day-to-day baby tasks, which is especially taxing while their bodies are still healing from the strain of labor.
New dads who are quick to be involved in diapering, feeding, bathing, and soothing can alleviate some of the extra stress their partner would be shouldering – giving her more time to rest her body and mind. New dads who do not participate equally in the general care of their infant run the risk of generating resentment or contemptuous feelings within their relationship (Parfitt & Ayers, 2014).
Connect With Your Partner
The Gottman Institute encourages couples to practice “the golden rule” of relationships: little things often. Research has found that happy, successful couples take time to notice and respond to one another’s requests for connection. Partners make these requests in a variety of ways, depending on what kind of connection is being pursued.
It is important for partners to be sensitive to these requests, as couple connection makes up the groundwork for ongoing positive interactions. When couples connect consistently, intentionally, and positively an atmosphere of appreciation and mutual respect can be felt within the relationship. This makes managing difficult times much smoother.
It is important for couples to set aside specific time throughout the week to communicate. This time can be used to discuss feelings of stress, share the excitement, or to simply catch up. The transition into parenthood can feel like a whirlwind time, and it is easy for couples to lose sight of one another. Taking time specifically for one another can prevent feelings of distance from building.
Understanding each partner’s expectations for how feelings of discomfort and uncertainty are expressed is important. Each person has unique needs concerning intimacy and space; having those conversations early and often can help new and expecting parents remain united throughout their relationship (Hicks, Mcwey, Benson, & West, 2004).
New fathers are often surprised by how drastically their sexual relationship changes postpartum. Increased levels of exhaustion and a growing to-do list makes finding time or energy to be intimate quite challenging. Many women also deal with complications healing after the birth which contributes to a decline in sexual frequency. Many new fathers describe this experience as stressful and note feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The solution to this actually begins with communication. Couples who take the time to connect and communicate about their needs and expectations generate emotional intimacy and a feeling of safety in the relationship. These are the building blocks for reestablishing physical intimacy as new parents.
The benefits of maintaining a sense of closeness throughout the pregnancy are vast. Feeling connected promotes father involvement during the pregnancy and once the baby is home, which reduces feelings of stress and anxiety for both parents. An environment with reduced stressors makes for a more nurturing and calm environment for the growing baby and, later, the developing child.
Being an Excellent Father
Most new fathers are excited to build a relationship with their infant. New dads look forward to sharing proud moments with their partners and their child. First-time dads may also have feelings of uncertainty in how to interact with the new family member; these feelings ease with time.
New fathers who are highly responsive to their infants see a dual benefit: they build greater bonds with their babies while simultaneously reducing stress for their partners. The connections between father and child can be established before the baby is born. Great fathers initiate frequent and positive interaction with their children.
Start the Conversation Early
Expecting fathers can begin interacting with their babies long before they ever meet them. Developing babies can hear voices during the second trimester, and new dads are encouraged to interact with their growing baby often. Building rapport and voice familiarity during pregnancy will ease baby’s transition into the home and can help dad feel connected throughout the pregnancy.
This time is also beneficial in supporting the couple’s relationship; spending time connecting as a family pre-birth builds a family time routine that can be carried into daily life after baby’s arrival. Parents who spend time bonding over their growing child are fortifying their relationship through positive interactions.
Once the baby has arrived, it is important to remain engaged and responsive. Babies respond to and learn from their parents’ faces and voices, so frequent interaction is encouraged. This also ensures that new parents have the chance to share special moments, like their child’s first smile, with each other.
Lighthearted, happy interactions with the new infant create great memories and stimulate the release of feel-good hormones and endorphins. New fathers who laugh, sing, and play with their infants will feel more connected and involved with their child. Spending time making eye contact and talking with baby also promotes speech development and positive attachment (Ramchandani, Domoney, Sethna, Psychogiou, Vlachos, & Murray, 2012).
First-time parents are often surprised by how much their new babies cry. It is important to remember that crying is how the infant communicates their needs. New parents should practice responding patiently, positively, and promptly.
Infants develop specific attachment styles, which can have lifelong implications, through parental responsiveness. Infants who receive consistent, predictable, and positive aid from their caregivers learn to trust that their needs will be met. Patience is important in the marital relationship as well. When both partners are feeling like they have reached their limit, a little extra patience can go a long way.
The path to parenthood can seem quite daunting, particularly for first-time fathers who are unsure of where to begin. Fortunately, there are more dad-friendly resources available than ever. The once treacherous trail of parental role confusion is now paved with manuals of how-to’s and what-not-to-do’s. New dads who take time to support their relationship with their partner are at an even greater advantage.
With a little foresight and research, scared first-dads can find assurance in knowing what to expect when the baby comes. Setting realistic expectations and sharing in the responsibilities of parenthood can bring new parents closer to each other and to their infant.
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