A first pregnancy is a significant psychological and emotional milestone in the lives of the new parents and often in their families’ lives. But a new arrival can have a “good news – bad news” effect. For instance, the news of a pregnancy can afford family members an opportunity to reconnect and strengthen family bonds if they live far apart. Or, if family relationships are strained, perhaps differences can be temporarily put aside. Plus members of one or both families have a chance to join in a sense of purpose or if they need to have a reason for being together, now they do.
While many new dads can experience this event in emotionally healthy ways there may be times when a new father struggles with emotionally adjusting to his new role and the changes that can happen in the relationship. Finding time alone can be difficult and having sex may be the last thing on the new mom’s mind. I
During the pregnancy a new father naturally begins to emotionally bond with the fetus. He starts to imagine himself as a father and the concept of being “dad” gradually takes shape in his mind. While this can be easy and fun to do, some new dads can struggle adapting to this change. For a few others, bonding with the fetus can be a deep psychological struggle. One example of how this could happen would be if the new dad’s father left the family early in his life.
Since he did not have the experience of bonding with his father, now there’s no loving male role model for him to call upon in his mind. Among his many possible struggles, he may lose his self-confidence about his new responsibility and be left with only a wish that he could attach to the baby when it arrives. If his partner sensed his struggle, depending on the strength of their relationship there could be an exchange of warm understanding and support or ongoing conflict.
Some new dads can begin to physically withdraw from their partner and from the families during the pregnancy. This is a time of heightened focus on mom’s prenatal care and friends and family often make her the center of their attention. So while he remains emotionally attached, the dad may empathically think that he’ll only get in the way, or that he’ll negatively affect her experience so he pulls back. He may think to himself that he’ll have plenty of time with the baby when the excitement subsides.
On the other hand, his withdrawal could stem from suppressed feelings from his childhood. For instance, if as a child he felt pushed aside or that he wasn’t valued by his parents, he may now feel pushed aside or even worse, that he doesn’t matter. In another example, he may have to watch his parents express their love, care and excitement about a new child – the same thing he longed for a boy but didn’t get – and now he has to swallow his feelings and pretend all is well.
Once the baby is home, a new dad usually transitions easily into his new role and deepens his relationship with his partner and the baby. But depending on his psychological struggles, having the baby home could create anxiety for dad.
He might, for example, be afraid he’ll somehow harm the child or his partner by being a clumsy or inadequate parent. Symptoms of OCD, panic attacks; depression and anxiety could occur. He might get angry or isolate. Some men who have these struggles might resort to high risk behavior – drug and alcohol abuse, infidelity, or using porn – in order to cope.
Just like other men, new dads can be reluctant to seek professional help from a marriage counselor. Fear of being judged; shamed or feeling inadequate can be powerful deterrents to self-disclosure in therapy. However, when a new dad’s emotional struggles are pointed out to him by his partner, coworkers or friends he usually pays attention to this.
He may learn to talk to other fathers or attend a new dad’s support group or talk about fatherhood to his partner or friends or family. But whatever he does to cope with his experiences, a new dad eventually conceptualizes himself as a “father” as best he can, and creates in his mind a sense of attachment to his baby or he has a hope that this will happen.
If you struggle with being a new father there are steps you can take on your own to help yourself. Begin with focusing as much and as often as you can on the joys of fatherhood. Tell people how you feel. Show pictures of your baby to anyone and everyone.
Get emotional support from friends, family, coworkers. Join a new dad or a new parent support group. Remember to tell yourself that you’ve gotten this far and tell your internal critic to be quiet. Spend time with your new baby; show the infant your smiles. If you’re at work, call home and ask about the baby.
Keep a journal about your thoughts and reactions to being a new dad. Write about your experiences every day if you can. If you can’t think of what to write about, try answering these questions and others like them in your journal:
- How did your life change the day you learn of the pregnancy?
- What were the best/hardest experiences you had that day and on other days you remember?
- Who did you think the baby would be like? Look like?
- What did you imagine about the baby’s future? About yours and your partner’s future?
- What did you think you had to do to be a good dad?
- What else do you think about when you write about being a father?
Your journal can be a great gift for your child later in their life. And reading what it was like for you to take this journey could be a valuable lesson and a joyful and rewarding experience for your child, your partner and for you.
If you struggle with being a new dad or you need parenting education or you’re struggling in your relationships or need referrals to community resources, talk to a professional marriage counselor. Aside from getting the emotional support you need and having someone to talk with confidentially, a counselor can help your journey into fatherhood be a joyful one.
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