Dr. Alyssa Berlin is a prenatal and postpartum clinical psychologist. Dr. Berlin works specifically with women and their partners on issues such as anxiety and emotional fluctuations during pregnancy, postpartum blues and depression, and the complex issues that can arise between and around new and expectant parents.
Oil and Water:
Navigating Fatherhood Expectations
By Alyssa Berlin | PsyD
Sometimes, the difference between our expectations and reality is like the difference between oil and water. When this happens, especially when it concerns something very important to us, it can be hard to catch our breath, let go of what we had planned, and instead learn to ‘go with the flow.’
In my experience, many men encounter this challenge when they become fathers. Whether you plan to be involved in every aspect of your baby’s life from the beginning, 50-50, only to discover that you can’t lactate (and that your newborn is naturally inclined to spend a lot more time with the person who can) or you’re thinking ‘call me when the kid is ready to play baseball,’ only to find out your partner has very different plans for you, the reality of fatherhood can easily seem like murky oil compared to the clear, cool water you had expected.
You will hear very few people acknowledge this, but in some ways, new fathers have a harder time than new mothers. Yes, mothers have to grapple with all of the emotional, hormonal, and physical changes and challenges of pregnancy, labor, delivery, and the postpartum (not to mention all of those sleepless nights breastfeeding or pumping!), but at least they have clarity about their role.
Mother Nature has clearly defined the role of a mother. It’s not an easy role by any means, but it is obvious that between a mother and father, the mother is the one who will carry the baby, labor, and give birth to the baby, and if there’s breast milk to be made, it’s going to be made by mom.
Clarity is often our best friend when it comes to accepting a new role - so where does that leave fathers? Mother Nature must have taken the day off when it came to defining the role of a father; anyone who’s been paying even the slightest bit of attention could tell you that our society’s expectations of fathers have changed dramatically, even in just the last few decades.
Long gone are the days of ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ where dads sat in the waiting room, cigar in hand, waiting to hear that their baby has arrived. And gone are the days when a man could achieve 'rock star dad' status simply by financially supporting his family.
Our expectations of dads have changed, without a blueprint for fathers to navigate this new terrain. Sometimes it feels like fatherhood is ‘every man for himself,’ usually subject to the seemingly random needs (or whims) of the woman he’s chosen as his partner.
Dads - let’s bring some clarity to your role and start to build a bridge between expectation and reality to help smooth your transition to fatherhood. It will always do you well to know that in the first year with a new baby, 'rock star' status is easily within your reach... by taking good care of mom.
Anything you can do to help your partner heal from childbirth, feel good about how she is doing as a new mother, get through all those night-time feedings with some semblance of sanity, and/or make breastfeeding a more enjoyable experience makes you a 'rock star dad.' (I’m thinking we should have stickers made up - who’s with me?)
This includes making sure your partner is eating and drinking enough to keep up with the physical demands of new motherhood and helping her restore her strength after 9 months or so of pregnancy (that means nutritious food, not just endless frozen pizzas, and a simple glass of water is always a godsend for a breastfeeding mother), massaging her tense and tired shoulders (nothing lower - unless she asks!) when the baby is sleeping or feeding, and simply telling her, as often as you can, that she is doing a great job and that you are proud of her.
And no, I haven’t forgotten about your baby. There are many things you can do to bond with your newborn, and you should enjoy them whenever you get the chance - just holding, massaging, or singing to your baby is enough to begin a lifelong bond. I suggest that fathers put their focus on caring for their partners first purely because a baby’s needs are very simple - caring for mom is not always so simple (or fun!), but the rewards in the future will be far greater for your entire family.
Speaking of the future - fear not, those days of playing ball are coming, and soon! This is one area where dad definitely gets the spotlight - play. FYI, when 2-3 year olds of both genders were polled and asked which parent was their favorite playmate, dad emerged the winner - hands down. You will have your moment in the sun, believe me!
Babies and toddlers go through many phases where they assign one parent to a primary role (for example, the preferred parent for comfort or play) and seem to shun the other parent. The key to dealing with these normal transitions is to talk with your partner about your feelings (sorry dads - you knew I was going to have to mention talking and feelings at some point, right?), support each other and your child’s wants in the moment, and each try to enjoy the little breaks you might get to catch your breath while they are in 'only mommy' or 'only daddy' mode. Fear not, it will switch again!
And just when you think you have it mastered - remember, this advice doesn’t apply only to your first year of fatherhood. It applies to the first year with each child you have - in fact, mom is likely to need even more support with multiple little ones in the house! Whether you cap your family at one or eleven, take good care of mom and earn that 'rock star dad' sticker every single time - in your partner’s eyes, they won’t be stickers, they’ll be tattoos. She will remember your support and encouragement in those crazy first years, long after your youngest child is off to college, as you sail into your ‘golden years’ together.