Do fathers-to-be really view childbirth and their impending fatherhood with the proverbial deer-in-headlights outlook?
In one episode of The Simpsons, the TV breaks, leaving the family to entertain themselves with stories of when the kids were born. One of several things we discover is the real reason Homer went bald: there’s a flashback sequence showing him, upon learning about each of Marge’s three pregnancies, shrieking and pulling out his hair.
Homer’s reaction is overstated, of course—the kind of caricaturized emotion we expect from cartoons. But as is often the case, The Simpsons portrays a cultural reality prominent enough to have created its own stereotype: the uncertain, anxious new father.
Pop Culture and the New Dad
Versions of this nervous new dad character take center stage in films such as She’s Having a Baby (starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern) and Nine Months (featuring Hugh Grant and Julianne Moore), both of which depict men who overcome initial terror to embrace their roles as dads. Similarly, many new-fatherhood manuals assume—and thus perpetuate—an image of bewildered, befuddled dads-to-be reflected in the books’ titles:
- Dada: A Guy’s Guide to Surviving Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the First Year of Fatherhood, by Michael Crider
- She’s Having A Baby—And I’m Having a Breakdown, by James D. Barron
- The New Father’s Panic Book: Everything a Dad Needs to Know to Welcome His Bundle of Joy, by Gene B. Williams
- Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads, by Gary Greenberg and Jeannie Hayden
- Keeping the Baby Alive till Your Wife Gets Home: The Tough New ‘How-To’ for 21st Century Dads, by Walter Roark
- Breathe: A Guy’s Guide to Pregnancy, by Mason Brown
- My Boys Can Swim!: The Official Guy’s Guide to Pregnancy, by Ian Davis
- The Everything Father-To-Be Book: A Survival Guide for Men (Everything Series), by Kevin Nelson
- Pregnancy: A Man’s Survival Guide, by Adam Hunt
There you have it, ladies: the typical man views pregnancy and pregnant women as crises best approached with advice, facts, and humor. (Note the recurring themes of survival, exaggerated disaster, and practical, comprehensive knowledge as the solution.)
Life Imitating Art
It should be acknowledged that, minus the accompanying hyperbole, the above scenario is in fact true. And you only need to go as far as the internet to confirm: In fathers’ online discussion forums, you’ll find dads-to-be express emotions ranging from apprehension to outright panic to elation—and responses of support and/or advice from other men. And, on a more sobering note, there are often posts from pregnant women, apologetic for intruding but desperate for advice on how to deal with partners that have suddenly turned against the idea of having a baby—or who are leaving the relationship altogether.
Given the importance of communication between expecting parents, it’s no wonder that, as the title of this article suggests, women want to know how their partners “really feel.” A small part of the answer lies in the evidence I’ve presented so far: future dads will generally experience quite a bit of anxiety and self-doubt at what they perceive as the challenges ahead of them.
Freedom of Expression
The problem with typical guys, however, is that they don’t tell their partners about these feelings. Because new parenthood can seem so formidable and all-consuming, the corresponding sense of inadequacy may be more than some men want to let themselves feel, let alone talk about. As Dr. Bruce Linton, MD, a California psychologist and founder of the Fathers’ Forum Online website says, “It’s easy for an expectant dad to talk excitedly about the positives of becoming a father. It’s much tougher to give voice to the equally important—and inevitable—feelings of fear and apprehension.” Dr. Linton’s advice to men is to “give yourself permission to express both your feelings of vulnerability and excitement. If we always play the part of men who are strong, we lose touch with a part of ourselves.”
Dr. Linton’s suggestion is simple enough but far from easy. It involves breaking old habits of processing feelings, and men who have difficulty expressing their emotions—or who have difficult emotions to express—will need to trace these feelings to their source. In an article titled “Five Myths of Fathering,” Dr. Linton points to two main contributors to what men think and feel about fatherhood:
If you’re like most new or expectant dads, you’re probably carrying around some silent assumptions about what it means to be a father. Those ideas are rooted in your experiences with your own father and in what you believe society expects of a male parent.
We’ve already discussed some of the media representations that contribute to the stereotype of the bewildered, anxious dad, and we’ve mentioned the overcompensating strength-in-silence that according to Dr. Linton can keep men from talking about all their feelings. Expecting women who are aware of these messages their partners receive—messages which both reflect and perpetuate the fears men face—will better understand how the conflict between excitement and apprehension could lead these fathers-to-be to feel a bit unsure of how to summarize their feelings toward fatherhood.
Overcoming the Past
The second major source of men’s ideas about fathering comes from their experiences as sons. For men who want a child but feel strong and consistently negative feelings about fatherhood, exploring these experiences is painful but necessary. The book The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Father You Wish Your Father Had Been by fathering expert Dr. Jerrold Shapiro, MD, provides some guidance for beginning this process. In his work as a psychologist, Dr. Shapiro has found that many men who say they want to be the opposite of their own fathers actually end up resembling them in all the ways they’ve tried to avoid.
For men to understand and overcome the ideas of fatherhood that they’ve internalized, Dr. Shapiro lists ten aspects for men to examine, including their fathers’ histories, self-perceptions and relationships with women, as well as the men’s own feelings towards their dads and the childhood their dads helped shape for them. Dr. Shapiro then suggests that men should get in contact with their fathers if they’re still alive, recognizing all along that they themselves must change rather than expect a change in their fathers. Finally, Dr. Shapiro invites men to explore the feelings they have about the kind of fathers, husbands, and friends they want to be.
What should be clear by now to women otherwise confused by their partners’ emotional murkiness is not so much what he “really feels” but how to help him (and you!) find out and acknowledge those emotions, positive as well as negative.
This article has addressed only those feelings that fathers-to-be may have toward their prospective children and themselves as providers and nurturers—it’s barely mentioned the difficulties men can face in responding emotionally to their pregnant partners (oh, the self-incriminating stories I could tell!).
Nevertheless, the principles are the same: men have subconsciously learned from various sources throughout their lives how to think and act toward pregnancy, and if they’re going to remediate what they were taught incorrectly or not at all, they’ll need insight and persistence, encouragement and patience. It’s neither simple nor easy, but what I will say from my own experience is that of course it’s well worth it.