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From Man to Dad

No man can possibly know what life means, what the world means, until he has a child and loves it. And then the whole universe changes and nothing will ever again seem exactly as it seemed before. —L. Hearn

The most profound and complicated event in a man’s life is becoming a father. It is also the least understood and, until recently, the least researched topic in the study of adult development. No life transition—not getting married, changing jobs, moving, or completing educational goals—will have as long-lasting an effect on a man’s sense of purpose as becoming a parent.

When I first became a father 34 years ago, I thought I was prepared for fatherhood. I had completed my training as a Family Therapist and was well educated in the stages of the family life-cycle. But I was not prepared for the deep and powerful reorganization of my identity that I would experience.

While the changes in my outer world—our daily routines, workschedules, the disorganization in our house, the big changes in the time my wife and I spent together—were very apparent, the feelings going on within me remained mysterious and confusing. It was during our pregnancy, at the birth, and the very intense first year of parenting that I began to try to understand what was happening to me as I was becoming a father. It became apparent to me how little information or preparation is availableon what it would be like for me to become a father. In retrospect, I realize how helpful it would have been to have a better understanding of this important transition in my life.

In our lives today, the major risk factors of pregnancy and birth are not medical. The real risk factor is that the necessary time for the emotional development for both parents and the baby—individually and as a family—will be short-circuited. The father, mother, and baby will not get the opportunity to experience the first year together to adjust and learn abouttheir new relationships and roles. Father will be off to work in a week or two, mother will need to return to work after a few months, and the baby will end up in “really good daycare.”

Here in the United States we tend to focus on the physical experiences both during pregnancy and birth and in the postpartum period. Discussions about lack of sleep, the baby’s feeding schedule, food preparation, and when and whose relatives will be visiting become the focus of many new parents’ early experiences. We are often out of touch or ignore our own inner experiences. Most of us have grown up in families where sharing our feelings was often minimized. In times of stress or change we have been taught in our families not to talk about our feelings but to hold them inside and be stoic.

This is particularly true for us as men. In the weeks following the birth of our son Morgan in 1981, I found myself feeling bewildered and overwhelmed. As I talked with my wife about my feelings I felt something was missing for me. She was very supportive and caring about what I had to say about being a dad, but still I felt I needed more. I realized that she had many women friends with whom she could talk about being a mother.

I found that I was lacking male friends who were fathers who I could talk to about being a dad. I realized that what I wanted, what I needed, was to talk in confidence with other fathers about what I was experiencing. I needed to hear from other fathers how they were managing with all the changes in their lives brought about by having a baby.

From this searching for a more intimate connection with other men to discuss feelings about fatherhood I organized a one-day workshop for expectant and new fathers called the “Fathers’ Forum.” In fliers that I sent out and posted around my town (Berkeley, California) I described the workshop as follows: “The Fathers’ Forum will present a one-day workshop for expectant and new fathers, as well as men who are considering becoming a parent. This is an opportunity for us as men to meet together and explore what it means to become a father. We live in a society/culture that promotes competition and isolation among men. Rarely do men find time to discuss their inner reflections, ambivalence and doubts with each other.This workshop is an opportunity to have a dialogue with a community of men about fatherhood.” Fourteen men attended.

One of the most revealing features of these workshops has been that the men consistently expressed anxiety and concern that something was wrong with them or that they must be abnormal because they were feeling so confused about becoming or being new fathers. The men who attend these workshops really were desperate to hear how other new and expectant dads were doing. Most of the men shared in their concluding remarks that hearing the other fathers’ stories about the difficulties and struggles they were having helped them realize that they were experiencing “what every new dad goes through.”

The dads who have attended my workshops (or the ongoing fathers’ groups I also offer now) often comment on how isolated they feel from other men/fathers. Most of the men in these workshops said they turn to their wives, not other men, to help them understand their feelings about fatherhood. With time I have come to understand that men/fathers share feelings quite easily when it is safe to do so, but what we as a community ofmen find especially lacking is the opportunity to have such meetings where the primary focus is on our feelings about being fathers.

Visit the Fathers’ Forum for more information about Bruce‘s groups for dads.