What Dads Expect When They're Expecting

What Dads Expect When Mom is Expecting

9 min read

When Simon D'Arcy's wife, Sharon, got pregnant, so did he. He didn't have morning sickness, mood swings or a growing belly, but the transformation he faced was just as intense, and it took him the full nine months to prepare.

"The whole thing is so huge -- emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually. I don't think there's a larger identity change for a man, or for a woman, for that matter," says D'Arcy, a management consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif. "It just doesn't get the same attention because we're not the ones gaining 30 pounds and throwing up."

A new generation of fathers is being born. Gone are the legendary souls who paced hospital waiting rooms, cigars in hand, and -- heaven forbid -- changed a solitary diaper over the course of a weekend. Like D'Arcy, these dads want to be involved, not just with the birth, but afterward.

Breaking new ground isn't easy, of course. But there are plenty of dads like D'Arcy to prove it can be done. Becoming fathers in the new millennium means stretching beyond comfort zones, finding role models for support and encouragement, and not settling for those lingering myths about fatherhood.

When Christopher Mosio, a cinematographer in Santa Barbara, and his wife, Jennifer Louden, discovered they were pregnant, they were both excited and nervous. Yet he admits the pregnancy didn't present quite the same immediacy for him, especially in the beginning.

"It wasn't my body changing," Mosio says. "I could go off during the day and forget about it for a while, whereas Jennifer carried it around constantly." Louden is author of "The Pregnant Woman's Comfort Book."

Such differences in how men and women physically experience pregnancy can often lead to misunderstandings, experts say. They can also perpetuate the myth that pregnancy is mostly the woman's turf. Often it's not until men feel the baby kick, see a sonogram or witness other tangible signs that reality sets in, typically a trimester behind the woman.

"Women often perceive that men aren't as excited as they are because it takes longer for them to get connected since it's not in their bodies," says Deborah Issokson, a licensed psychologist in Boston who specializes in perinatal mental health. "So much of the pregnancy is kind of quiet until women start showing or the baby starts moving."

The truth is, men experience many of the same sorts of anticipation and worries as women, says Armin Brott, author of "The Expectant Father," "Throwaway Dads" and "The Single Father." Not only do studies show that some men experience physical symptoms, like nausea and mood swings, but they, too, worry about the kind of parents they'll be, how their personal and professional lives will change and whether they're up to the challenges.

Other worries, like how the household income will be affected by a new baby, are often more intense for men than women. Such was the case for Brott, who was adamant about reducing his work schedule when his first child, Tirzah, now 9, was born so that he could spend more time at home.

"My wife was working part-time already, and it became a real source of stress imagining how we were going to survive on two part-time incomes," Brott says. "But I didn't want to be the typical father who spends more time at work than at home. I just wasn't going to do that." When his employer balked at his request to continue his work as a labor relations negotiator three days a week, Brott quit and began a free-lance writing career.

What's even harder is that men often lack a support system (sometimes even keeping their wives in the dark) or role models in whom to confide about these concerns. Their isolation can be all the more strained when men are creating very different lives than the ones they grew up in or are part of as adults.

"It's embarrassing for guys to talk about how much they love their kids or the struggle they're having at work when they don't want to be there as much as they used to," Brott explains. "It's like asking for directions. It's saying 'I need help here,' or 'I have something I'm not able to handle 100% on my own.' "

Mosio looks back on the months before his daughter, Lillian, now 5, was born as an intimate time that brought him and his wife closer. "We snuggled a lot and talked to the baby and caressed each other. It was a really close, romantic time for us. I enjoyed the changes her body went through, watching her belly grow and feeling the baby kick."

Not that he wasn't knocked off balance by the newness and tumult of it all -- Louden's sudden mood swings and fears they both shared about the structure a baby would bring to their previously carefree lives. The key was that they talked about everything, a lot.

"Jennifer would read books and explain things to me," Mosio says. "She'd say, 'This is what happens to my hormones, ad maybe this is why I'm acting a little crazy,' " he says. "Men are sort of know-it-alls, but once you let that go, it opens the door to understanding how the woman is feeling." That, he says, helped them stay connected.

Experts emphasize that women need to let their partners in on what's happening to them, particularly since men often feel frustrated and powerless to help their mate through any discomfort or pain of the pregnancy, labor or delivery. "If the woman's not very communicative, then she's never giving a lead, and he never hooks into anything," explains Issokson.

They need to listen to men's fears, too. "She needs to encourage him to talk about what's going on with him," Brott says. There may not be a whole lot you can do about something, but just sharing these feelings, and acknowledging that there's nothing wrong with them, can help, he says. And don't forget to share the joys, as well. "You can just talk about how delightfully happy you both are that this is going to happen," Brott says.

Brott suggests that one of the best ways for men to get involved in the pregnancy from the start is to go to all the prenatal visits. "You may just be sitting there twiddling your thumbs, but it will at least bring you into the process. Listen to the heartbeat, watch the ultrasound, do whatever you can. The earlier you get involved, the more you're going to be a part of the thing; and the more involved a father you are, the better your child is going to turn out."

Studies have shown that children -- and parents, too -- benefit substantially from the relationships forged with fathers early on. Not only are the children more socially and emotionally adjusted later, but they tend to be smarter. Marriages also are happier, which contributes to more satisfying, and possibly even healthier, lives of the parents.

Exchanging war stories -- and laughs -- with other men also can help give them some perspective and an outlet to vent. It may be something as informal as playing golf or having some beers with friends who also happen to be dads. Or it can be something as structured as Boot Camp for New Dads, a men-only program offered in 72 hospitals across the country. Check out the Web site for more information.

At Boot Camp for New Dads, veteran dads bring their new babies in for a few hours on a Saturday for a hands-on approach to helping "rookies" gain some practical tools regarding everything from safety-proofing a home to changing a diaper and frank discussions on sex and marriage after babies. New dads return once more with their babies after they're born.

"It's nice to hear what other dads are going through, what they expected and how they dealt with their problems," says Hugh Damon, a realtor from Newport Beach, Calif., who first attended boot camp a few weeks before his son Cole, now 9 months, was born. "No matter where you are on the continuum, there's someone else who's experiencing similar things as you."

The Bumbling Dad stereotype still threatens to shake the confidence of many dads-to-be. Long conditioned to accept women as the primary caretakers, men are often worried they just won't be as good as their wives at handling the kids, especially newborns, or that they won't be able to develop as close a bond with their babies.

But what any veteran dad who's jumped in anyway knows is, it just isn't so.

Take baby basics. "I actually surprised myself with my ability to deal with the messiest diaper or the throw-up or whatever," says Damon. Or the technique he's developed for quieting his son down, which he'll volunteer with the authority of an expert: "I take him outside and let the wind get on his face. He perks up when he sees something different."

"Men feel very unprepared during the pregnancy, and they feel even more unprepared after the birth when fallout could occur," says Brott. "But there's no gene that predisposes women to be better parents or more caring parents. It's all 100% on-the-job-training, and the thing is, you can learn (the basics) in a day." Parenting preparation class offered at many local hospitals may be just the thing for those who are panicked.

In studies of parents with newborns, men picked up babies, cooed, cuddled, rocked and smiled at their babies just as much as mothers did, and they responded just as competently and quickly as mothers to baby's cries for food, sleep or plain comfort. "There is simply no evidence that men are not just as caring and loving and nurturing and naturally in tune with their child's needs as women," Brott says.

What happens is that men begin suppressing these instincts because they're afraid they don't know what they're doing or aren't supposed to know. "In a couple of months you're in a situation where the dad doesn't know what to do," says Brott, "and that further compounds his feeling of inadequacy and helplessness."

The tide seems to be shifting. Quality time was the buzzword parents used to hear. Now, some experts believe, quality time is overrated and quantity -- all the daily contact, even if it's just cooing to your baby as you type away at your computer or stand at the grocery store checkout, is critical.

That strategy is working for Bob Furka, a banker and Boot Camp veteran from Wheeling, W.Va. Audra, now 17 months, looks to him just as readily for whatever she needs as to her mom. But their bond didn't happen as a result of those poignant moments when she fell asleep on his chest as he watched TV after work, he says. Their connection came from rolling up his sleeves from Day 1, changing diapers or even carting her in an infant carrier to the dry cleaner. Those everyday routines, especially on weekends when he has more time to spend, are "a privilege, not a responsibility," Furka says.

"Those are the moments where the really good stuff is," agrees D'Arcy, who was a stay-at-home dad for the first two years after his daughter was born seven years ago. "That's where you really bond. It's all those moments where you build this kind of silent, invisible connection, this bond of trust between the two of you."

D'Arcy says he wouldn't trade that time for anything. "I was given a gift. Fifty years from now, when I look back, am I going to say, "God, I wish I had started my business two years earlier. I wish I hadn't spent so much time with my kids"? That thought, he says, is ludicrous. "The relationships I have with my two daughters is extraordinary." He's divorced now, but his daughters still spend 10 to 15 days a month with him.

But for many other dads to feel comfortable taking the family time they want, social stigmas in the workplace and the home still have a long way to go. The fear of career suicide, as well as a loss of income, still keep most men from taking paternity leave, even if their companies offer it. Women often have to shed their own conditioning, too.

"Women have a socialized need to be the primary caretaker or dominant person in the home, so some women, when they're faced with the fact that a father wants to be more involved or wants to be around more, often feel somewhat displaced," Brott says.

For Mosio, fathering is the hardest thing he's ever done. But it's also one of the most rewarding.

"I tend to be a perfectionist, and I'm putting a lot of energy towards it," he says. "It's also much more time-consuming than I ever guessed. But it's a life experience that I wouldn't ever want to miss. This is the reason for being alive, I think. To share love and to have a family. It's one of the few life experiences that if you don't have in your life, I think your life is wasted."