In a lot of ways, expectant fathers have it easy. They're spared the many miseries of impending motherhood: the morning sickness, the weight gain, the pain of childbirth and the other physical discomforts -- petty and profound -- of carrying a child. Nine months of pregnancy transform a woman; her partner presumably looks more or less the same as he did before.
But while guys may not have the outward signs to prove it, the effects of becoming a father can't be underestimated.
"First-time fathers might be in for a shock," says David Swain of Sunderland, Mass., the father of a 15-month-old son. "Not the astonishment over how beautiful their child is or how proud they are of the mom, but the shock of how helpless their child is and how much they as fathers must surrender to his care."
Armin Brott, the author of The Expectant Father and Father for Life, agrees. "The psychological journey of pregnancy and childbirth is no less profound for the father that it is for the mother," he tells WebMD. "He's worried about what kind of father he'll be, how he can afford having a child, how his relationship with his wife will change. These really aren't trivial issues."
But as important as these issues are, a lot of guys have trouble talking about or coping with them. According to Brott, who has two daughters and is expecting a third, being an involved father is a struggle, a struggle against societal conventions and our own insecurities. While it may not be easy, it may be the most important and valuable struggle of your life.
Feeling Left Out
After the initial excitement of discovering that you're going to be a father, you may find yourself feeling a little aimless while your partner is pregnant or even after she gives birth. While your wife is picking out maternity clothes, being feted at baby showers, and urinating every 15 minutes, life carries on for you in much the same way. Your partner simply has an inherent, physical connection to your unborn child that you don't; this may make pregnancy and fatherhood seem frustratingly abstract. Besides being a support and sidekick, what exactly are you supposed to be doing anyway?
This lack of focus can make many men feel a little shut out. "What often happens is that fathers wind up feeling excluded really early in the pregnancy," says Brott. "And that process can get worse as the pregnancy goes on and after the child is born."
Excluded by whom? Is some sinister conspiracy at work?
Hardly, but Brott observes that traditional social forces can push men away from embracing their roles as fathers. Many men wind up excluding themselves, however unintentionally.
"There's no question that some dads-to-be and even experienced fathers can feel alienated from the pregnancy and birth process," says Marcus Jacob Goldman, MD, an associate clinical professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and author of The Joy of Fatherhood: The First Twelve Months.
Goldman, the father of five sons, emphasizes that the most important way to prevent this estrangement is to have an honest and open relationship with your wife. "One of the potential problems is that men and women can take two different roads to the birth process," he tells WebMD. "They journey on parallel tracks, never interacting with each other, or maybe interacting through envy and misunderstanding."
That's a mistake, and it's important to be communicating openly right from the beginning. While expectant fathers may be boiling with anxiety and worry, they may be reluctant to tell their wives about it out of compassion. For instance, fretting about your capabilities as a father may seem trivial and selfish while your wife is hunched over the toilet throwing up a dozen times a day.
But Goldman and Brott agree that you shouldn't dismiss your concerns, and a lot of important things need to be worked out over the nine months of pregnancy.
For instance, it's common for expectant fathers to become deeply worried about the family's finances, especially if their wives have been working and will be taking time off. "A lot of guys take on extra jobs or work overtime when their wives become pregnant," says Brott. "It's almost instinctual, and driven by a fear of the unknown as much as anything else."
However, that's a decision that you and your spouse should decide together. Impulsively signing on for extra hours may not be that helpful; it may make your wife feel abandoned and you feel resentful and further excluded from the pregnancy.
According to Brott and Goldman, expectant fathers need to fight against some of the societal assumptions about parenthood.
"While a lot of women are brought up to think of themselves as a natural parent, men often think of themselves as just a secondary or back-up parent," says Brott. There's still a common perception of fathers as bumbling and inept when it comes to taking care of their children.
But even though you may not always get a welcoming reception, you need to stay involved. For instance, Brott and Goldman say that you should be accompanying your wife to at least some of the doctor appointments, even if you may feel a little awkward being there.
It's important that men not surrender their position as active and involved fathers. If you give into your fears about fatherhood and hang back, burying yourself in work and letting your wife do all of the childcare, you may find yourself feeling more like a babysitter than a parent.
"We've all seen the situation where a mother will go out for the afternoon and leave her husband in charge of the kids," says Brott, "but only after giving him a detailed list about exactly what clothes the baby should wear, what the baby should eat, what stories the baby should be read, what music the baby should listen to, and even how the baby's hair should be combed."
Being more involved earlier can prevent this from happening. "And studies show that the earlier guys get involved," Brott says, "the more involved they are as parents for the long run."
Dealing With the Boss
Deciding whether to take time off from work is also deeply troubling for a lot of expectant fathers. It doesn't help that for many men, the strong impulse to be home to care for their wives and babies collides with their equally strong anxieties about their finances.
If you and your wife do decide that you should take time off, Brott recommends that you talk to your boss about it as early as you can. "Your employer doesn't want you to come in one morning and say, 'Oh, my wife's in labor and I won't be back for three months,'" Brott says.
Exhibiting some tact might also be a good idea. "I strongly recommend that you don't go into your boss's office armed with a copy of the Family Leave Act and slam it down on his desk, saying 'These are what my rights are!'" says Brott. "No one wants to hear that." Instead, go in with suggestions, perhaps with the offer to work from a home office a few days a week.
Although it may not be an easy conversation, Brott says that having settled the issue with your boss early will allow you to feel much more in control.
"Men also tend to have exaggerated fears of what could go wrong with their jobs," says Brott. "Your boss may be more accommodating than you expect."
"Guys have trouble letting go of their freedoms, their routines, their self-imposed duties that they actually relish," says Swain. "But taking care of a child full-time demands that you shelve all that. The challenge of being a good dad is relinquishing some of yourself and giving it to your child."
Brott agrees. "As your kids grow, you'll learn to be more patient and understanding of people's foibles and mistakes," he says. "For instance, I used to be the most uptight person about being on time and about other people being on time. But once I had kids, I'd get ready to go and one of them would fill her diaper. By the time the diaper was changed, I was late. But it didn't matter as much anymore."
People who aren't parents might assume that parenthood causes an inward retreat; after all, new parents seem to talk about nothing but feeding and nap schedules. But Brott says that fatherhood often spurs people to have a wider and more comprehensive view of the world.
"When you have a kid, you start thinking about stuff you didn't think about before," says Brott. "You start thinking about childcare, neighborhood development, and the state of education in this country. You start worrying about landfills and disposable diapers."
"It may sound kind of silly," Brott continues, "but you may realize that you don't really want your child to grow up in the same world that you did, or you want to give them a better chance that you had, and so you start trying to change the world in any little way that you can."
So where can a new or expectant father find support? Organizations that lead support groups are out there if you want them, although many men tend to shy away from that sort of thing.
"Men tend not to flock to support groups," says Goldman, "although most local hospitals with OB services will have groups for interested dads."
Regardless of whether you're seeking help elsewhere, it's important that you not be too hard on yourself. Everyone feels intimidated when first taking on the role of fatherhood; in fact, many of us feel like imposters at one point or another. It's also common for new dads to feel guilty about their ambivalence toward their new child.
"Don't get suckered into thinking that fatherhood is all supposed to be great," says Goldman. "Don't feel foolish if you're enraged by your baby's frequent awakenings at night. Scream into your pillow if necessary. I did."'
And Goldman and Brott agree on the first person you should turn to for help.
"I think that the place for a guy to start getting support is with his partner," says Brott. "You need to talk to her about the things that frighten and concern you. You can do it in a reassuring way, telling her that your fears don't mean that you don't love her or that you're going to hop on the next plane to Brazil. You just need to talk."
"There may not be a solution sometimes," Brott says, "but feeling understood will make everything easier."