One of my favourite childhood stories, is one about how my Uncle rushed to the local post office to send my Dad a telegram about my sister’s birth many decades ago, when phones were almost non-existent. My sister was born in a small town in Tamil Nadu where my maternal grandfather worked, while Appa was posted in Pune. I have never asked my father what his reaction was when he received that telegram!
In most circumstances, the news of an impending birth is greeted with great joy, and promptly the dad-to-be is instructed on how to look after the expectant mother. Families and friends gear up to assist the new mother to be, and the father moves into the main supporting role. Becoming a parent is as momentous and life changing for the father as it is for the mother. Yet, no one ever really thinks about, or asks the dad how he is feeling, and what he may be going through, not just at the announcement or arrival of the baby but also, into the first few months following the birth. Why is it, that do we not focus on new dads also?
Societal norms and the new Father
In our country, for the majority, it is the norm for the mother to be, to move to her maternal home for the birth of the child, and the first few weeks following the birth. This is done with the intention that mother and baby can receive the utmost care and support. So there is a physical separation for the father to be, not only from his partner, but also from the process of pregnancy and childbirth, barring maybe the hospital check-ups and pre-natal classes. After the birth, the new dad may be looking forward to connecting and bonding with the new arrival. Being around his wife to both support her, as well as reconnect , as parents. Often he is deprived of this. In every area of childcare, be it carrying, feeding the baby, diaper changes or swaddling etc., there are other more competent adults around the new mother and child, that take over, all the while, lovingly, yet firmly pointing out the new dad’s ineptitude and lack of experience.A lot of this is driven by a societal belief that there is very little a father can contribute in the first year of the child’s life. This, besides placing enormous pressure on the new mother to take up all child care duties, also sets up the system to deprive the father of ways in which he can be there for his wife and child. Can we pause here then, and think about, all the ways fathers can and may want to get involved, and why we deny them that.
Taking on the role of a Father
Many men may have a lot of areas of concern and stress with regards to taking on the new role as a father. Mothers have the advantage of bonding and connection with the child from conception. For fathers it is not so natural, and they need to take extra effort. If they are the primary bread winner, the added financial responsibility for the new addition to the family, can be stressful. Additionally, the mental and physical health of their partner, in the first few weeks, post-partum, may also affect them. Lastly, the new state of their relationship with their partner, the loss of both physical and emotional intimacy for an extended period of time could impact new fathers deeply.
All of the factors mentioned above, contribute to anxiety, and in some cases, even lead to depression. In fact, studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicate that almost 50% of new dads are at a risk of depression.
As we see it, our cultural and social structures are geared towards supporting the expectant and new mum and baby. Very rarely have expectant dads and new dads had their thoughts, needs, and feelings acknowledged. Subsequently, there is no system in place for those who require emotional support. Informally, talking and venting to their buddy group over a beer or a coffee may work for some, and yet there could be others who need more assistance and/or professional help.
The effects of impaired mental health of an expectant or new dad is wide ranging. It directly impacts the new mother and baby. It influences family life, the connection between the couple, and between parent and child.
So, keeping this in mind, we see that it is important for family members and friends to support and lend a helping hand to an expectant or new dad as much as the new mother. Be it listening to and acknowledging their fears and anxieties, or, helping them get more involved and hands on with taking care of the baby, and spending time with their partner. During this life changing transition into fatherhood, if we as a community, are able to provide new dads with this manner of guidance and encouragement, we really will be doing them, and their families a huge service.
As for my dad, I am going to ask him now, how he felt on receiving that telegram which changed his life forever.
Author: Seemanthini Iyer is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.