New dad

How men navigate the passage to parenthood

Steve English admits to having been nervous before his daughter, Pascale, was born in February. “I was terrified at the prenatal class when I had to pick up a doll,” says the first-time dad from Toronto. “I was thinking, ‘I’m going to drop this’ or ‘I’m not going to remember to support the head.’”

It’s a common fear for many men who are approaching this major milestone in their lives. Am I going to be any good at this? Can I handle the responsibility? And am I ever going to get my life back? While it often takes men a little longer to slip into the role of involved parent, the rewards are enormous. Here’s how you can ease the transition from guy to dad.

Get involved early

Getting used to your role can start well before the baby is born. “Fathers who are involved in the prenatal process make the transition much more easily,” observes Neil Campbell, the founder and executive director of Dads Can, a London, Ont., organization that promotes involved fathering. Attending prenatal classes with your partner helps you understand what she’s going through during different stages of her pregnancy, and how the baby is developing. Lindsay Taylor, a Toronto father whose first child, Callum, was born in January, says he enjoyed attending prenatal yoga classes with his partner. “My Kegels are great now,” he jokes.

Campbell also advises expectant dads to accompany their partners to doctors’ appointments whenever possible. “And if a dad can attend the first ultrasound and see the baby moving, that can be the crowning moment.” English found the experience a powerful one. “That was amazing. When you hear that heartbeat for the first time, you realize this is actually happening. It crystallized the idea that my life was about to change.”

By the time the baby is born, Campbell says, a dad who was involved prenatally “doesn’t have to feel like he’s stepping into the frame. He’s already part of the picture.”

Reinforce that feeling in the days after the birth by holding your sleeping newborn whenever you get the chance. It’s an intimate and stress-free way to get to know him, and will quickly make you feel you belong together.

Take time off if you can

Unfortunately, business culture has lagged behind men’s aspirations of fatherhood. Although Canadian law now makes it easier for fathers to take paid leave, many men will tell you that taking more than a week or two is frowned upon by bosses and colleagues. “It is changing gradually,” says Andrea Doucet, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton University who has studied fatherhood for more than a decade, “but dads still say that work culture is a big issue. It really depends on what kind of boss you have and how many other men in the workplace have taken parental leave.”

New dads often feel a strong drive to be a provider, and that motivates them to work harder than ever. But if you can take time off during your baby’s first year, it can go a long way in helping you bond with your child and empathize with your partner. “What we hear from fathers who take parental leave is how much they realize the work involved in caring for a child,” says Doucet. “They just have such an appreciation for their partner.”

Dave Curcio took a month’s leave as his son, Gabriele, was approaching his first birthday. He came to understand just how much time daily routines take with a new baby in the house. “It may sound like you have 10 hours to sit and play games, or cuddle up in a rocking chair, but it’s not like that. By the time you wake up, have breakfast, get the baby changed and do that typical morning routine, it’s lunchtime.” The timing of Curcio’s leave turned out to be ideal for another reason: He was around for Gabriele’s first steps.

Be patient with yourself

When you started your last job, it probably took you months to feel comfortable in the new position. The same is true when you become a first-time father. “The bonding process will take time,” says Campbell.

Many of today’s first-time dads were raised by men who had quite different notions of fatherhood. The current generation of fathers wants to be much more hands-on, but they have to learn on the job. That means they’ll make mistakes along the way — and that’s OK.

The family dynamics involved in figuring out how to share baby care also take a whileto work through. As much as gender roles have evolved, in the first year after birth mothers still tend to be the primary parent, says Doucet. “That period really is more gender-divided than the rest of parenthood.” That’s not surprising: After all, a woman gives birth, breastfeeds, and spends more time with the baby if her partner is working. So while it’s important for men to be involved from the get-go, most fathers will play a supporting role at the beginning. “In that first six months to a year, it shouldn’t be about trying to make everything equal between men and women,” Doucet says. Learning how to support each other, building a strong family unit, and creating your own loving relationship with your baby are the things to focus on.

Make hands-on parenting a priority

Many of the jobs that new dads take on — getting the finances in order, painting the baby’s room, preparing meals — don’t involve the baby directly. Men should also look for hands-on opportunities with the tiny new addition to the household. “The more familiar you become with hands-on care, the more confident you’ll be,” says Campbell.

English, despite his early fears, was surprised just how quickly he became comfortable: It took only a week of helping with feeding, rocking and changing Pascale. “Being able to do some of the actual child care has really been helpful,” he says. “Now I feel ‘This is my baby and I know how to do this.’ All the fear has completely melted away.”

Even a trip around town (with a well-fed baby) can help. “Take the baby out in a carrier and just go to Canadian Tire,” Campbell suggests. Just make sure you pack what you need — including extra diapers — and give yourself extra time for your chores. (For more suggestions, see Let’s get physical.)Doucet observes that fathers often build their connection with a baby through play. While roughhousing with an infant isn’t appropriate, getting down on the floor together is fun for both baby and dad. As Campbell likes to say, “Moms give babies toys. Dads are the toys.”

Hang out with other dads

When Doucet began her research on new fathers a decade ago, she heard from many dads who felt uncomfortable at mom-centred baby groups. “That has changed enormously, and things are getting better for men,” Doucet says. “At the same time, some still don’t feel comfortable going into those ‘estrogen-filled worlds,’ as one of the fathers called them.”

Look for ways to make contact with other fathers and babies. While new fathers’ groups do exist, most dads rely on more casual networks. If you have male friends with babies around the same age, meet at the park and take your babies for a walk together. The dynamics between men and women are often different when it comes to discussing children. Taylor says his regular poker game includes several other dads. They do talk about their kids, but they mostly share funny stories rather than asking one another for emotional support or tips. “Men don’t ask for advice,” he says. “Of course, that doesn’t stop them from offering it.”

Communicate with your partner

Here’s a common new-parent scenario: Mom and Dad have been up all night with their crying baby. In the morning they real to go out and buy some, and he winds up going to three different stores to find the right size. After this journey, which seems heroic and selfless to him, he returns home to a partner who blasts him for deserting her for two hours.

Moms and dads can have very different ideas of what is considered helping with family responsibilities and what is an excuse to get out of the house. All those overtime hours you’re putting in to make more money for baby stuff may not be what your partner needs from you now. Make sure the two of you talk about how you’re both adjusting to your new roles, and make sure each partner’s expectations are clear.

Taylor says he’s enjoyed his baby’s first weeks, but admits that he’s looking forward to when Callum is older and the two of them can enjoy more activities together. That long view of parenting is something to keep in mind. Campbell says the success of your fathering endeavours only becomes apparent over time: when your children become adults and take their place in the world. “Dads are always under construction,” Campbell says. “Father to me isn’t just a noun, it’s a verb. It’s an activity that continues in a child’s life.”

Let’s get physical

In the weeks after birth, new fathers may find themselves at arm’s length. “Dads need to find a task that can help introduce them to the baby,” says Neil Campbell, founder of Dads Can. Some suggestions:

Be the bath guy Bathing your baby will help you feel comfortable handling her gently.
Read a story Babies will respond to Dad’s reading voice long before they can really hop on Pop.
Rock her to sleep Even after a frustrating day, it’s humanly impossible to be angry with a baby who’s asleep in your arms.
Learn baby massage Infant massage is an intimate and relaxing way to connect with your baby. Many communities offer how-to classes.

Your partner may tend to hover and criticize as you take on these intimate tasks. Try not to take this personally:

It stems from a new mother’s hormone-driven need to protect and care for her baby. “For some women, it’s very hard to let that go,” admits Andrea Doucet, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton University, “but it’s important for Mom to move over and let Dad do his own thing.”

Blue man group

It’s not just a new-mom thing. In fact, postpartum depression (PPD) in men may be far more common than anyone realized.

A study of 5,000 families, published in 2006 in Pediatrics, revealed that one in 10 new fathers showed symptoms of PPD, compared with 14 percent of women. That finding challenges the theory that PPD is caused primarily by the hormonal changes that occur in women after they give birth. It suggests that depression may also be caused by external factors, such as sleep deprivation, financial stress and marital tension.

PPD symptoms include extreme sadness or sense of failure, lack of interest in tasks you once enjoyed, and feeling disconnected from family and friends. In men, signals may show up as irritability, anger and aggression. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of being a new father, it’s not a sign of weakness to ask a doctor or counsellor for help.

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