Written by: Emily McRae, Health Psychologist, PGDipHealthPsych, MSc
Becoming a parent for the first time is life changing. Although we may have an idea of what it ‘might’ be like, it is not until our baby (or babies) come into the world, and we are well and truly in the trenches, that we truly understand the gravity of this new life role. Some may find their feet relatively quickly, and others may struggle to find their rhythm.
Often as a new dad, it can be particularly challenging to find any such rhythm – and to truly find your footing as a parent. As a first-time father, you may struggle to see exactly how you fit in, and what your new “parenting role” may look like and how you carry it out. You may even struggle to feel that instant ‘connection’ with the baby that seems to come more naturally for your partner. This is particularly true when the primary duties of feeding are left to the mother, and it is not entirely clear or even feels ‘natural’ about the role you play. As a result, you are left feeling uncertain and confused about this new life role.
As a first-time father, you will also experience a lot of different worries or anxieties – particularly in the early days. Worries can be about anything, and everything. For example, you may feel worried about even knowing how to look after your baby. From knowing how to ‘soothe’ them, stop them crying or even how to hold the baby properly. Perhaps it is finances that have you feeling on edge, and the concern about financially providing for an expanded family. Worries might be about your role as a father and what this means – is it time to change your life? Do you feel you are ready? Has the enormity suddenly caught up and do you suddenly question if you are ready to get rid of “your old life”? Or it might even be a deep concern about whether you will be a good father. There might even be worries about the chaos of having a baby – whether washing and baby paraphernalia will always take over your home or whether you will ever sleep again. Finally, there might also be concerns about your relationship, and feeling disconnected from your partner and whether you will ever get back to ‘normal’.
What can often end up happening for dads, is that there is this sense that you cannot complain or speak about the internal struggles you are experiencing. Not only is it particularly hard, and uncommon, for men to speak openly about mental health issues, compared to your partner you may feel you do not have a ‘right’ to speak out. As you have watched your partner go through significant physical changes, a nine-month pregnancy, childbirth, learning to feed, and chronic sleeplessness, it may feel that you have no place to talk or perhaps that you need to “man up” and get over yourself. In turn, you may give yourself a hard time for feeling this way, causing you to retreat a bit, feel even worse about things, and in the process making your role as a parent even harder.
It follows that the most important message for fathers is – whatever worries you are experiencing – it is okay. It is important to understand that parenting concerns and fears are to be expected. They are completely normal. It is okay to take time to find your feet. It is okay to feel worried and uncertain about how to be a parent. If you do not take anything else from this article, please take home this message – it is normal to struggle, it is part of being human.
In addition to normalising these experiences, it is also important to acknowledge that parenting is not about doing things perfectly. All parents must learn on the job, we need to learn what works for us. Not what works for others, but what is best for us, our family, and our babies. To work this out takes time, practice, and a whole lot of patience.
When we take the pressure off doing things perfectly this also opens us up for being comfortable to ask for help. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, you will not “look bad” for not instantly knowing the best way to settle a baby (in fact, is there even a ‘best way’?). Think of it like starting a new job – you need guidance as you learn the ropes. When we throw away the idea of perfection, we realise the most important thing is just doing our best. To do this, always keep communication open and be willing to be vulnerable enough to ask for help.
Part of learning on the job is recognising that feeding your baby isn’t all there is to parenting. Although the experience in those early days may suggest a different narrative – where feeding seems to be the only thing your baby does – there is a lot more to parenting. A common misconception from many fathers is that they are ‘not needed’ if their partner is managing breastfeeding. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Your role is still just as important for winding, settling, nappy changes (yes, nappy changes!) and of course just cuddling and bonding with your baby. Parenting is not just feeding!
Often, parenting is simply collaborative teamwork. Sometimes, this might mean that the best thing you can do as a father is to keep the household running. Although these might not feel like the most fun ‘jobs’, or the traditional role of a ‘father’, it is about recognising that getting these basics done is often the best thing you can do to serve your family, and keep the house running smoothly. For more practical worries, such as finances, it might be that creating budgets or other household lists, will help you to manage any financial or other worries that you may have. When we can work through things systematically like this, it can make us feel a lot more secure and confident about our situation.
Finally, parenting is almost always about being adaptive and flexible. We know in psychology that the ability to be flexible, as compared to rigid, is an important psychological trait that often serves us well in navigating the ups and downs of life. When you are able to be flexible and recognise that things don’t always go ‘to plan’, this will serve you well. If you are able to flexibly adapt to the varying demands of home life, this too will serve you well. When we open up and realise that being a ‘good’ father means different things at different times, and often is more about responding to immediate needs, this too will serve you well. Being adaptive will also help you recognise that while life may look different for now, it will not always be this tough. Sure, the washing will always be there, sure your children now take centre stage, sure your life looks different to the “old” ways of doing things, but this does not mean you will not get your freedom back (one day). You will be able to go out and have fun again! Your relationship may look different for now, but you will reconnect. You just need to keep working at it.
Although the old adage of ‘time’ can ring true; that is, over time you will settle more into this life role, there are also some simple changes you can do to make the experience a little easier and help you navigate fatherhood. Just keep the conversation going, describe your insecurities, talk about how you’re struggling, open up and accept that things will be different. And life just might start feeling a bit easier.
About the Author
Emily is a Health Psychologist (NZ Registered) with a decade of experience in psychology. Emily runs a health and wellness website - thewellhub.co - where she provides online support to enhance psychological wellness. Emily also assesses and supports patients prior to surgery at a private hospital in New Zealand. Emily is a mother to three young children - Archie (5) and twins - Eli & Sienna (3) and lives in Auckland, New Zealand.