Fathering Classes: Could You Use One?
Men discover that their worries, fears, and confusions are part of the normal transition into fatherhood.
If you consider how much time we spend learning about our jobs, sports, and hobbies, it's hard to believe how little we prepare for becoming a parent. In prenatal classes my wife and I attended for our first child, now a teenager, the teacher earmarked 20 minutes to talk about the father's role. I knew I wanted to know more about my feelings and the changes I was undergoing, but I had little opportunity to find out how the other expectant dads in the group were feeling.
With nowhere else to turn for male support, I started my own group for new and expectant dads. I drew from my experience as a father, a family therapist, and a participant in a men's group. Now I teach Becoming a Father classes to dozens of men each year at two San Francisco Bay Area hospitals.
One thing I've learned -- that I try to communicate to the men in my classes -- is that fathering isn't something we all do instinctively. It takes time, patience, and perseverance.
What happens at a fatherhood class?
It's Saturday morning at a hospital in Berkeley, California, and a group of ten men is preparing for the greatest and most important adventure of their lives -- becoming fathers! From plumbers to college professors, minimum-wage earners to corporate executives, these men all share the same question: How will fatherhood affect me?
What they discover over the next three hours is that we've all grown up with very little knowledge about how fatherhood will change our lives. And that all new and expectant dads have similar fears and worries.
What do men talk about at a typical class?
Since the group doesn't include women, the men often feel able to talk openly about their feelings -- which is a great relief. We begin by talking about the birth process. The biggest concerns men have: I'm afraid something might happen to my partner. I don't know if I will be able to handle seeing her in pain. Can I really be there for her? And how can I deal with a situation I seem to have no control over?
After we talk about these common fears, we watch birth films together. I'm always surprised how little expectant dads know about how a baby is born. For many fathers-to-be these films are their first opportunity to see a birth from start to finish. It stirs up a lot of feelings, especially, "Yikes! Is that what it's like?" But in the end, we all come to the realization of just how amazing childbirth is. And it becomes real for the men that, yes, a baby does come out of there!
When the film is over I bring up the subject of birth plans. I ask the men if they've considered who will attend the birth or whether they should hire a doula for help. The choice is up to them and their partners, but I like to get them thinking about the delivery and how they'd like things to go. Many men, and women, don't realize they have a say in how their child's birth is handled. Some things to consider: How will your partner feel if she needs a cesarean section? What do you think about pain medication? Is circumcision necessary? The questions and concerns keep coming as the men recognize that they're all in this together.
When we talk about the birth process, dads discover what it means to really be there for their partner. You don't need to know every detail about what happens in labor or get a degree in obstetrics. Being present means you're there to fully share the birth experience with your partner. In concrete terms it means you talk to her, comfort her, reassure her, stay beside her throughout labor (if that's what she wants), and respond to her requests.
Childbirth is an extremely profound experience for a couple. Dads are acutely aware that it's only the beginning of a great adventure. The birth opens the door to their new life as a parent. In my fatherhood classes, the men gain perspective from discussing the road that lies ahead. Issues to consider include: How long should I take off work? What do we need to have at home to be prepared for the baby? How do I figure out how to pay the bills and still have enough time to be with my wife and baby? Is there sex after childbirth? I'm worried my wife will be totally focused on the baby and not have any time for me. Do you think we should use cloth or disposable diapers? Is it possible to breast- and bottle-feed? I want to make sure I can care for the baby, too. How long should we wait before relatives can visit? Should the baby sleep in our bed or be in a crib to start? The list goes on and on and all the answers won't come from one three-hour discussion, but the class helps men give voice to their concerns and start the process of making decisions.
Becoming a father is an ancient rite of passage. Sharing vulnerable feelings with other men going through this transition creates camaraderie. But more important, you recognize that your feelings are normal. The opportunity to talk and share in a fatherhood class creates a supportive environment that helps men begin to really feel like they're becoming dads.
What happens after the class?
My Becoming a Father class takes only three hours on a Saturday morning. But after attending, men report a sense of calm and readiness about the upcoming birth and a newfound confidence about becoming a father. What makes the difference? Knowing they're not alone. A community of men on the brink of parenthood is struggling with the same challenge.
As the class draws to a close the expectant dads recognize they've formed a community. My main objective as the group facilitator is to provide a place for men to listen, share, and learn from one another. The information they receive is helpful, but the feeling of connection they create with one another is the most vital benefit. They discover that their worries, fears, and confusions are part of the normal transition into fatherhood.
How can I find a dad's group in my area?
Check with your local hospital, childbirth educator, obstetrician, or pediatrician to see if they offer or know of any dad-only classes.
If you can't find an already established group, consider starting your own. If you're in a childbirth class with your partner, you can ask the other guys in the group if they'd like to get together one evening or Saturday morning. How will you get the discussion started? My book Finding Time for Fatherhood is an excellent guide for both expectant and new fathers. All the essays in the book are drawn from my classes, groups, and workshops. It can offer you a structure and starting point to begin your own group.
If you can't find any other expectant or new dads to meet with, consider talking with your father, brother, best friend (choose someone who is already a father -- he may give you additional help and advice), or your partner. At the very least, give yourself time to think about how fatherhood will change you. Need a jumpstart? These ten concerns are the most common I see in my group.
The Top Concerns of Expectant Fathers
1. Will our baby be healthy?
2. How much pain will my wife be in?
3. What if I don't know what to do at the birth?
4. What if my wife has complications during the delivery?
5. What will it be like to be a father; what kind of a dad will I be?
6. How will our relationship change after the baby?
7. How will having a baby affect us financially?
8. Will I be able to spend the time I need to at work and also the time I want to with our baby?
9. How will my wife be as a mother?
10. How will sex be different for us after the baby is born?
Bruce Linton is a licensed family therapist and founder of the Fathers' Forum programs for new and expectant dads and the author of Finding Time for Fatherhood. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and two teenage children.