Myths of Fatherhood
July 15, 2004
If you're like most new or expectant dads, you probably have a few assumptions about what it means to be a father. Those ideas are rooted in your experiences with your own father and in what you believe society expects of fathers. Unfortunately, few resources exist to help men address these issues or put common myths to the test. Yet the more you examine and understand your unspoken expectations of fatherhood, the better chance you have of becoming the parent you want to be.
Perhaps the biggest myth of all is that there's only one definition of a "good father." There isn't. You'll craft your own idea of what it means to be a father in a way that meets your needs and the needs of your family -- and you'll do it over time. Here are five other commonly held myths:
Myth 1: Only the expectant mother's feelings are important
Your partner's amazing body changes during pregnancy, and the focus on the birth process make it easy to think that her feelings are the only ones that count. Your concern for her physical and mental health is important now and during the postpartum period, but so are your own feelings.
It's easy for an expectant dad to talk excitedly about the positives of becoming a father. It's much tougher to give voice to the equally important -- and inevitable -- feelings of fear and apprehension. Will I faint at the birth? Will there be medical complications? How will our relationship change? Can I pursue my career and be the father I want to be?
Your partner needs to hear your feelings, and you need to give voice to them. Many men keep their fears about pregnancy and fatherhood to themselves because they don't want to add to their partner's worries. Don't be afraid of burdening her. Most women crave this kind of interaction, and they know that becoming a father brings challenges. Sharing your fears with your wife or partner will bring you closer.
You can also seek out other expectant fathers, read a good book about becoming a father, and attend a fathering class or group for support. Give yourself permission to express both your feelings of vulnerability and excitement. By voicing your concerns during pregnancy and early parenting, you challenge the myth that only your partner's feelings are important and lay the foundation for becoming an actively involved dad.
Myth 2: Newborns don't really need their fathers
The intense connection between your partner and infant -- especially if they're breastfeeding -- can leave you wondering whether your baby really needs you. Rest assured he does. You're an important person in his life, and being with you is comforting and soothing to him. To bond with your baby, hold, rock, and coo at him, but wait until after he eats so you'll have his full attention. Taking over after a meal also gives your partner a chance to recoup her energy after breastfeeding.
You can help feed your baby if your partner expresses milk into a bottle or if you decide to supplement or replace breastfeeding with formula feeding. And you can help your baby indirectly by helping your partner around the house. Lightening her workload is nurturing for her and allows her more relaxed time with the baby. Remember, you make a difference to the whole family.
Myth 3: Men don't know how to care for young children
This is a great lie that keeps fathers from having a close relationship with their babies and causes unnecessary anxiety for new mothers who fear that men aren't capable of handling newborns. Even Dr. Spock, the late pediatrician and best-selling author, cautioned in his first book that men are subject to "clumsiness" around babies. He changed his opinion in subsequent editions, and you should, too. We know now that a father can be a child's primary caregiver. Parenting is learned on the job by everyone, moms and dads. If you spend time with your baby, you'll become sensitive to his needs. To make certain that happens, send your partner out of the room sometimes or choose a childcare task that's yours alone. Let her know you're capable of handling things.
Myth 4: Men who focus on their children can't make it in the work world
Men are raised to value work as their main source of worth and self-esteem. Society's underlying message is that men who make sacrifices and choose family over career advancement do it because they can't succeed at work. But we're at the beginning of a huge shift in cultural norms. More men are finding parenthood meaningful, and that's raising the status of fathers. Some men are trading career advancement for time with their family because they value the fulfillment they find in fatherhood, not because they can't hack it in the job market. More men than ever feel that being a good father is a significant accomplishment in life and are choosing to make it a priority because they want to.
Myth 5: You're destined to be just like your own father
Your father will take on new significance when you become a dad. It's natural to reflect on your history and think that, for better or worse, you'll follow in your father's footsteps. But your own father needn't be your primary role model for parenting. He's just one influence on what kind of dad you'll become. Look to others who have nurtured you over the years, including teachers, coaches, friends, uncles, brothers, and so on, and create your own identity as a father.
In my research throughout the world, I've found no evidence of one consistent model for fatherhood. Different cultures approach fatherhood in a variety of ways. In fact, in some African cultures, "father" is a group of men, not an individual. In each culture, fatherhood means something different. For our fathers, being a good father meant providing the family with a home, food, and education. Our own dads probably didn't spend as much time with us as we would like to spend with our own children. But they did what they thought was best for us, given societal and family demands at the time.
You, too, must make choices that are best for your family. Try to see fatherhood as a role you grow into as you explore the possibilities. You can take the positives from your own family history and add to them in ways that never occurred to your own father.
How to challenge the five myths of fatherhood
1. Take time to reflect on how becoming (or being) a father is affecting you. Share your feelings with your partner and other new and expectant fathers.
2. Hold, rock, and talk to your newborn right from the birth.
3. Learn how to change diapers, give baths, feed your baby, and be part of his daily life.
4. Consider what career compromises you are willing to make to spend time with your child. This is an experiment that takes place over time.
5. Take what you like best about your father, teachers, coaches, friends, and relatives to create your own identity as a dad. Anyone who has nurtured you can be a good role model.
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.