Empathy for a Fatherby By Drs. Rick and Jan Hanson
There are gains and losses for both fathers and mothers when their child arrives and the transition can be a challenge. Here are some ways to make the process flow a bit more smoothly.
A normal process
Her baby is hugely important to most mothers. She has waited and suffered to bring her child into the world. Feeding, putting to sleep, play, even diaper changing, all lead the mother to place great attention and energy in her child. Mothering a young child is exhausting and there is simply less to give others.
Additionally, there is a normal process of self-centeredness in which the mother's focus narrows to the child and mothering. Mother and child can merge to some extent and become a psychological unit. The rest of the world can feel like "other" in which people and events largely fall into three categories: they help, or they get in the way, or they are irrelevant.
A father usually feels a withdrawal of his wife's attention and energy after children. This loss is especially painful because during the long pregnancy his wife typically became even more important to him, bearing his hopes for the future much as she bore his child. He sees the discomfort and changes endured by his wife and feels deeply appreciative. The creation of a new life opens his heart and makes him vulnerable. Perhaps he feels (naively) that things will settle down after the birth so that he and his wife can return to their way of being together.
When his wife pulls away from him through involvement with his child, a father can feel hurt and angry. At a time he wants closeness, an important person has withdrawn. Who now will let him know he is special? Who will tell him that he matters in and of himself beyond his mere function of providing for mother and child?
We all have normal needs for attention and love. Mothers usually have those needs met by the cooing and attachment of their child, while fathers can be left out in the cold. These losses are typically aggravated by the natural drop in sexual desire experienced by his wife for many months before and after the birth.
Further, as the husband watches his wife baring her breast to feed the baby, as he smells the odors of infancy, as he lives again in the intimate setting of childhood, long-forgotten feelings toward his own mother may be re-awakened. Unconsciously, he may want the closeness with his wife that his son enjoys, but there is room for only one in that particular relationship: the child.
He loves his child incredibly, but as a moment to moment matter the child probably does not have the same centrality in his life that he or she has for his wife. The child is not flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. His relationship to his wife is still a top priority in and of itself, not merely as a means to the end of caring for children. He (usually) didn't marry a mother; where did his wife go?
His child is indeed a rival for the attention, care, and touch of his wife. He can try to separate mother and baby, or withdraw to find other satisfactions in work or perhaps different relationships. Often he will go back and forth between these alternatives while feeling hurt, angry, and guilty. He may assert his needs openly, or resent his wife (and child) quietly, or repress the whole matter (though with 'leakage' from his unconscious).
The wife usually becomes aware of her husband's feelings in one way or another, which adds fuel to her normal fears that someone will try to separate her from her baby. As a result, she may tend to move even closer to the child and further from her husband.
So what's a father to do?
Take care of yourself
The community of men
Pay attention to your heart
Operationalize your wants
Enjoy the ride
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Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org; unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be possible.