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Dr. Jerrold Shapiro, Ph.D. Headshot

Your First Father's Day

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Rob is due to be a dad in about a month. J.T.'s first child should arrive in time for Thanksgiving. Carlos will be celebrating his first Father's day with his 2-month-old son. For them and their partners, this Father's Day will have special meaning.

Becoming a father may be the most transformational event in a man's life. It's a wonderful life-changing adventure and like all exciting new endeavors, there is usually some predictable anxiety.

A father and a grandfather, I also have studied the psychological aspects of fatherhood, focused mainly on expectant dads. I surveyed them three decades ago and again in recent years. I've written two books to help fathers adjust and cope with this new phase. Complete results from these studies including the 2010 and 2014 surveys are available in my recent book When She's Pregnant: The Essential Guide for Expectant Fathers.

What a difference between when I first became a dad and today. Birth centers and hospitals have become more humane and family-oriented and there are more accommodations to involve fathers in the pregnancy and birth -- 85 percent of dads now expect to be at the birth of their children. Men today also are more active in baby and child care. Couples are marrying later in life and having fewer children.

And yet, the personal, psychological experience of expectant fathers has not changed much in the past three decades. What is normal for expectant fathers? What concerns can you expect?

Be advised dads-to-be -- you will be encouraged, even cajoled, to be more active in the pregnancy. You will be told, "please be involved, you are needed, your pregnant, vulnerable partner needs your support." But you will likely also get another, mostly unspoken message -- your concerns are less welcome than your participation.

Interestingly, it's not the pregnant partner saying you should keep your anxieties to yourself -- it's coming from friends and relatives, who perhaps have a deeply rooted cultural bias that the woman endures all the angst during a pregnancy.

Despite this paradoxical message, you really should try to talk with your partner about your concerns.

What are expectant fathers' typical concerns?

Among first-time fathers, more than 80 percent described being concerned about queasiness, nausea, or during the birth. Many use the euphemism "losing it" to describe digestive contents. Because this rarely actually happens, this number dropped to under 20 percent of second time fathers. Nearly all of future fathers interviewed expressed a concern about providing security and income for their new family. More than 9 out of 10 expectant dads expressed anxieties -- sometimes nightmares -- about health and safety. They worried about the possible injury or death of the mother and infant.

Nearly 100 percent expressed concerns about finances, security and being the family provider and protector. As many men opined, "at least for a while we are going from two incomes for two people to one income for three." This is particularly salient, because in approximately 40 percent of households, the woman has a higher salary.

Half agonized about being replaced by the baby for mom's affection, and a similar percentage wondered whether the newborn would result in a crimp in their sex lives. Spoiler alert -- the norm is three to six months. Sixty percent began thinking about personal mortality. It's a stark realization that when one is present at the beginning of life, there is no way to avoid understanding that the end is built in.

Many men also expressed a discomfort around the OB/GYN branch of medicine, the examining rooms and the mystery of the female reproductive organs. In reality, even though men are no longer automatically excluded from pre-natal exams, it remains an alien environment; a no man's land.

One of the most surprising findings that was expressed in the original 1985 study and repeated in 2014 was the fleeting thought that they may not be the biological father. Curiously, very few thought that their partner had been unfaithful. Although that seems a logical disconnect, one dad explained it, "it's too monumental, too godlike, being part of the creation of life. Someone bigger than me must have done it."

Faced with all these anxieties, and surreptitiously discouraged from voicing them, I offer the following advice to this year's crop of dads-in-waiting:

1) Confide in your pregnant partner. Although many men worried about upsetting their partners with their worries, when they did confide in their spouses, they discovered that their connection strengthened. For example, when Rob told his wife that he was worried about her and the baby's safety, she responded that she was glad that he shared her own concerns.

2) Talk to recent dads. They will be able to normalize the concerns and provide advice about their own coping strategies. "It was so cold and exciting in there, I never thought about getting sick!"

3) Go to couple-oriented childbirth education classes or if they are available a daddy program. These often include both expectant and recent dads, who frequently bring along their infants. As Carlos retorted, "if my friend Paul could do it, I figured I could."

4) Try to relate to the baby in your partner's womb. Many men report talking to or singing to the fetus. There is some evidence that infants orient to voices heard in utero.

5) Avoid the books that poke fun at fathers, often depicting a woman in labor pushing the wheelchair containing her undone husband into the hospital. Instead, seek out resources in books or online that are truly geared to expectant dads. Learn about what to expect during each trimester, during labor and delivery. Vicarious practice can alleviate many concerns.

6) Remember this -- the love that you will discover for your new infant may well overwhelm most of your concerns.

On June 15th, I want to say to Rob, Carlos, J.T and all of you celebrating your first Father's Day, welcome to the greatest adventure in life!

Jerrold Lee Shapiro, Ph.D., a Professor at Santa Clara University and licensed clinical psychologist, is the author of the new book, When She's Pregnant: The Essential Guide for Expectant Fathers (XLibris).