For some men, the responsibilities that come with their first child can seem daunting, but given the chance, the rewards that fatherhood brings soon outweigh the fears.
It was not so very long ago that the sight of a man pushing a pram would have aroused comment. In earlier generations, people believed that babies were women’s work, and that men should have very little to do with that side of life. Attitudes had barely progressed from Victorian times.
All this has changed, however, and fathers now push prams, carry their babies in slings, and play a much bigger part in family life.
Probably a number of factors have been involved in making us rethink our attitudes to traditional roles within the family. It seems that the long-accepted division of male and female roles does not work particularly well. The stereotypes are of men as the breadwinners and women the care-givers; men to be the disciplinarians (‘wait until your father gets home’), and women to be the real centres of family life. So women end up being the primary parents, often loaded down with the burdens of parenthood, with men in second place.
This division does not work well because parenthood is a tough job; certainly too tough to load on to one person. Mothers need help and support, and now that the old extended family has broken down, it seems only sensible for husbands to fill the gap.
Yet the increasing involvement of men in family life has come about mainly because men wanted to become more involved. They realised that by not doing so they were losing out – missing moments in their children’s lives that were unrepeatable.
Deciding to become more involved, however, is not as easy as it sounds – since society is still built on the stereotyped pattern to a large extent. In most families, the men are either the main breadwinners or expect themselves to be – owing to the way in which they were brought up.
What this means is that most fathers still have to shoulder the major part of the burden of supporting their family in the early years. This also means that they are often out of the house and away from their wives and children for most of each day, five days a week, just when they are most needed.
Male attitudes can also cause problems. Most of today’s fathers were brought up by parents whose attitudes were firmly rooted in the old stereotypes. So, deep down, only a few men feel comfortable with the idea of looking after a baby.
For many fathers, this can cause a certain amount of confusion and anxiety. A father may want to involve himself in his partner’s pregnancy, the birth and family life in general, but feels at a loss as to where to start. His partner has an advantage in that she has been brought up in a society that expects women to take the greater share of the burden of being a parent.
The news that a baby is on the way usually evokes a mixture of joy and slight anxiety. Mothers certainly feel this way, but what has often been ignored is that fathers feel the same.
Indeed, fathers can at times feel even more worried than their partners about what is going on. Mothers become the centre of attention, swept up in a whirl of visits to the doctor and the hospital, where they are given all possible advice and information on what is happening to them physically.
But men are not automatically absorbed into a supportive network and they can feel very left out of the whole process. It is rare, for example, for a father to get the time off work to go along to antenatal appointments with his partner. So, in general, he relies on her to provide information about everything to do with the pregnancy.
A difficult time
Another problem for men is coping with the effects that pregnancy has on their partners. In the early months many women suffer from nausea and fatigue; some suffer from these and a variety of other niggling physical problems throughout pregnancy.
Understandably, although quite a few women enjoy their pregnancies, many feel less than pleased about what is happening to their bodies. They also have moments of anxiety about what lies in store. What will the birth be like, and how painful will it be? Will the baby be all right? What sort of mother will they make, and will they be able to cope? It is hardly surprising, therefore, that some women are prey to changeable moods and may feel irritable from time to time. For one father, James, this resulted in confusion and guilt. ‘I could see that Shirley was going through a bad time, especially towards the end of her pregnancy,’ he said, ‘and I just didn’t know how best to help her. One minute she was on top of the world, the next she was full of gloom and doom.’
James also found that under this pressure he retreated more and more into a stereotyped role. ‘It was strange’, he said, ‘but once I knew that the baby was on the way I felt as if I really had to succeed in my job, so I even started to do loads of overtime.’
With all these anxieties, many couples actually find themselves drifting apart when they should be drawing closer together. James felt this particularly keenly. ‘I know now that in a way I was running away from my feelings, trying to submerge all the uncertainties in work. But ultimately it only made the problems worse.’
Going off sex
In this sort of situation, one of the first areas of a relationship to suffer is often sex. If the man feels that he is not supporting his partner in other areas, he is hardly likely to feel like making love. Some women may not feel much like sex either, particularly if they are suffering from nausea and fatigue. And towards the end of pregnancy, the sheer size of the ‘bump’ may make sex less easy. Many men are also reluctant to make love when their wife is pregnant for fear of harming the baby.
But the baby is well protected and sex during pregnancy is important – it is a good way of keeping a relationship strong at a time when both partners may be feeling under pressure.
Talk it over
The secret of good sex between partners is good communication. It is important to remember that both partners’ feelings are bound to be stirred up by all that is happening, and that if one person represses his or her feelings they are likely to come out later in the form of irritability, sulking or arguments. Also, both partners are in the same boat, and so are in an ideal position to give each other comfort and support.
The important thing for fathers is to be as involved and as supportive as they can, right from the beginning. ‘I did feel left out at first,’ said Chris, ‘but once I’d made the effort to find out about pregnancy and go along to antenatal classes, I began to feel much more a part of it.’
But involvement goes deeper than that. ‘I suddenly realized that I ought to be doing a lot more around the house,’ said John, ‘so I started to do some ironing, some vacuuming and, occasionally, the shopping. Partly it was a way of simply taking the burden off Julia, but it was also a way of saying that I wanted to share in everything as much as possible.’
One of the most positive ways a father can make a commitment to parenthood is by being at the birth of his child. In Britain, the majority of fathers are present these days, and most are deeply moved by the experience. And their wives often feel that they could not have done it without them.
However, the decision should not be made lightly. There are some couples for whom the presence of the father is not essential, and may even be harmful, and no man should ever be forced to attend a birth if he does not want to.
In Britain, hospitals now actively encourage fathers to be present. It is generally believed that if a woman has a companion she trusts with her during labour, she is likely to have a shorter, more problem-free birth.
First few weeks
Sharing the experience of birth can give a father a terrific start to parenthood, but it is also very important for a man to be around in the early weeks after the birth, and paternity leave will usually make this possible. It will take his partner a while to recover fully from the birth, and for the first weeks she will certainly need someone to help with the housework, cooking and shopping. She may also want a shield from all the visitors who are eager to see the baby.