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Dr. Jerrold Lee Shapiro on Being a New Dad
Jerrold Lee Shapiro, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in San Jose, CA. He’s the author of Becoming a Father, The Measure of a Man and When Men Are Pregnant. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children, Tasha and Gabriel. Here, Shapiro explains the fears that new dads typically experience.
Let’s focus on the 30-day period after the birth. What are the fears that new dads have at this time?
The fears fall into four categories: performance, security, relationship and existential.
There are two aspects of performance that men will go through. How will they perform during the delivery? A lot of men fear they may pass out, they may have trouble and, of course, our culture really plays that up big. In actuality, really no men pass out. The fear is “Am I going to be able to help my partner? Am I going to be able to help my wife through this ordeal?” The second performance fear is the “protect and provide” directive—the prime directive for fathers. Fathers feel that it is their job to provide both financial and emotional support and they wonder what would happen if they aren’t able to do this.
The biggest security fear men have is about the health and safety of the spouse and infant. That’s the protection part. Men constantly worry that something will happen to the baby or to his spouse upon delivering the baby. There are other fears about security. “Am I good enough to have actually done this and created life?” That’s something a lot of men start having questions about.
The relationship fear, the biggest one, is the fear of being replaced. All of a sudden my wife is focused entirely on this baby and I am like a fifth wheel—and you worry about that.
The existential fears arise because when you are at the beginning of life, there’s no way to avoid acknowledging death. Some men start thinking, usually for the first time in their own lives, about their own limitations and mortality.
When new dads are having these fears and emotions, how can they overcome them or stop them before they even arise?
You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to overcome them, what you want to do is be able to share them with your partner. She is having similar types of fears. They may not be the exact same ones, but they are similar. Having a baby is a life-changing event, and so if he can share his concerns and she can share her concerns, the relationship’s likely to get much deeper. So you don’t want to avoid them.
Who should the new dad be during this time? What is his role and what should he do?
Depends on the family. In some families, he is going to be just as involved in the care of the child as the mother. If they are both working outside the home and she has to go back to work quickly, they will both be doing it. In other families, he’s going to be an assistant or a helper to her. Maybe when she is exhausted. All dads should spend time alone with the baby. That does two things. It starts building the bond between the infant and the father, which is very important. It also starts a whole process of the father relating to the child in a different way.
Are there different phases that new fathers would go through in this time period?
It depends on the father. For some men, it’s the reality of being a dad increases over that time—their lives are not the same. For others, it’s a very natural type of experience. It just kind of evolves that way. It may be in the first 30 days, if the mother has arranged for a lot of help, mostly the dad is trying to keep things in as normal a plane as possible. If the mom is there, his mom is there and her mom is there to do the cooking and cleaning, his job may be just to get some normalcy and get some time with the baby and spend time with his wife.
What sort of mistakes do you see new dads making during the first 30 days?
One of the biggest mistakes is how the financial concerns get overwhelming and dads start working more hours or at another job. They then lose time connecting with the baby because they are so into “the protect and provide” mode. Other concerns are thinking that the baby belongs only to the mom. The biggest thing men should do is form their own relationship with their children—the earlier the better—and enjoy doing it.
Looking beyond the first 30 days, what’s important for a new father to do to keep up his relationship with his child?
Every bit of research that we have says that the more time men spend with their children, the better it is for the dad and for the child. It’s about just being in the same room with them.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
I believe in an inevitable—the fear of the unknown and the stagnation of the status quo. I believe if I’m pushing toward the fear that I am doing the right thing.
The best thing about change is…
… it allows one to focus anew on the fears and the unknown and to pursue new horizons.
What is the best change you have ever made?
This is very apropos—becoming a parent. Becoming a dad was by far the best change, which also involved getting married to my wife.
For more information on Dr. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, visit www.scu.edu.