Posted by Kathleen J. Savage Mills, PhD, LICSW
There's a belief in our society that men are unable or unwilling to talk about their feelings. Last fall, I had the opportunity to sit with a group of men in a discussion group for fathers of babies who had been born prematurely. As we gathered together, I felt this cultural myth begin to impact my thinking: Would we be able to fill the time set aside for the discussion? If so, how much of their true feelings would they really be willing to share?
Over the course of the next 90 minutes, these 12 men shared their experiences of becoming fathers of premature babies, what it was like to have a partner go through a frightening birth, and how the experience shaped them as a man and their first days of being a father.
Feelings of helplessness were recalled. One father said he received a phone call from his partner's doctor's office, a daunting voice on the other line telling him, "You need to come to the hospital immediately." Others nodded in agreement. Together, they remembered standing in hospital hallways, waiting to be with their partners and not knowing what to do. They talked about seeing their babies for the first time and feeling afraid to touch them. They all wanted to make things better for their partners and babies but felt completely powerless to do so. Several dads felt unseen. After the premature birth of their children, the focus was almost without exception on the babies and their mothers. Fathers became the point people to keep family and friends informed about the well-being of the moms and babies. Their own well-being was not part of the discussion. Those few who were asked how they were feeling delivered a quick, "Oh, I'm fine," not wanting to divert attention from their partners and children. They spoke of taking on the role of the strong one – "the rock" – and that they did not feel deserving of saying how they were really doing.
Going back to work presented conflicts, including how to save their leave time for when the baby came home from the NICU. One man talked about having to completely separate himself from the emotional strain of leaving his baby in the hospital and returning to work as though nothing was different. A rich discussion emerged about the challenges and pressure of having to perform job duties when their focus was on the health and wellbeing of their partners and children.
The group cried together, supported each other, and validated one another's experiences. And yes – they talked about their feelings. They expressed gratitude that the Center for Early Relationship Support® offered this group that focused on the father's experience: it recognized, in some cases for the first time, that a father is a key player in a family's premature birth experience.
What kinds of assumptions do we make about men? And what type of impact do those assumptions have on their experience of becoming new fathers? What would happen if we asked fathers about their feelings? How would their experience be different? How could we create an environment where fathers' feelings are valued and validated? How can we recognize and make space for their fears and vulnerabilities as well as their strengths and capabilities?
On this Father's Day, the Center for Early Relationship Support and JF&CS acknowledge the full range of new fathers' experiences. We encourage all of you to ask new fathers, "What has this experience been like for you?" And if you receive the knee-jerk response of "Oh, I'm fine!" then ask again.
Kathy Mills, PhD, LICSW is the Associate Director of Programs at the JF&CS Center for Early Relationship Support®, a center of excellence for direct services, training, supervision, and consultation that focuses on the earliest infant-parent relationship. Her clinical and teaching background has focused on children and trauma, in particular children exposed to domestic violence. A proud mother of twins, Kathy is passionate about empowerment and establishing safety within families. Kathy earned her PhD from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and her MSW from Simmons College School of Social Work.