Impending Fatherhood Fears

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Are you anxious about becoming a father and the responsibilities the role brings? Learn more about what dads-to-be fear most and how you can allay your worries.

Titles like these show up frequently in parenting literature: “The Five Greatest Fears of Fatherhood.” “Seven New-Father Phobias.” “Ten Reasons Why Guys Are Terrified to Be Dads.” As someone who suffered from a few such fears before our first child was born, I can attest to how intense and individual they seem.

In reality, however, all five or seven or ten of them fall into the same categories of fear that plague guys in romantic relationships. It can be a great help for men to recognize this similarity, especially since these fears of imminent fatherhood suggest that men have successfully established long-term relationships with their partners. The skills needed in a marriage differ from those needed in parenting, but the attributes are essentially the same: patience, self-sacrifice, and flexibility are certainly among them.

Thus it can be a real confidence-booster for a future dad to be able to say, for example, “I don’t know exactly what awaits me as a father, but I couldn’t tell the future when I got married, and Linda and I have worked well together.” In many ways being a good dad is an extension of what it takes to be a good husband. This article outlines the similarities between guys’ partner-fears and their parent-fears, and discusses a few common methods for alleviating anxiety over becoming a father.

Fear of commitment

Having a baby not only creates an irrevocable commitment to a child, it also forges a permanent relationship between a man and woman. No matter what happens to their relationship, the couple will always be the parents of their child. Guys who worry about their own or their partner’s level of commitment to the relationship can be justifiably jittery about taking the much deeper plunge into parenthood. By the same token, a man who works hard at his marriage or partnership can have confidence in his ability to adapt to and meet the needs of a newborn.

Fear of failure/inadequacy

At the heart of virtually every man’s quest for a successful relationship with a woman is the desire to provide: to impress her with any combination of looks, intelligence, wit, wealth, and status because these things allow him to offer respect/social prestige/spending power/entertainment value. In romantic relationships, a part of guys’ concerns focus on whether they have what it takes to make a woman stay with them. Similarly, one aspect of fatherhood fears is the ability to secure a place in the child’s life through being useful. How will he figure out how to take care of the baby? Can they really afford a child if his wife stops working? Will he be a good dad?

Fear of rejection

On the surface level, it’s not uncommon for a guy to worry about—and resent—the shift in his partner’s attention from him to the baby. From the early stages of pregnancy, guys slowly begin losing their sole claim on the partner’s body, which isn’t something they happily give up. The lack of sex in pregnancy and childbirth relates to rejection because one of the most powerful ways men feel acceptance is through sex. Conversely, then, there are few stronger signals of rejection to men than “Not now, honey.” Even when guys know they can’t expect a favorable response, they’ll still feel hurt when they don’t get one. It’s a tough adjustment.

Fear of continued dietary restrictions

You might think this concern is a joke, but it’s given serious consideration in What to Expect the First Year, the epic sequel to What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In the “Of Special Concern” section near the end, there’s a chapter for men, full of advice to guys about adjusting the emotional and sexual aspects of their partnerships, balancing work hours with fatherhood, and bonding with the baby. It also covers how to handle a disappointing delivery, postpartum depression, and “exclusion from breastfeeding” (that is, being left out of the sense of closeness between mother and child). In short, the chapter provides a thorough catalogue of everything the average father-to-be could worry about.

Oddly enough, however, the first item of concern listed is “Your Diet and Your Baby.” The example scenario reads, “I gave up a lot of my favorite foods when my wife was pregnant so I could support her efforts to eat right for our baby. But enough’s enough. Now that our son’s here, shouldn’t I be able to eat what I like?”

Maybe there are some expectant fathers who have lain awake at night, fretting about when they’ll get to taste cold cuts, shrimp, and cheesecake again, but I find it hard to believe that enough guys have actually tried following a pregnancy diet to the point where this concern could even be a reality, let alone a more pressing issue than “Why does my wife cry and get so angry at me all the time?” or “How can I cut down my work travel without losing my job?”

Incidentally, I did try eating the “Best-Odds Diet” recommended in the book, but I couldn’t keep up with it. There are a total of 24—count ’em—24 recommended daily servings when you combine the serving suggestions from each food group. I doubt most people have enough time in the day to eat all that food, and I certainly don’t think many pregnant women have the stomach capacity for it.

How men can cope

But back to the relationship-based fears: what can fathers do about them? The suggestions offered in parenting literature are basically the same: talk about anxieties and concerns as a couple. Wives can help their husbands read about/chat with guys who have been new dads (online fatherhood forums are a great resource) and have them “practice” for a morning or even a whole day with a friend or family member who has a baby.

Whatever methods they use, dads must challenge their fears or face the consequences of them. Fatherhood expert Dr. William Sears suggests that if men don’t involve themselves in caring for the newborn, their wives will “pick up the slack” and develop an attachment to the baby that can leave men feeling alienated. It’s a classic example of the catch-22 of rejection fears: you don’t want to be rejected, so you don’t make the necessary effort, which of course leads to rejection.

It’s critical, then, for dads to assert themselves in the care of the baby. The good news is that being a guy doesn’t render a person any less able to do so. Armin Brott, author of The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-to-Be, states that parenting research shows fathers can be “just as responsive to their infants’ needs as mothers”—and that parenting mainly involves learned rather than innate skills.

Despite everything that anxious future dads can do to prepare, there’s only one complete cure for fatherhood fears: help your partner have the baby, then help her take care of him or her. Talking, role-playing, and rehearsing before the birth won’t conquer pre-paternal anxiety, but they’re still necessary steps to help guys normalize and understand their fears so that they don’t come true.

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