I still recall the loving expression of appreciation my friend made to her sons’ father on Facebook many years ago, and how she was compelled to add a disclaimer. The disclaimer went something like this: “I know we are not supposed to give men credit for doing what most women do automatically, but I still can’t help but say that this man is exceptional.” She went on to describe the great intention he brought to their children’s upbringing; his willingness to learn and grow as a parent, contribute to household duties, facilitate their homeschool, and consider their emotional well being.
I think the reason I still remember this particular post--despite feeling the same way about my husband, and seeing similar sentiments flooding my feed every year around Father’s Day--is because it exemplifies a strange and somewhat overlooked double bind that modern fathers face. On the one hand, there is a growing number of men committed to contributing to the family in a way that invites deeper empathy and involvement than in the past. These men are often praised as exceptional, despite the fact that many would argue they are simply meeting a standard long held for mothers, which receives far less exaltation.
On the other hand, these men are doing something that continues to go against the grain in society at large. They are forging the way to change gendered expectations of parenthood, and are working hard to navigate holes in upbringing, culture, and experience, to show up for their families. In a society that teaches our sons not to cry, this is nothing short of triumph for progress.
Why not celebrate these men?
Fathers are crucial. They are at the center of family life, and their presence or absence affects the entire family ecosystem.
Why not acknowledge, more often, what a challenge it is to be a man, let alone a father, in a system that does not support parents, and does not offer men the care they need to know how to care for others? Just like mothers, fathers need far more societal celebration and support than the empty platitudes offered once a year on Mother's Day or Father's Day. Fathers, who often bear the burden of financially supporting their families, deserve to be honored for all the hard work it takes to be an exceptional modern man due to the pervasiveness of the patriarchy. Expectations of fathers have shifted dramatically in just a couple of generations, and yet support systems to guide men in this new role have not shifted alongside those expectations.
“Almost every expectant Dad I've worked with has been 100% committed to being ‘helpful and supportive.’ Yet almost every single one of them has also been largely unsure of what that looks like and what they specifically can do to be ‘helpful and supportive’ as the journey from Bump to Baby progresses.” - David Arrell, Welcome to Fatherhood: A Modern Man’s Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Fatherhood
Whereas women have carved out spaces for themselves to connect with one another through the trials of motherhood in groups for baby-centered activities, pregnancy classes, red tents, and breastfeeding support organizations, men’s spaces specifically geared towards fatherhood are far less common. The role of early motherhood and childbearing is built into the body, psyche, and spirit in a way the role of early fatherhood must be stepped into consciously and decisively. Many men did not grow up in a family where their fathers illustrated involvement in pregnancy, childbirth, and early babyhood, making it impossible for the role to “come naturally.”
Women, of course, do not always feel these “natural instincts” either. However, the expectations of care and duty are far more ingrained through cultural legacy. This is compounded by the fact that it is less normalized for fathers to frequent local motherhood-centered Facebook groups, or even confide in one another, during the pregnancy or the fatherhood journey.
Despite best intentions, women and childbearers often feel alone (or even overlooked) in the presence of their partner throughout the tender beginning stages of having a baby. In his book Welcome to Fatherhood: A Modern Man’s Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Fatherhood (also known as ‘WTF’), David Arrell explains several “Big Ideas” to aid budding fathers in better empathizing with their partner’s experience. He encourages men to bear these big ideas in mind at all times, so as not to miss out on being present, sensitive, and attuned during this crucial time.
Big Idea #1 is: Pregnancy turns your lady into an instant mama.
He writes of the truth in the saying that, “A woman becomes a mother the instant she becomes pregnant. But a man does not become a father until the baby is placed in his arms.” In order to close this gap in the timeline of initiation, men must educate themselves on the childbearer’s experience, and illustrate with their actions that they are tuned in to the magnitude of the experience.
For every other division of labor in a relationship, there is room for negotiation. In pregnancy, birth, and early child rearing, this division of labor is determined for us. Only one person’s body is creating and sustaining new life. Without being in the physicality (psychology, emotions, spiritual journeying, initiation) of that role directly, men may struggle to make sense of their partners’ experience.
From the big ideas, Arrell explains exactly what a father can do (“dad tips”) to show mama he is tuned in and paying attention to what she needs. These actions are straightforward and easily attainable, yet make all the difference in the world:
Know how many weeks pregnant she is at all times. Offer to document her progress by taking a “baby bump pic” around the same time every week.
Ask her on the daily about how she is feeling, and then ask her separately how the baby is doing as you affectionately place your hand on her belly.
Figure out mama’s love language: touch, words of affirmation, gifts, quality time, or acts of service.
Always refer to the baby as she/he/they, never ‘it.’
You can get double the dad card credits for being the one to make suggestions on *anything* related to getting ready for the baby!
Sign up for a birth class.
Dude, hire a doula!
Stop talking about “due dates” and start talking about “expected arrival.”
Put yourself in charge of the Gift Tracker Spreadsheet.
Know the top 10 baby items to put in the registry. [Molly’s note: Get my free download 10 Things You Actually Need for Your Baby]
Take a field trip with your pregnant partner to wherever you expect to give birth to the baby.
Get your “Go Bag” 100% stocked and ready.
Know the Birth Plan and related decisions--know your choices.
Figure out your “code words” for red light, green light, and yellow light and start practicing them now. These code words will be available to use in front of other people during the birth and postpartum period, to subtly let you know when an occurrence is good (green light), needs to wrap up soon (yellow light), or needs to stop immediately (red light).
Watch at least three high-def 1080p “birth videos” with your pregnant partner, including at least one c-section. [Arrell, 2020]
These “dad tips” work because they are specific and because these are all things that mothers usually attend to entirely on their own. Showing up for these tasks during the pregnancy will not only make mama feel connected to you during this time (leading to a more peaceful postpartum period as a couple), but will take a tremendous load of stress off her shoulders, and build a closer connection between you. To dive deeper into each dad tip, learn all the details of pregnancy and birth you need to know, and choose fatherhood with eyes wide open, you can check out Arrell’s website and order his book: www.welcometofatherhood.com As expectations and desires for fathers change, men must create spaces to connect with and support one another, and take steps to educate themselves on the childbearing, birthing, and postpartum experience.These efforts will not only make a huge, positive difference for family well being, marital contentment, and greater ease in the upheaval of a new baby, but will help move the larger culture towards inviting men into spaces that were once the sole domain of women. Shifting gendered labor divisions means women and birthers are no longer doing everything in the aftermath of feminist gains for equality (doing everything is not liberation, as we now know). With collective effort, we can ensure that more of our sons grow up in a home where their fathers show them what active care and co-parenting looks like, allowing them to do the same. Massive change can occur in a mere two generations, and we should celebrate everyone’s part in that change. More and more resources are becoming available to fathers, as their willingness to do the work grows. Happy Father's day to all the amazing dads out there! Keep up the good work and the good fight.... _____________________________ Additional Resources for Dads The Father’s Homebirth Handbook By Leah Hazard Welcome to Fatherhood By David Arrell Fathers To Be Handbook By Patrick M. Houser Online Courses: Courageous and Compassionate: A Postpartum Guide for Dads Life Beyond Birth 101: Group Coaching Course for Expectant Mindful Couples ________________________________________________________________________
Life Beyond Birth provides support for expectant parents, and new babies & their families, online and in-person. Find a class or contact Molly at www.lifebeyondbirth.com.