It’s Time to Quit Telling Dads to Support Moms
“She’s going to need a lot of help, so you’ll need to be there
to support her with whatever she needs once the baby comes.”
I do a lot of clinical work with parents as well as training with “maternal and child mental health” organizations, and I usually end up telling virtually everyone who’ll listen to QUIT giving expectant/new dads the advice in quotations above without then turning to his partner and clarifying that he’ll need support, too. A big part of the issue is that men are socialized to associate getting support with weakness, and – especially during the perinatal period in which we’re all telling dads that they need to be a protector and provider – virtually nobody is directly telling dads that they’ll need to be proactive about getting support beyond just what his partner can provide. However, even though it can be a challenge, years of research support the fact that dads do indeed need diverse sources of support during the transition “from dude to dad.”
One of the most common mistakes that new parents make is to get so swept in balancing demands of a new baby that they allow their world to become so small that they basically lose contact with friends, family, colleagues, etc. In particular for those moms and dads who work outside the home, balancing demands of professional and home lives commonly results in letting everything else go because hobbies and buddies feel like a “nice to have,” whereas work and family are “have to have’s.” This issue is particularly difficult for men because we’re generally socialized to focus on the protector/provider role during the transition to fatherhood, and we also tend to rely on external contexts (think work, poker night, and fantasy football) to bring us together with buddies. No one person can meet all of a dad’s social support needs, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to lean exclusively on our partners – usually to the detriment of the relationship because it’s not a fair expectation.
Especially in cases where dad and/or mom is experiencing some perinatal mental health difficulties, it’s critically important to be proactive and creative about helping dads (and moms, of course) to get some support. A few of the techniques that I commonly use with dads and couples include:
THE STATE OF THE UNION MEETING
The brass tacks of the SOU meeting involve clarifying to each other your own honest perspectives about the current state of your union/relationship by taking 5-10 minutes MAX (seriously) to tell each other your answers to the following three questions:
- What is something that’s going well in our relationship?
- What is something I’m having difficulty with in our relationship?
- What is something that you (i.e. you’re telling your partner about what s/he has done) have done recently that helped me to feel loved/cared for/connected?
While it will be important to circle back, problem-solve, and accept each others’ influence down the line, it’s critical that you and your partner actively listen to each other and put aside “fixes” until a minimum of 6 hours AFTER the SOU meeting.
Here’s what NOT to do during the SOU:
- Bring up issues from further back than a week or so – focus on the current state of your union!
- Try to “fix” the issues discussed or to set goals to do anything differently (yet)
- Get defensive, make excuses, or invalidate each other – just listen and work to understand
- Skip telling each other about the middle point above regarding difficulties you’re having, no matter how small they might seem
FAMILY LOGISTICS MEETING
It’s very important for couples to have a sense that they’re working together as a partnership, but the general pressures and stresses of daily life can pile up and result in each member of the pair feeling like s/he isn’t getting the support they need. The weekly family logistics meeting (FLM) gives the couple a structured way to feel like a team while also keeping an eye toward making sure that they both address critical aspects of self-care.
The three key components of the FLM are:
- A shared calendar
- A day-by-day review of the events in the coming seven days
- Adding in self-care activities (yes guys, this means you too)
In particular, point 3 above involves both mom and dad adding in concrete times in the coming week in which they spell out specifically when their “me time,” “us time,” and “buddy time” will take place. This is very much a “have to have” for both mom and dad, and goes a long way toward helping you both to feel more connected to each other and to the people that matter most in your life. And in case you’re wondering, no, in fact neither one of you is the exception to this rule – years of research support the need to have diverse sources of social support during times of transition.
And importantly – I put the dads in charge of convening the SOU and logistics meetings!
PSI’S MONTHLY DADS CHAT
For the past few years, I’ve facilitated a monthly “dads only” free telephone meeting from 5-6pm PST as part of Postpartum Support International’s “Chat With An Expert” series. It’s a great – and completely anonymous – way for new/expectant dads to get useful information, connect with other men who can connect to what they’re dealing with, and generally get support. You can get more information about how to access the meeting here: http://www.postpartum.net/chat-with-an-expert/
At the end of the day, guys are really good at coming up with justifications for why they shouldn’t reach out and communicate with others when they’re having a tough time. Don’t be part of the problem – work to get dads to stay connected with the people who can and should be there for them.
Dr. Singley is a San Diego-based board certified psychologist and Director of The Center for Men’s Excellence. His research and practice focus on men’s mental health with a particular emphasis on reproductive psychology and the transition to fatherhood. He is Past President of the American Psychological Association’s Section on Positive Psychology and currently serves on the Board of the APA’s Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity as well as Postpartum Support International. He conducts trainings and presentations around the country to assist individuals and organizations to enhance their level of father inclusiveness and founded the grant-funded Basic Training for New Dads, Inc nonprofit in order to give new fathers the tools they need to be highly engaged with their infants as well as their partners. In his free time, Dr. Singley likes to cook, surf, read, and take his two sons on hikes to get muddy and throw rocks at things. Follow him @MenExcel and www.facebook.com/MenExcel/