Dr. Dad


Becoming a Father and Learning About Friendship

I cannot remember, in my childhood or adolescence, ever thinking about being a father. I didn't think about it, in fact, until my late twenties, when my partner of three years, Rita, asked if we should have a baby. She says that was the only time she ever brought up a subject I did not want to talk about. No other subject we have ever discussed (moving, changing jobs, buying a house) made me feel so ambivalent.

I was twenty-nine years old, Rita was twenty-five, and it seemed to be an appropriate time to begin a family. We had both grown up in families of four children. I had recently become licensed as a marriage and family therapist in California. Rita was a registered nurse at our local hospital, and at that time she was working in the nursery. What more could I ask for: A wife who was a nursery nurse!

Although I didn't know it at the time, this was the beginning of my journey to the understanding that by becoming a father I would learn about being a man. I was so confused inside. I found myself faced with what I knew to be one of the most important decisions in my life, and in terrible conflict. How I had been taught to be a man - decisive and in control - went against everything I was feeling inside. How I was taught to be as a man and what I was feeling inside seemed completely opposite. The uncertain and ambivalent feelings that I was taught to suppress and resist in order to be a man were just too strong to be denied. Looking back twelve years, I can now understand that, even before our child had been conceived, something was changing within me.

Typically, I began to explore my decision to become a father by making lists. How would our lives be changed by a child? My lists of positives and negatives grew daily. Finally I became aware that this decision would have to be made with insufficient information. I would have to take a leap of faith. I would need to trust something, as yet unknown, inside myself. I would need to trust that I could live with fear of the unknown. Fear of not really knowing how our child would change me, my wife, or our marriage. Fear of the emotional and financial responsibilities. Fear that we would not have a healthy baby. Fear of a life that was out of my control. I can now reflect back to this time and appreciate how I was coming to know myself as a man - how control and certainty, traits I had long identified with the "masculine," were merely a facade, a defense against the feelings I was having. I now know those sleepless nights of anxiety about fatherhood were the beginning of learning how to understand my own fear and self-doubts.

Rita and I took the decision to have a baby very seriously. We went away on weekends and questioned and fantasized about what life with a child would be like. What would it be like to be a family? We eventually both came to an important realization. We had hoped to do some travelling as part of our relationship, perhaps extended trips to Europe, China or Nepal. Through our discussions, we came to realize that by having a baby we would not be able to indulge ourselves in travelling the way we had planned. We came to understand that by having a baby we would be doing another type of travelling, an inner journey. We would make discoveries about who we were as parents. At this point, having a child began to feel like an adventure. The hope of pregnancy was transformed into a gift: the miracle of being able to have a baby.

On April 13, 1981, our son Morgan was born. As I held him in my arms in the days that followed his birth, I would often cry. How vulnerable and fragile he seemed. How this little baby would need me! I felt overwhelmed. Was I ready to care for and love this baby? Was I prepared for this most precious of trusts, to nurture a child? How strongly attached to him I felt. Howlost I felt about what I was to do as a father.

I was up with him one night when he was about a week old - it was probably about 2:00a.m. - and I had turned the radio on. As the announcer read the news, I recall being profoundly concerned about the state of affairs in the world. The world needed to be a safe, welcoming place for my son. War, poverty, crime - these problems needed to be solved . . . immediately! My son, one week old, was already bringing me into contact with the world in a new way. New feelings of concern and compassion were being born within me. Since his birth eleven years ago, my interest in the environment, schools, the economy and public safety has grown vitally alive within me. It was as if my personal sense of isolation was coming to an end and a newfeeling for community began to develop.

I was proud and excited to become a dad, but I also felt overwhelmed and bewildered about my life. My wife and I talked about our experiences together, but something was missing for me. I began to realize that she had many women friends with whom she could talk about what it was like to be a mother. I discovered that I had no men friends with whom I could talk and share my feelings about being a father.

I had the realization that what I needed was to talk with other fathers. I needed to hear from other dads how they were coping with all the changes in their lives and relationships.

This has been one of the most important insight for me as a father: I need to be with other fathers. This insight led me to help form a group for new fathers. The impact of this small group of men took me out of my isolation and also helped me have a forum for the feelings I was either trying or longing to express to my wife. Here in this group of men I had a home for all my confusion and bewilderment about myself as a new father. Here was a place for me to come and understand myself as a father - and as a man.

© 2008 Dr. Bruce Linton

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The kind of man who thinks that heping with the dishes is beneath him will also think that helping with the baby is beneath him, and then he certainly is not going to be a very successful father. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Dr. Bruce Linton is the founder and director of the Fathers' Forum in Berkeley, CA. In his weekly columns he share his expereinces and insights gained from his work with fathers in his groups, classes and clinical work. He explores how parenting and fatherhood effects us as men. Bruce is a Marriage and Family Therapists and recieved his doctorate for his research into men's development as fathers. He is the father of two children. Dr. Linton is the author of Finding Time for Fatherhood: Men's concerns as parents. Visit Fathers' Forum

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