It is my experience that the greatest driving force behind the reinvigoration and re-imagining of modern fatherhood is coming from the hearts of fathers. However, the reality for most expectant and new dads is that they will be grossly under-engaged and under-supported during the transition to fatherhood, and therefore will be under-prepared to be a dad. There are presently too many gaps in service and supports for expectant and new dads; they have not kept pace with the evolution of fatherhood, the social norms and expectations that have been shaped around the role of dads, and the needs of men and families.
Men aren’t usually great at talking to other men about the big stuff like birth and fatherhood. So when it comes to men learning from other men about birth, those conversations and exchanges rarely happen in community. Because it’s only still a relatively new phenomenon that men are now present at the birth of their child, most expectant dads of this current generation cannot ask their own dad what it was like for them. So the generational exchange of lived experience is also rare. This leaves many men with no one to turn to.
From conversations that spark during Beer + Bubs, expectant dads regularly share their experiences of attending antenatal education classes with me and the other blokes. Essentially, most men openly state that they find them frustrating, boring, irrelevant and simply not for them. They feel side-lined, under-acknowledged and overwhelmed by the amount of content that is delivered in a way that is focused on the mother and often not in male-friendly ways. Attending is often an act of obligation and commitment to their partner. Most men go with the best of intentions, open to learning. However over six weeks, they get worn down by the experience and lose their fire. Men don’t get to have time just with the blokes to talk and share. If it happens, it is usually awkward and does not go to any depth.
Equally as significant, if not more so, is that men aren’t at all prepared by antenatal classes to play a supportive role at birth. Their questions, fears, and concerns largely go unaddressed, and many men simply ‘show up’ to birth not feeling confident or ‘tooled up’ with the knowledge they need to make the birth experience a faster, easier and more positive one for the partner.
That is the gold of what I do with Beer + Bubs! It’s a rite of passage opportunity for expectant dads to prepare for birth with other men. It’s a safe space for them to ask questions, share what’s really going on (‘Whoa, how’s that hormonal roller-coaster ride going for you, mate?!’), and receive content about birth that has been skilfully developed just for them and is focused on them. Men come with the expectation that they’ll just be sitting through another birth preparation class. What they get is a deeper experience. Talking and sharing with other men becomes normalised. They lean into it. They conquer the social and cultural barriers that we have created around ‘real men’ doing this stuff. And, they get very well prepared to play their role at birth.
The discussion about the role and importance of dads is always an insightful one. Essentially, what I hear and feel from most men is that they want to be involved dads but don’t have a clear vision for what that really looks like. What often presents immediately is what they ‘don’t want to be’ and their negative father experiences are shared. Recently, when I facilitated this discussion with a group of six dads, not one had a positive father experience; they were all stories of father absence, father abuse and unhealthy masculinity. This is why fatherhood is the place to start creating healthier and happier men. Men with father wounds want to heal them in their relationships with their own children by being better dads. It is essential that men have the opportunity for men to consciously explore and reflect on their thoughts, feelings and ideas about fatherhood before they become fathers themselves.
On the role of fathers and ‘being dad’, men are now much more open to embracing their inner nurturer; they are curious to know how to add this other crucial dimension to their father-role to complement the instinctive protector-provider. They are aware that they need to in order to be the dads they want to be. Often, they are driven deeply to give their children what they themselves never had from their dad. Having the opportunity to bring this desire forward consciously is a very profound experience. The father within is awakened and their vision of fatherhood begins to take shape. They become connected to their sense of purpose and step in to the role.
Some ‘social feedback’ that I often hear from young expectant dads is how negative older dads are about fatherhood. They are told that their life is going to be over and it will never be the same. A conflict arises within. The excitement they feel about becoming dad is dampened and they can begin to second guess their position. It’s a big relief for these dads to hear from other dads who have a positive perspective on fatherhood and can share the aliveness of being a man that comes from living fatherhood vibrantly.
One of the biggest practical issues for men is finances. Men still carry the burden of the cultural and social expectation that they need to be the provider. They have a deep anxiety about not having enough or giving enough. It comes from the place of wanting to take care of their family and the fear that they won’t be able to deliver. Feminism has hugely impacted the way we parent and create work-home-family-life balance. I invite the men to re-evaluate their beliefs and to communicate with their partners about finances and roles. I highlight that they may be making a false and even dangerous assumption that their partner wants to be a full-time stay-at-home mum. So I encourage them to ask their partners, “If this is what we need and what we have to manage between us, how are we going to do this together?” Some men’s shoulders will immediately drop. Others will remain firmly seated in their role as provider and benefit from having the space to air their anxieties.
During practical dad training, many men openly confess that they lack the confidence and skills to be a hands-on father, and that it’s a fear they carry. By creating a relaxed, fun and safe space for men to learn, we allow them to build the essential confidence they need to try, practice and master nappies, baths and wearers. It’s about creating the opportunity for men to learn in their way. I speak to the opportunities to bond with baby that hands-on fatherhood provides, and focus on their contribution to their child’s healthily development, as well as to their partner in sharing the work of parenting. We have fun with it. We encourage the guys to get their own dad bag to take out and about. This is always an appreciated gem!
In the context of relationships, men are usually very curious about postnatal depression and ask a lot of questions about it. We also give the guys some great sex advice. Get into doing the housework! Women will have more energy for lovin’ and be more interested if you do. The guys who already do housework, get it. The blokes who don’t are fascinated, intrigued and excited.
Humour plays a big role in the way men communicate, bond and share. It’s essential. The serious is often wrapped in the funny, and the blokes will remember the jokes and the hidden gems they came with.
My vision is that the existing gaps for expectant and new dads in our community will be filled by more opportunities for them to be engaged and supported; it is about creating better outcomes for men, women, children, families and communities.
We still have a way to go yet…
(This article first appeared in MamaBake.)