Adjusting to Becoming a Dad: From Bonding with Baby to Changes in Relationships - Happy as a Mother

Adjusting to Becoming a Dad: From Bonding with Baby to Changes in Relationships


with Travis Goodman, Marriage and Family Therapist



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • The One-Dimensional View of Strength and How It Affects Dads
  • Difficult Adjustments that Becoming a Dad Brings
  • The Importance of Communication Between Partners
  • Ways Dads Can Bond With Babies
  • Signs of Paternal Postpartum Depression
  • What to Do If You’re Struggling With Becoming a Dad

Moms aren’t the only ones with a big adjustment when a baby comes. Becoming a dad brings its own adjustments, changes, and difficulties. 

Today, I’m joined by marriage and family therapist Travis Goodman, founder of Therapy 4 Dads, to discuss the transition into becoming a dad, ways dads can bond with babies, and signs of paternal postpartum depression.

Postpartum Depression and Watching My Husband Become a Dad

I was optimistic that when my husband and I became parents, we would both handle the transition well. We were open-minded, communicated well, and knew the value of mental health (I was a therapist, after all!)

But the transition was harder than either of us could have imagined—for both of us. As time went on, my (undiagnosed) postpartum depression grew more and more intense, until I finally had a breakdown when our third son was almost two months old. 

Before I got diagnosed, my symptoms were at an all-time high. I was exhausted all the time. I couldn’t bring myself to do more than just survive. And I withdrew, scrolling on my phone to keep myself from completely losing it. 

My husband had to step in and shoulder a lot of responsibility, keeping the household running when I could barely function. 

Eventually, I got help and together, we were able to form our own path in parenthood. But that experience opened my eyes to the difficulties dads face in the postpartum period and beyond. It’s no wonder that when moms suffer from postpartum depression, the chances of their partners developing it increase by 50%!

I was thrilled to get to talk with Travis from his perspective as a dad therapist about the difficult transition into becoming a father. 

The One-Dimensional View of Strength and How It Affects Dads

Moms go through big identity shifts when a baby is born, but so do dads. Men are often socialized into male-coded behaviours, told to have a stiff upper lip and not show any emotion. 

So when they experience a major emotional change, it can be hard to find their footing. They want to support their partners, they want to bond with their babies, and they want to adjust to becoming dads—but sometimes they don’t know how. This can leave dads feeling isolated and lost. 

Part of this difficulty comes from our society’s one-dimensional view of strength. We tell boys from a young age to not cry, to not experience big feelings, and to “be strong” by being stoic. 

Travis pointed out that a healthy expression of strength is not one-dimensional. There are situations where strength can and should look like “being brave” and setting emotions aside. For example, first responders need to leave their emotions at the door so they can get their jobs done and provide rescue services. 

But bravery and strength can also look like being vulnerable, being open, and letting your guard down. It can be hard for men to move fluidly between these different expressions of strength. 

Looking at strength as a balance and a spectrum can help. It takes courage to open up to your partner, to communicate, and to build intimacy, just as it takes courage to run into a burning building. 

Our narrow view of strength and masculinity pigeonholes dads. It tells men early on that emotion means weakness. They have been told their whole lives that emotions aren’t safe. This can leave men feeling terrified to embrace their emotions, communicate with their partners, or go to therapy. They’ve been shutting down that part of their brains for so long—it’s very difficult to break away from that. 

Travis also pointed out that men’s brains have often adapted, impacting their nervous systems. For some men, experiencing emotions is a cue of a threat, sending them into fight-or-flight mode and leading them to either lash out in anger or shut down completely. 

The good news is that these are skills that can be learned. We can learn to calm our nervous systems, allow emotions in, and foster positive communication and intimacy. 

Difficult Adjustments that Becoming a Dad Brings

This conversation about strength becomes so important in the adjustment of the postpartum period. This time brings up so many big feelings, emotions, and changes. While moms are at higher risk for postpartum depression, 1 in 10 dads also experience it. 

Dads in the postpartum period face their own significant hardships and adjustment in their identity. 

One of the biggest adjustments they face is sleep deprivation. Travis shared that his firstborn experienced significant colic, leaving both him and his wife with very little sleep. This led to tension in their relationship until they were able to recognize and communicate the fact that they were both just exhausted. 

Sleep deprivation lowers our threshold for frustration. If we don’t have these conversations with our partners, we can find ourselves arguing over seemingly meaningless things without realizing that our irritability is stemming from unmet needs.

Other big adjustments include changes in your lifestyle and friendships, as well as changes in your relationship, your sex life, and your roles in the home. Some dads feel as though they have lost their partners or their friends. 

All of these shifts can be difficult to process without open communication. It can feel like you’re losing big pieces of your identity. 

The Importance of Communication Between Partners

Travis said that if you don’t communicate with your partner through big life transitions, it’s easy to both get into your own survival states on your own islands. You might view each other as the enemy or begin scorekeeping, rather than recognizing and seeing the physical and mental load you each are carrying. 

Recognizing these issues and approaching them as a team, with the goal of supporting each other, can help us move through these conflicts and strengthen our relationships

It’s also important to avoid scorekeeping in your relationship. The goal should be, “How can we support each other? How can we work together to figure this out?” instead of aiming for a 50/50 split of labour in the home. 

While talking about the physical and mental loads is important, the focus should be on balance–not an even split of labour. 

Open communication helps both partners express their needs so that they can work together to support each other, rather than letting resentment build up. 

Ways Dads Can Bond With Babies

Another big adjustment many dads face is difficulty bonding with the baby. Many of Travis’s clients express feeling frustrated that they don’t know how to create that bond. 

There are several factors that play into this. Gender norms often assign care tasks to moms, causing many moms to take over that role. Sometimes, dads get left out of the mix, unsure of how to insert themselves and form those bonds. 

In some cases, moms might even resort to maternal gatekeeping, preventing dads from fulfilling those duties at all. This is often exacerbated by postpartum anxiety or other mental health concerns. When dads feel like they aren’t able to insert themselves, they might withdraw, leading to an overfunctioning/underfunctioning dynamic. 

Travis pointed out that dads sometimes have to think outside of the box for ways to bond with the baby. Bottle feeding and handling night wakings is a great way to form those bonds and support moms. However, some babies won’t take bottles. 

For Travis, all three babies refused to take a bottle, no matter how many different brands they tried. He had to find other ways to form those bonds, like skin-to-skin contact at night, and handling the diaper changes and resettling. 

Communication is important if dads are feeling uncertain in their roles and bonds, or if moms are feeling resentful or unable to let go of care tasks. We have to view our partner as our teammate and work together to problem solve. 

Travis also pointed out that it’s okay for the bond with the baby to take time—for dads and for moms. It’s not always an instant movie moment. He worked hard to form those bonds with each of his babies, but he didn’t feel truly bonded until they were old enough to smile and interact with him. 

Letting go of unrealistic expectations around bonding and creating experiences that form bonds over time can help dads and moms who are struggling. 

Signs of Paternal Postpartum Depression

While bonds can take time, it’s also important for dads to remember that they are at-risk for postpartum mental health concerns, just like moms. Dads often face additional stigmas and barriers to mental health support that make it hard to recognize and seek support. 

Some of the signs of paternal postpartum depression to watch for include:

  • Irritability or anger (especially if these are out of character)
  • Emotional numbing or avoidance (often resulting in over-working to avoid going home)
  • Restlessness
  • Self-criticism
  • Lack of confidence (sometimes bleeding over into work and other areas of life)
  • Bouts of sudden, unexplained anxiety
  • Risk-taking behaviours such as increased or first-time alcohol or drug use
  • Increased use of pornography
  • Overeating or seeking unhealthy foods
  • Disconnecting from the family (often in the form of scrolling on the phone or binge-watching TV)

Travis also pointed out that PPD is often a slower burn for dads—more likely to form between 6 months to a year postpartum. 

Dads suffering from postpartum depression might turn to unhealthy distractions because they don’t have the tools to process their emotions. But this ends up trapping them, unable to break out of their patterns and seek help. 

It can be very hard to recognize the signs of postpartum depression in yourself or your partner. (I missed them in myself despite my therapy background). 

But if you’re not feeling enjoyment in your role or experiencing pockets of happiness, it might be a red flag that you need to talk to somebody. 

What to Do If You’re Struggling With Becoming a Dad

If you’re struggling with your transition into fatherhood or suspect postpartum depression, Travis recommends that your first step be to talk with your partner if you feel comfortable doing so. Your partner is your teammate—the person you really want to have these conversations with. 

However, not all couples have the tools for healthy communication. Sometimes, couples therapy is needed to help both partners learn the skills to talk with and support each other. 

Another great option is to talk to a safe and trusted friend. Not all dads are going to feel comfortable being vulnerable within friendships, but this can be a good way to relieve some of the pressure you’re going through. 

If you aren’t ready to speak out loud, then consider journaling or creating voice memos to release that pressure and let your feelings out in a healthy way. This is often an important step in the right direction, helping to build a tolerance for our emotions. 

Talking with a mental health therapist is another important avenue for support and healing. A therapist trained in parenting can help you navigate the big changes in identity, find your footing in your role, and work through the bonding process. 

Our Wellness Center can connect you with a virtual therapist trained in parenting! Book a FREE 15 minute consult today!

Travis is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).  He has been practicing over the past 9 years in both a hospital and private practice setting.  He has further expertise, training, and certification in Attachment-Focused EMDR, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

  


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