A View from Inside: Experiences of the First Year as a Father

In Research by Dads for Life Resource Team

Source: Premberg, A., Hellström, A.L. & Berg, M. (2008). Experiences of the first year as father. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 22(1), 56-63.

Introduction

tree11Earlier research highlights the importance of fathers’ participation in the child’s development. In Sweden, it is a public policy goal to involve fathers in infant care and to increase gender equality between parents. A key means of achieving this goal is through legislation that allows fathers to share parental leave equally with mothers. However, fathers appear to use only a small portion of their paid leave. While these efforts have helped shape a higher level of gender equality for parents, this study investigates other factors that continue to hinder involved fatherhood. The findings offer lessons for efforts elsewhere to promote involved fatherhood.

Goals of Study

The study sought to shed light on men’s experiences of their first year as fathers, to enable health professionals to support fathers in more effective ways.

Methodology

10 Swedish men, aged between 25 and 32 years, were recruited through purposive sampling (1) at a maternity ward. They were interviewed 12 to 14 months after the delivery of their first child. A qualitative (“phenomenological life world”) approach, involving open-ended questions and dialogue, was employed to capture the thoughts, feelings, and “life world” of respondents.

Key Experiences in the First Year as Father

Key findings from the study paint the following picture of the first year of fatherhood.

1) Feelings of being overwhelmed

Fatherhood was perceived as an overwhelming event and hard to prepare for. Fathers reported that the baby’s needs directed the new family and thereby their lives and priorities.

2) Mastery over the new situation

In the upheaval of becoming a father, it was necessary for men to feel they were able to master fatherhood – including taking care of the baby at night, described as the most demanding fatherhood task, and particularly, managing the baby without the mother. Mastery increased fathers’ satisfaction with their role and situation. It was also important for fathers to have space for their activities and to continue to be the same person, which made it easier to enjoy and adapt to the new situation.

3) Adjustment to responsible fatherhood

Notable shifts that fathers made include stronger awareness of risky situations, a more cautious outlook for their own and the baby’s safety, more frugality with their own expenses, and attempts to work shorter days or plan for parental leave to spend more time with the baby. Although legislation supports the opportunity for parental leave, some men expressed difficulty obtaining permission from their employer for this.

Over time, fathers learnt to interpret the infant’s signals and exercised more patience and sensitivity. Influenced by surrounding people, fathers developed a new awareness of being adult and responsible.

4) A new completeness in life

Despite the challenges of childcare, fathers did not regard the child as a burden and described their child as a source of love, happiness and pride.

Additionally, fathers also experienced a positive shift in the marital relation. They described their relationship as calmer and deeper, and displayed a deeper awareness of the woman’s needs for rest and leisure time to sustain the relationship.

Discussion

1) Central to the experience of fatherhood was that the child became the focus, but not at the expense of men’s own identity. New fatherhood is an overwhelming experience, which demands adaptability and increased responsibility. The way the man manages the transition during the pregnancy, childbirth and the time directly after is crucial for him and the new family. This study indicates that experiencing depression during the child’s first year could lead to non-mastery of the situation, which exacerbates emotional stress, and the sense of inadequacy. Conversely, the sense of mastering the new situation offers satisfaction.

2) Fatherhood was shown to bring about increased emotionality, sensitivity, patience and maturity. Fathers developed a softer, nurturing side of their personality through their interactions with their child. Significantly, it was when the fathers were alone with their child that they established a deeper contact, suggesting that men postpone their emotional attachment to the child when the woman is there to comfort and take care of the child.

3) Fathers described an independent relationship with the child as a necessity for involved fatherhood. The relationship gave the father satisfaction, and the mother some respite. Achieving a good father-child relationship was considered the most important motive for using parental leave.

4) Men experienced some ambivalence toward fatherhood. Although they were compelled to become involved, caring fathers, they also struggled with the need to live up to traditional expectations about fathers as breadwinners. This ambivalence extends to the workplace where some employers question fathers’ right to parental leave and in health care where fathers are offered parenting education, which remains targeted mainly at women. The authors suggest that Swedish society, however progressive, is still imprinted by traditional norms. The traditional father’s role, which has not lost its salience, undermines the development of an equal parent role.

Implications for Health Professionals

Health personnel need to be sensitive to existing gender norms to provide effective support to fathers. Increased knowledge of fathers’ particular needs to build an independent relationship with the child can guide their encounter with fathers. To support the father’s transition, it is also helpful to actively invite fathers to bond with the newborn baby and to display an active, affirming attitude toward fathers.


Purposive sampling targets a particular group of people, in this case, fathers of new borns, who are recruited in a deliberate, non-random fashion.


About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.


First published on 06-02-2012.