New parenthood can be emotionally overwhelming for everyone — and that goes for dads, too. This month, we asked TMC partner group facilitator Dr. Chuck Schaeffer for a candid take on the issues and fears new dads face — and often are too intimidated to admit — as they make the transition. Here are the top five common fears he’s encountered, plus help for how to decode them and deal with them in healthful, supportive ways.
Every day over 350,000 men become fathers to a newborn in the world — that means there’s a good chance you’ll know someone celebrating their first Father’s Day this year. In fact it’s a good bet your social media feed will be flooded with memes, posts, and advertisements all highlighting moments of bonding, love, and general “warm and fuzzies” between fathers and newborns. What you won’t see are the scary, intense, intrusive thoughts that also come up between fathers and newborns. Scary, intrusive thoughts are common in new parenthood but are often hidden due to stigma, especially among new fathers. The good news is that scary thoughts are common and actually signal positive parts of a new father’s development.
Here are the top five scary thoughts I’ve encountered in my work with many new fathers over the years and what they really mean.
1. Thoughts about your baby dying of SIDS
One of the most common scary thoughts I encounter with new fathers is a fear that their baby will die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in their sleep. This thought consistently appears in research about parents following the birth of their child. In a recent study of obsessional thoughts among postpartum parents, 45% of fathers reported intrusive fantasies about suffocation/SIDs.
Why is this thought so common? One explanation is that the public health community has done a great job in raising awareness of SIDS. In fact, the rate of SIDS has dropped exponentially since major public health agencies started including sleep and SIDS awareness into almost all preparatory parenting classes.
Another explanation is that when a new father begins to attach and feel connected to his child, his brain begins to imagine all the things he will need to do in order to keep his child safe. In other words, if you are having scary thoughts about your baby dying of SIDS, there’s a good chance your brain is preparing you to be a responsive, caring, and engaged father.
2. Thoughts about harming or abusing your baby
The same research on obsessional thoughts in postpartum parents found that 1 in 4 fathers report intrusive scary thoughts about accidentally or purposefully harming their child.
Does this mean that up to 25% of fathers are secretly violent predators? Absolutely not. I’ve worked with countless fathers who are so ashamed of these thoughts that they avoid their children leading to worse outcomes for their families. Scary thoughts are common especially around situations that we want to protect our children from, including sexual and physical abuse. What makes a new father’s brain come up with thoughts in which he is abusing or harming his child? Again, our brains are designed to protect us and others we care about by trying to anticipate and control threats that could occur in reality. It is too overwhelming to imagine all the unknown perpetrators in the world that could harm our children — it’s much easier to feel in control of your own actions and behaviors.
Many new father’s find that their brains are sending them these thoughts because even though they are scary, at least the person doing the harm can be controlled. What does this really mean? If you are having thoughts about harming your child which scare you, that’s a healthy sign that you want to protect and keep your child safe — not that you are some kind of secret monster.
3. Thoughts about going broke or not making enough money for your family
When I ask new fathers in my groups what message they associate the most with being a father, it’s almost always the same: making money, and being a breadwinner/provider. This response makes sense when you realize the only messages we send most new fathers about their role in early fatherhood is to provide income to their families, despite the litany of research showing all the other developmental, social emotional, and literacy outcomes engaged, responsive father’s provide to their babies and young children.
The pressure to adhere to the early fatherhood myth — that in the first five years a father’s job is to provide primary income to his family—is often the culprit behind this scary thought. When new fathers learn about all the other ways they contribute to their children and family’s development, this thought usually fades. At the end of the day if you are having this thought, it likely means you care a lot about keeping your family healthy, and that you should check out more of the research out there showing how providing financially is just one of the things fathers provide to their families to keep them healthy.
4. Thoughts about running away from your family or your family abandoning you
New parenthood is a beast for most new fathers. While it’s already hard to find any protected family leave for new mothers, it’s nearly impossible to find it for new fathers in the United States — meaning most new dads get a few days before they are thrust back into the world of work and the new world of fatherhood with a massive amount of sleep deprivation. (Keep in mind: sleep deprivation is a preferred interrogation tactic used to break criminals by major law enforcement agencies.)
Given this atmosphere, many parents have fantasies about running away from this new role. Among fathers with a history of loss or abandonment, it is not uncommon to also to have scary thoughts about being abandoned or rejected by their families. In my work with fathers groups, a common scary thought shared among participants is that they won’t be a “good enough” partner to their spouse, which will lead to a catastrophic loss — for example, that their spouse will “run away” with their baby. What is the point of these fantasies? For many men, there is nothing scarier than losing their families which shows that they are dedicated, loyal, and committed to their partners and babies. Think of these thoughts as signs of how: a) overwhelmed you are, and, b) how much you care about your family.
5. Thoughts about being stuck in a sexless marriage and/or having no more fun ever again.
Aside from being a provider, a common message many men hear about fatherhood is that they will lose/sacrifice anything “fun” including sex, intimacy, and personal time. I have lost count of the number of men I’ve worked with who upon asking their friends or family for advice around fatherhood were told “get used to not having a life.” How crappy is that message for a confused, eager, expecting father? How appealing does that make parenthood sound to anyone? Yes, new fatherhood can be frustrating — fights about parenting and childcare take over prior time spent planning couple time or having sex. However, this doesn’t mean that it is forever. For many men this scary thought is a call to action about taking the lead in creating couple time with their partner alongside co-parenting responsibilities. In my experience men who view this thought as a signal that they need to take a more active role in planning couples activities and date nights fare much better than those who believe it to be a universal, unavoidable truth.
Although many men are able to understand these scary thoughts as a part of their development in fatherhood, some seek consultation and treatment to help negotiate and better understand their scary thoughts. Many more never seek out treatment, instead suffering in silence and isolation. Why? Because as a society we have difficulties letting go of our stereotyped assumptions that “tough, resilient, independent masculinity” somehow protects men from the developmental crisis that is entering fatherhood.
So what does this mean?
While this this thought might relieve us from worry, we must also see it as not grounded in reality: in reality about 1 in 10 men will develop a depressive, mood, or anxiety disorder following the birth of their child. In reality, men, just like women, face numerous emotional challenges and vulnerabilities as they enter parenthood. Feeling constantly numb, irritated, angry, anxious, fatigued, drinking excessively, or having thoughts that your family would be better off if you were dead or out of the picture are serious warning signs that you should seek out treatment from a trained professional.
If you care about the fathers in your life, help them to speak more about their scary thoughts and guide them towards treatment if they exhibit any of the warning signs above. The more we can pay attention to the realities of fatherhood, scary thoughts and all, the better we can support our fathers on Father’s day and every day.
About the author
Dr. Chuck Schaeffer is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and an internationally recognized scholar, educator, and speaker who has spent nearly a decade working with parents, professionals, and couples to overcome reproductive challenges including insomnia, miscarriage & loss, postpartum anxiety and depression. He runs The Motherhood Center’s Partners Group every Friday from 9:45 AM to 10:30 AM. For more info and to register for classes please visit our classes and support group page here.