By Dr John Barry
First published as a BPS blog here
If you are like me and became a new dad in the past year or so, you may well have found yourself with unprecedented amounts of time at home with a baby. For most people this will be a challenge and even trigger depression (see helpline details below), but in fact there can be a silver lining, or even golden opportunity, in being locked down with baby.
A recent meta-synthesis of 13 studies looked at the experiences of new dads of babies up to 12 months old (Shorey & Ang, 2019). Three themes emerged:
Development of the father-infant relationship
Bonding started at around two months when infants began to be able to smile and interact with their dad.
In my experience, it was surprising at how much a baby is able to communicate nonverbally, showing a range of facial expressions that I had presumed must be socially learned. Babies ‘talk’ a lot more than you think.
On reflection, in my experience the bond started the day I very clearly saw my son on a 4D scan, moving around in his mum’s womb in real time. I would recommend 4D scans, especially to prospective dads, because a 4D scan makes the reality of the child much more personal and tangible, and allows men a greater sense of the physical reality of the child before they are born.
Obstacles to getting involved e.g. work
Although reportedly often treated as helpers or even “bystanders” by healthcare professionals during visits to hospital after birth, lots of new dads felt “joy and closeness” when playing, taking care of, or holding their child. Reluctantly in many cases however, work had to come before childcare. This raises the thorny issue of how much a man can afford to take time off work before his career begins to suffer. This is a complex reality that is not easy to resolve. However, lockdown gives many men a great opportunity to get more involved with their child without it impacting their career. Yes, working from home still means you focus on work, but it also means that breaks from work can be much more fulfilling than a quick visit to the canteen.
Becoming a family man
Many new dads felt that the helplessness of their baby caused them to feel protective, responsible, and family-orientated. Furthermore, “fathers were found to intentionally neglect their feelings so that they could focus on their spouses and infants” (Shorey & Ang 2019, p. 15). This occurred in situations ranging from being calm when the mother was nervous and upset, to supressing sexual feelings until the mother felt ready for sex again. This finding is interesting because it is common today for men to be criticised for being stoical, whereas this study shows that strategic stoicism can be altruistic and beneficial, though I should add that talking about your stressful experiences is important too (Liddon & Barry, 2021).
In summary, bonding with your infant can be a uniquely rewarding experience. If you think babies are boring because they can’t talk, stop and think about how much they might be able to tell you with a smile when you cuddle them. Whatever you might think of lockdowns, if your employer is making you stay at home, please do yourself a big favour and don’t let the opportunity to enjoy being a dad pass you by.
For men or women dealing with the stress of being a new parent, contact the PANDAS free helpline: 0808 1961 776. Or for info for new dads contact Fathers Reaching Out
About the author
Dr John A. Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, clinical hypnotherapist, and author of around 80 peer-reviewed publications on a variety of topics in psychology and medicine. John is a professional researcher and has taken an interest in improving the teaching of research methods and statistics. He has practiced clinical hypnosis for several years and is a member of the British Association of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis. His Ph.D. was awarded by City University London, on the topic of the Psychological Aspects of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which is also the topic of his new book (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). He is co-founder of both the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS), lead organiser of the Male Psychology Conference, and co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health (London: Palgrave Macmillan IBSN 978-3-030-04384-1 DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1). His new book, co-authored with Louise Liddon, Perspectives in Male Psychology: An Introduction, is published by Wiley in early 2021.