Fathering Infants and Birth Stories
"The most important...work you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes."-Harold B. LeeContent
OverviewFor fathers today, birth is not an experience of pacing the hospital hallway in anxious anticipation with a pocket full of cigars waiting to be handed out. Most fathers take an active role as the coach and sometimes even as the punching bag for their spouses during the birthing process.
By being involved with the birth process, fathers begin generative fathering even before the child is born (Doherty, 1997). As fathers become more involved in the birth process, they report feelings of closeness to their spouses and to their newborn children. Many fathers remember the first time holding their child as the beginnings of developing a close relationship with their son or daughter.
Similarly, many fathers find tremendous joy (and struggles!) when involving themselves in the care of their infants. Marsiglio states that a father's involvement with his infant child serves as "a public symbol of their commitment to a more refined, progressive set of values" (1993, p. 5).
Perhaps the most important thing a father can help his infant achieve is a sense of trust in the world. Fathers who care for their children in a responsive, consistent, and trustworthy way will help their precious infants to develop the sense that their needs will be met by loving individuals. This can be a foundation for healthy development throughout the child's life.
StoriesMany of the stories in this section demonstrate Relationship Work, as fathers develop and cultivate relationships with their new infants. The following stories show several fathers' feelings of closeness and experiences associated with the miracle of birth and the first year of life.
Even before a child's birth, an emotionally supportive husband can contribute to the wife's sense of well-being and is likely to be associated with a relatively problem-free pregnancy and delivery, and competence in parenting (Biller, 1993, p. 18).
This story illustrates how fathers can be a part of the pre-natal experience and develop feelings about their child even before the child is born.
"My earliest memories with Trina started the day she was born. No, they started before that. They started in the womb. I would come home and I would say, "Hello," and she would flick and flitter in the womb. She'd start kicking. If I put my hand on my wife's tummy when she was carrying Trina, she'd move over to where my hand was. If I put it on the other side, she'd move to that side.
"I used to sing to her. It's always been that way and has just continued pretty much that way. I remember one night laying with my head on my wife's stomach and singing a lullaby or something, I can't remember exactly which song. She was very active but she settled down, and then I put my hand on her stomach and she moved my hand. I thought that was funny."
In the next two accounts, two newborn babies were put into intensive care and fought to stay alive. Although attaching to babies in incubators may be more challenging, Biller suggests that if given the opportunity, men have just as much capacity as women to become attached to their babies, to be sensitive to their needs, and to be competent in nurturing them (1993, p. 22).
These fathers share their feelings of helplessness and closeness to their babies during their struggle.
"Bradley is remarkable in that he is almost always about the same emotionally, so there aren't a lot of high and low points. I felt very close to him when he was first born and was in the hospital. He spent at least two weeks in the intensive care unit and I would go by and see him twice a day. During those visits I always felt close to him. It didn't really hurt me for him to be there, but he did quite well in the environment and was able to come home in just two or two and a half weeks. That was a very difficult time and just having him there and being so defenseless caused me to be drawn to him."
Biller found that fathers who are supportive of mothers and are themselves a partner in parenting make it more likely that the infant will develop a secure maternal and paternal attachment (1993).
"There have been many enjoyable experiences with Jeremy. For a lot of reasons Jeremy has brought an added element into our home. One of the main reasons is that he made us realize that there are no guarantees in life. [Jeremy was born with special needs.] You cruise through life and you have highs and lows, and we seem to have been on one of the highs because everything was just going fine. Then all of a sudden this happened.
"Probably one of the most enjoyable moments in our experience with Jeremy was being able to hold him for the first time. Because he was in intensive care, it was five weeks before we were able to hold him for the first time. It was tough on me, but a lot tougher on his mom. You go to the hospital night in and night out and see other parents holding their babies, and you see their progress, and yours may not be doing quite as well and you haven't been able to hold him.
"His whole life is dependent upon machines and doctors, and you don't feel a part of that life even though it's your child. It's real tough. It's tough emotionally to stay strong and to stay up. You worry about those bonds, especially in the mother, since it is so important to create those bonds with the child. You can't hold them and you think, "How will I be able to do it? How can I catch up?"
"It happens, but being able to hold him that first time was a tremendous experience, for us as a family and for me as a father. Holding a hand and patting a back is one thing, but to cradle a newborn life into your arms that you know is yours and that you created, which you've been waiting to do for five weeks--you can't describe it. You don't want to put him down. You don't want to let him go. It's as if you're saying, "I finally got to hold you and I'm going to take care of you. Nobody else is going to get you."
"A lot of other experiences have come since then, but that has got to be one of the most enjoyable."
In the next two accounts, these newborn babies were put into intensive care and fought to stay alive. These fathers talk about the connections they had to their children despite the challenges. This connection, or attachment, is formed through simple interactions, like holding, talking to, or touching a child (Parke, 1996, p. 121). Both fathers and mothers can be equally attached to their children.
"We've always known that things were going to work out with Joshua, even when the doctors didn't give us much hope. Maybe it's a parent's blind love--I don't know. But we always knew that things were going to work out and that he was going to live. We didn't know what we'd have to go through to get to that point, but we never questioned that he would survive.
"The hardest part about the whole thing was feeling, as a father, that there was nothing I could do, that I was helpless. That is the hardest thing for a father or a mother, to feel like they are helpless in helping their child. To just give my prayers and give my strength emotionally wasn't enough....[A]s it turned out, just being there was what that child needed.
"We couldn't hold him for five weeks, but we could talk to him and touch him. The baby could not respond to people because he was so medicated and was on the ventilator....But any time Mom would walk in and just start talking the baby would flinch and try to open its eyes. In other words, it would acknowledge that it knew who was there. That's a rewarding experience.
"You think that you're helpless and that what you're doing is worthless, that it isn't helping, but it is."
Research suggests that when children have two nurturant parents, they are less likely to compete negatively for adult attention with siblings (Biller 1993, p. 21). This last story shows a father's love and concern for an older son who was soon to have a sister. He wonders if this new baby will affect his relationship with his son.
"I think an experience when I felt especially close with Bryton, [first child] was when Brittany was being born, [second child], because I remember wondering how I could love another child as much as I loved the first one. I remember talking with him--not that he could understand me, but I think he knew that I was sleeping right beside him.
"I just told him that I loved him and that I was a bit concerned what would happen when the other child came. I felt bad for him that someone else was coming in and that it might interfere with our relationship or with how I felt with him because he was the first child. I felt really close to him, I didn't want anyone else to come in and change things."
ConclusionFatherWork with infants builds the foundation for a child's trust in the world. When a house has a firm foundation, its stability is increased. In the same way, a child's future rests on a foundation of trust built over time.
Fathers are crucial in building that trust as they complete daily chores to care for their children by providing for their children's needs and showing their love and concern. When fathers can work together with mothers, children's foundations of trust are formed by sharing the exhausting work of child care and financially supporting the family.
By pouring their lives into making their children feel safe and having their needs met, generative fathers lay the beginnings of a rich and secure life for their chlidren. Your child's sense of trust will be solidly formed when you involve yourself from day one.