Dads at Birth: What have we learned in 40 years?

by John Hoffman

We take fathers’ presence at the births of their children for granted now. But it was controversial when it first started 40-odd years ago. So, I salute the pioneers, the dads who pushed to be in the delivery room, and the many women – mothers and childbirth activists who helped get them there.

It was one thing to get Dad into the delivery room. But it took awhile to figure out what his proper role was. The original role was “coach.” That’s how I thought of myself leading up to the birth of our first child in 1984. I can even remember our childbirth class instructor referring to us guys as “coaches,” even though she referred to the women as moms.

Contrast that with the experience of Rob Beaton, who became a first-time father in December of 2014.  Nobody told him that he was supposed to be a coach. He didn’t hear the word even once during prenatal classes.

I think that’s good.  A coach is supposed to be an expert, the person who tells other people what to do. Fathers, especially first time dads, don’t have anything like that sort of experience or expertise.

Here’s a telling example of my coaching “prowess.”  At our first birth, not long after we got to the hospital (and after many hours of contractions at home), I was coaching Holly to do the ultimate breathing techniques. These were ones we were supposed to save for the last hour or two before the birth. Then a nurse came in to check on Holly and breezily informed us that she still wasn’t even in active labour!  At that point my confidence was shot. Me a coach? I needed a coach!

I totally rejected the role of coach after that. I thought, “I’m a participant. I might need a bit of support myself at times.”  Fortunately, we had much better support from health professionals for our next two births and I was far more comfortable in the role I played.

I was glad to hear how positive Rob felt about the role he played in the birth of his son, Everett. “I really just expected to help Erinn stay calm and be a squeeze toy for her during contractions,” he says. “And I felt like I was able to help her a great deal.” Rob also felt validated and supported by the professionals in the room. “I felt like an active participant. The doctor, the nurse and the midwife included me and supported me all along the way,” he says. Nice.

Sure, there were some difficult moments. Erinn was in tears a couple of times. And the birth didn’t go exactly as they had hoped.  She got stuck at five cm dilation and ended up having a caesarean section (“little” Everett weighed over 11 lbs.!)

Rob says that when they got the word that it was going to be a C-section, his role changed from birth partner to butler. “It was a mad scramble to gather up all our stuff, get my gown on and move everything down to the delivery room,” he says. “I was afraid I was going to miss the birth.”

But he made it on time and he was very pumped that he got to cut the cord. He still talks about the experience in glowing terms.

I’m not sure what we can conclude from contrasting Rob’s experience with mine a generation earlier. Families’ birth experiences are very diverse, and the exact role that a father plays depends on a lot of variables. But I do think we may have figured out a more appropriate role for fathers in birth. And that includes recognizing that, while labour and birth isn’t about them, dads need some support of their own.

But let’s take it down to a more individual level. I think there are a couple of lessons here for fathers-to-be. One is don’t expect too much of yourself, and the other is expect – or at least be prepared for – the unexpected. There are so many variables involved in birth, you can’t possibly anticipate all of them, no matter how well you prepare yourself. You may read about average lengths of labour and times between contractions. But in reality there is an incredibly wide range of normal in the world of labour and birth.

I can still recall the wise words that one father said to me some years ago about supporting his wife through labour, “You can’t speed it up. You can’t save her from the pain. But she’ll appreciate what you did for her for the rest of your life”

I’d just like to add that, while it’s true that you can’t control the pain of childbirth, your presence and support can make it little better.  And a little better makes a bigger difference than we sometimes think. Just keep telling yourself that if the going gets tough. Because it’s almost certainly true.


 

If you’re a dad looking for practical ideas on how to support your partner during labour and birth check out these articles on the Dad Central Ontario website: Fathers at Birth. How mothers say they helped and Fathers at Birth. Being there – for her and for you.

Dads, Keep Leaning In

by John Hoffman

I’m old enough to be a grandpa, but I still remember parts of my earliest weeks of fatherhood like it was yesterday. Two things surprised me. One was how hard it was, at first, to be the kind of hands-on dad I had planned to be. The other surprise was that biggest roadblock to my involvement with the baby was… my wife.  I don’t mean she intentionally tried to keep me from being involved. But – well, let me tell you a little story.

Riley was a high needs baby (cried a lot, slept not so much). So our early days as new parents were long and our nights were interrupted. One day, when he was about six weeks old, Holly seemed desperately tired. I was determined to “give” her a decent afternoon nap. So after lunch, when Riley was freshly changed, nursed and sleeping, I shooed her upstairs. I vowed to keep him quiet for at least an hour, like real quiet. I had noticed that Holly was amazingly wired and tuned in to the baby and she felt a massive sense of responsibility that the buck stopped with her if he wasn’t OK. In other words, if he made a peep, she’d hear it.

True to form, Riley started to squirm and squawk in his carriage five minutes after she left. So I started pushing the carriage back and forth hoping the movement would soothe him. It worked! But, five minutes later he started fussing again. I got him settled again. Then a couple minutes later he made a few little grunts. I thought, “OK. I guess I’m pushing this carriage back and forth for the next hour.” All of a sudden I heard this thumping up in the bedroom and Holly comes tearing down the stairs as if the house was on fire. Either that or she was furious at my failed attempts to keep Riley quiet. Here body language seemed to say, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY BABY?!”

But she didn’t say anything. She just scooped Riley up and went back upstairs. I was left alone, feeling pretty useless, and, if truth be told, a little ticked off, too. I thought, “Hey, I was doing OK. She didn’t need to rescue me. She’s not going to get the rest she needs unless I get a chance to learn how to comfort him.” I didn’t say any of this. I just thought it.

This kind of thing – Holly seeming to scoop the baby away from me in difficult moments – happened fairly regularly, in my mind at least. It bothered me, but for some reason I knew I had to suck it up.  Eventually I learned to live with it.  Holly and I even joked about it eventually. And I had to keep reminding myself to not blame her because, basically, she couldn’t help it. It’s called being a new mom.

It took me a long time to fully understand what was going on. Her behaviour, which felt like a judgment of my baby care skills – actually had nothing to do with me. It was all about her – her intense physical and emotional connection to the baby and her sense of responsibility that she had to ensure that her baby was OK.  I think it’s often hard for a new mom to distinguish between the baby’s needs and her needs. It was sort of like, “My baby’s not OK. I’m not OK.” Holly didn’t feel that she could relax and rest unless she knew – actually, unless she could “feel” that Riley was OK. And if that meant that she, rather than me, had to do something about it (and of course, as a breastfeeding mom, she had the magic trick) she was going to do it.

So even though I was pretty involved I felt like second fiddle a lot of the time. And I never really figured out how to be co-first fiddle – at least when the kids were babies. Second fiddle wasn’t what I wanted. But I learned to accept that I just had to figure out how to be as closely involved as I could within the reality of the way my wife was experiencing motherhood. I now see that as an important part of being a hands-on dad.

I can’t say that every family is going to have this exact experience. But, I’m still hearing about this tension from both fathers and mothers.

I think the lesson is that guys who want to be hands-on dads in the early days of parenthood need to pay close attention to their partner’s experience and needs. Mothers usually have this intense visceral (she feels it in her body) connection to her baby, along with a super strong sense of responsibility for the baby’s welfare. Guys feel some of that too, but it’s not as intense, not most of the time anyway. That mom intensity is normal – good, in fact, because it helps women be good moms. But it sometimes pushes them to do things that feel undermining to us. Some people call this gatekeeping. I don’t. I call it being a new mom.

Bottom line. Dads who want to be involved in baby care need to learn how to (to borrow a phrase from a best-selling book) “lean in.” By that I mean keep trying to nudge your way into the mom/baby world, while accepting the reality that you’ll be nudged to the sidelines at times. The key is keep leaning in. Because if a father stays on the sidelines because he thinks his efforts are not wanted to accepted, there can end up being a huge gap between Mom and Dad’s parenting skills. That will make it even harder for Mom to “lean out” so Dad can find the time and space he needs to develop his skills.

It would be lovely if new parenthood were completely equal in terms of gender roles. But it isn’t, not for most dad/mom couples anyway. It usually takes fathers a little longer to find their feet as parents. So, be patient. Try to understand and appreciate what motherhood is like for your partner. Give her as much support as you can. And keep leaning in.

Oh, and Happy Father’s Day!

How To Parent When You Are Angry

by John Hoffman

This might sound like a negative topic for a blog. But actually it’s pretty important. Raising children is an emotional experience. Positive emotions give us a good kind of energy that helps us connect with our kids and enjoy them. That helps us to be good parents.

But any dad (or mom) quickly learns anger is part of raising children too. Unfortunately, anger and other negative emotions suck the energy out of us. That makes it harder to be a good parent. So knowing how to parent reasonably well when you’re angry is an important dad skill.

I’m not going to pretend that this is a simple skill that can be learned easily from a blog. But here are few ideas that might help.

Accept that negative emotions are inevitable. Don’t kick yourself for getting angry with your kids sometimes. It happens to all parents. Just try to deal with it as well as you can and move on. If you do a good job of managing your own anger, your children will learn important lessons about how to handle their own emotions.

Avoid making important decisions and choices when you are angry. There’s a very old saying. “When angry, count to ten before you speak. If you’re very angry, count to 100.” There’s a good reason for that. When we’re upset we are all in danger of saying and doing things we will regret later. So resist the urge to deliver lesson-giving lectures or make important discipline decisions when you’re very angry. Usually there is no need to respond right away (unless there is a safety issue). Wait until you have calmed down. Whatever you have to say, it can wait. And you’ll say it better (and your kids will hear it better) if you say it later, when you’ve had some time to settle down and think about what you need to say.

Take a time-out. If you’re extremely upset it is often wiser to leave your child alone for a few minutes, than to do something you might regret later. If another adult is available, get them to take over.

Apologize for your overly angry words and deeds. All parents make angry mistakes sometimes. If you’ve done something you shouldn’t have done, you can’t take it back. But you can lessen the damage by saying you’re sorry. “I was really angry when I called you an idiot and I didn’t really mean it. I’m sorry.” Apologizing doesn’t make you seem weak to your children. It shows them that you care and that you are fair minded. It also sets a good example for them. Children need to learn how to repair their own angry mistakes. They can learn a lot from your example.

Ask for help. If you are angry a lot of the time, that’s not good. Not good for you, your kids or your partner. Chronic anger means something. Maybe your child’s behaviour is particularly challenging and your family needs expert help. Maybe you need more support from your family and friends. Anger can be a symptom of high stress levels*. It can even be a symptom of depression. So, if you are angry a lot of the time, seek help. Asking for help is not the sign of a bad dad. It’s the sign of a good man who wants to be the best parent he can be.

*The Psychology Foundation of Canada recently launched an online self-help management tool called Stress Strategies (www.StressStrategies.ca). The tool guides you through a problem-solving process designed to: help you understand your stress, choose a stress management strategy that makes sense for you and find resources that can help people solve problems that cause stress.

The Two Most Important Words in Baby Brain Development

by John Hoffman

Wanna build your baby’s brain? I’ve got two words for you:  touch and interaction.

We’ve been hearing about the importance of baby brain development for over 20 years. And it is true. Baby brains do a lot of important growing in the first few years of life. But there has been way to much hype about “smart” babies. Companies pitch us toys, videos and other products that supposedly make babies smarter. A few years ago the company that makes “Baby Einstein” videos was ordered to stop claiming that their videos made babies smarter. One of the weirdest things I ever heard happened back in the 90s. The governors of Tennessee and Georgia were giving classical CDs to new parents. They had been told that listening to classical music made babies smarter.  Um…no.

Obviously, all sorts of things affect the way baby brains grow, but touch and interaction are way more important than things like toys or “Giggles” software.

Touch

I don’t think we really need research to tell us that babies need lots of touch. All you have to do is hang out with babies and you’ll quickly see that they crave touch and respond to it. Babies were meant to be held, carried and touched. Most parents figure this out on their own, but if you need a scientific explanation, there is one. Over the first months and years of your child’s life all sorts of brain and nerve pathways are being built. The brain uses these pathways to talk (and listen) to the rest of the body.

At birth, the pathways that are most developed are the ones that have to do with the senses. In fact, these sensory pathways form a sort of foundation for the brain development that comes later. So it’s a no brainer (pun intended) that touch is particularly important for infants. Skin-to-skin contact is particularly good. Did you know, for example, that skin-to skin contact helps newborn babies learn how to breastfeed more easily? They used to put newborn babies to the breast right away after birth. But now they know it’s better to just let the baby lie on Mom’s tummy for a little while. Skin-to-skin contact seems to help them know how to nurse. You can find videos about this on the internet. Very interesting to watch.

Skin-to skin with Dad is good too. But, really, any kind of physical contact is good for your baby. And you know what? Being involved in your baby’s care is the single best way to ensure you and your baby get the touch you both need. All that touching is good for you too, by the way. When you cuddle your baby your body releases hormones that help you bond.

Interaction

People often say that baby brains need lots of stimulation. It’s true. Well, the best kind of stimulation for a baby brain is interaction with people who love them. First of all, babies need that interaction to feel safe and secure. Secondly, when a baby is interacting with Dad or Mom (or grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, or other nice people) she’s using all her senses. Her eyes, ears, nose and her sense of smell and taste, are sending her brain all kinds of information. Making sense of that information is a great workout for her brain. In fact, the ability to think starts with the brain’s ability to receive and make sense of information from the senses.

Interact with a baby and you’ll quickly see how incredibly interesting and exciting it is for him. Granted, communicating with babies can have difficult moments, and newborns interact on a very simple level. But babies quickly develop the ability to be active participants in communication. And they respond in ways that are incredibly rewarding for parents. That draws you in and makes you want to keep interacting.

You don’t have to be an expert on babies to figure this out. All you have to do is try things and – this is really important – pay attention to how your baby responds. Base the things you do and say according to those responses. The interaction should go back and forth, kind of like a game of tennis.

Bottom line. Kids will spend lots of time playing with toys, looking at books, and eventually, using tablets, smart phones and whatever else they invent in the next ten years. But when they are little babies (and even after that), what they and their brains need most is touch and interaction from people who love them.

Dad Central’s booklet, Daddy I Need You, has lots of great information about how baby brain development and how fathers can help.

The Best Start Resource Centre also has some great information on the development of babies’ brains.

Dad Central Ontario Training Opportunities

Dad Central Ontario is committed to supporting anyone working with fathers and families in their efforts to provide quality, effective programs and services for dads.  We love to train people in their communities to meet the needs of fathers.

Two things are coming up you may be interested in:

Super Dads Super Kids Facilitation Training – Windsor, ON May 1, 2015

Super Dads Super Kids is a father-child interaction program that is designed to strengthen the relationship between dads and their kids.  It focuses on activities they can share AND gives the dads some quality parenting information on topics such as setting limits, emotional health, injury prevention, and communication.  This full day training will help you understand the importance and context of the father-child bond and give you all you need to know to deliver Super Dads in your community.

Check out the details and to register:  https://sdsktrainingmay2015.eventbrite.ca

My Dad Matters Train-the-trainer – Toronto, ON  June 8 & 9, 2015

Are you looking to be a leader in your community when it comes to engaging fathers?
Would you like to have the tools and resources and knowledge to support others in your community?
Do you see yourself and your organization becoming a catalyst for a Father Involvement network in your area?

My Dad Matters is a toolkit that will help you do all that.  Check out the details of the toolkit at mydad.ca.

More information about the training can be found here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/my-dad-matters-train-the-trainer-tickets-16287253614

Any questions? Contact us at info@dadcentral.ca.

My Dad Matters in Timmins, ON - Nov 5/14

My Dad Matters in Timmins, ON

Some work done at a previous My Dad Matters workshop

Some work done at a previous My Dad Matters workshop

Dads and Teens

by John Hoffman

I am by no means an expert on teenagers. Even so, I helped raise three of them and I’ve done a fair bit of research on adolescent development, including picking the brains of a lot of teenagers and young adults. Here are the three most important things I think I’ve learned. I hope they might be helpful to you.

Stay Connected (In other words, keep talking)

If there is one idea I have pushed over and over again throughout my career writing for fathers, and parents in general, it’s this: any sort of positive influence you could ever want to have in yMinolta DSCour child’s life is rooted in a good relationship. Developing good relationships with little kids is relatively easy (usually) because they need us so much and want to be with us.  As children approach the teen years, they spend less time at home and they start to be more influenced by their peers and pop culture. So, staying connected with teenagers requires more work.

A big part of that is good communication. And one thing that really helps in that department is showing kids that you’re willing to listen. If there is one parent behaviour that is a big turn-off for teens, it’s constant criticism.  I’ve had conversations with a number of teenagers who felt they really couldn’t talk to their parents because their parents could almost never listen without being critical and judgmental. That’s very sad. Sure, we are going to criticize teenagers sometimes. It’s part of our job. But try to be open to opportunities for more positive, easy-going conversations too. That requires turning off the criticism at times and just listening to their ideas. Ask questions. Show them you are interested in what they think.

But whatever you do, keep talking – during car rides, at meals, whenever you have the chance. The opportunities for good conversations don’t come all that often with some kids. So we need to be ready when it happens. In fact, the best advice I ever got about teenagers came from my wife’s Uncle Jim who said, “Be ready to listen, when they are ready to talk.”

Learn how to have influence when you have less control

For me, this is the central challenge of raising teenagers. It’s not that hard to influence four-year-olds. And if you need to control them –like, if they’re about to run into the path of an oncoming car — you’re a lot bigger, so can just pick them up and stop them. Parents can stop teenagers from doing things sometimes. But if teens really, really want to do something, they’ll usually find a way to do it when you aren’t there to see.

There’s no easy answer to this. What you want to do is find your balance point between over-control and over-permissiveness. I’ve seen situations where parents say, “Well, he’s 17, he’s going to do what he wants. Not much I can do about it.” Those parents seem to almost abdicate their responsibility. As a result, they have very little ability to influence their children.  That’s pretty risky.

On the other hand, I’ve seen parents try to exercise tight control over teenagers. The results are usually not good. Often the kids just “go underground” and do what they want, behind the parents’ backs. The other risk with over control is that it can cause resentment that pushes your child away from you As one teenager said to me, “The kids I’ve known whose parents are the most restrictive usually care the least about what their parents think about them. They assume their parents will be mad at them no matter what they do, so they may as well do what they want.”

The middle ground involves learning to have influence when you don’t have as much control as you once did (or would like to have.) I like the way psychologist Antony Wolf put it in one of his newspaper columns several years ago. He said kids need to know what your rules and standards are even though they don’t always follow them. The goal is not so much obedience but to convey that you are paying attention, that you care how they behave and that you will respond to misbehaviour.

As parents we often feel that if we set a rule, or give an instruction, and our child doesn’t obey, it means we have no influence. But Wolf believes, and I agree, that all that stuff you tell them – so long as it’s reasonable and expressed in the context of a good relationship – gets “inside” your child and becomes part of who they are. It influences them in the long run, even though we can’t always see that influence in the short run. Walking this middle ground requires a certain amount of faith – faith in your child, and faith that you all the work you’ve already put into raising them had an impact.

Whatever happens, don’t give up

I’ve known several kids who went through some pretty wild and crazy stuff during their teenage years, and I’ve seen pretty well all of them come out the other side into young adulthood in pretty good shape. They all had one thing in common. Their parents didn’t give up on them. There may have been times when the parents felt like they were having no positive impact whatsoever. But even so, they stayed as connected to their child as they could and they kept trying to be a positive and supportive influence. I have to think that that had something to do with those kids being OK in the end.

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Several years ago I wrote a booklet for the Psychology Foundation of Canada called Straight Talk About Teens. If you’d like to do more reading about raising teenagers, you can find the booklet online on the Foundation’s website.

Three good character traits for Dads to cultivate

by John Hoffman

What are the character traits of a good father?  Well, you could pluck almost any word from a list of virtues and make a good argument for it. Reliability, responsibility, love, kindness, integrity, compassion, fairness, self-discipline: all are important. But I want to talk about three positive fatherhood traits that wouldn’t usually be included on lists of virtues:  curiosity, teamwork and a sense of fun.

Curiosity makes you want to understand your child. And if you want to be a good parent, being able understand kids in general, and your own child in particular, really, really helps. Curiosity helps bring you to that understanding.

I remember, so often, gazing at my boys when they were babies and wondering: what is going on inside that little head? I so wanted to understand what they were thinking and how they made sense of what was going on around them.  Sometimes I could figure it out, but at times it was a mystery, one that I never fully solved, but never stopped trying to solve. I believe that my curiosity, my passion for trying to understand my kids, helped me learn more about my kids. So much of parenting is about making judgment calls. No parent always makes the right call. But curiosity helps you learn enough about your child to make the right call more often than not.

Teamwork has always been part of parenting in one way or another. It’s even more important these days because the nature of parenting teamwork (in two-parent couples) has changed. It’s now a given that fathers are expected – or to put it another way, have the opportunity – to take on aspects of parenting that were considered women’s work 50 years ago. The challenge is that, regardless of how far we may have come in terms of gender equity, sharing the “territory” of raising children is not necessarily easy. First of all, sharing any sort of responsibility is challenging. Secondly, even though many people aspire to ideals of 50/50 parenting and father involvement, we’re still influenced by a centuries-old mentality that the child-rearing buck stops with women. So we still often see mothers doing more than their (male) partners in the parenting realm.

I’m not saying it’s wrong if one partner assumes a more primary role, but I am saying it’s important to work as a team with your partner: to support her (or his) parenting and to take on your share of the responsibility. No matter what the exact division of labour is in your house, you and your partner will both parent more effectively if you work as a team, and feel like it’s a team. When the teamwork is good, both of you will feel supported. And feeling supported helps you be a better parent.

A sense of fun helps you find the rewards of parenting.  Why are rewards important? Raising kids is a lot of work, and some of that work isn’t a whole lot of fun, but it needs to be done. Being able to enjoy your kids helps you grab onto the good moments. Those little payoffs help you build up a sort of bank account of positive fatherhood feelings and memories. That helps you stay positive and keeps drawing you back to your children when the going gets tough.

Little kids can frustrate us at times, but they’re pretty funny too. And their enthusiasm, energy and zest for life can be rejuvenating. Having a sense of fun helps you tune into all that good stuff so you can be ready to enjoy the great moments of parenting when they happen. In fact, one my key pieces of advice for fathers (or mothers) I’d say, enjoy your kids. If you can do that chances are you’ll be a pretty good dad.

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