A Father’s Story

A Father’s Story

“Dear Dr. Hanson,
My wife lives for our daughter and I am starting to wonder: when is it my turn? I feel like all that I am in my wife’s eyes is a means to an end. I go out in the world like a cave man, bring home meat and drop it at her feet, she looks up and says “thanks honey,” and goes back to the child. Oh, she’ll ask me about work and all but her attention drifts and I can tell she is far away. I’ve been patient, I hung in there, especially for the first months, but it’s been a long time now. When are we going to get back to normal? It’s three months past Jessica’s first birthday and we’ve had sex less than a dozen times since she was born. I love Jessica; she’s great. But Joan and I still have to have our relationship. I’m starting to get mad at Jessica, though I know it’s not her fault. I feel guilty for how how I feel.”

There are gains and losses for both fathers and mothers in the arrival of their child. The summary below is a simplification and will not apply in all parts to all parents.

A normal process

Her baby is hugely important to most mothers. She has waited and suffered to bring her child into the world. Feeding, putting to sleep, play, even diaper changing all lead the mother to place great attention and energy in her child. Mothering a young child is exhausting and there is simply less to give others.

Additionally, there is a normal process of self-centeredness in which the mother’s focus narrows to the child and mothering. Mother and child can merge to some extent and become a psychological unit. The rest of the world can feel like “other” in which people and events largely fall into three categories: they help, or they get in the way, or they are irrelevant.

A father usually feels a withdrawal of his wife’s attention and energy after children. This loss is especially painful because during the long pregnancy his wife typically became even more important to him, bearing his hopes for the future much as she bore his child. He sees the discomfort and changes endured by his wife and feels deeply appreciative. The creation of a new life opens his heart and makes him vulnerable. Perhaps he feels (naively) that things will settle down after the birth so that he and his wife can return to their way of being together.

When his wife pulls away from him through involvement with his child, a father can feel hurt and angry. At a time he wants closeness, an important person has withdrawn. Who now will let him know he is special? Who will tell him that he matters in and of himself beyond his mere function of providing for mother and child?

We all have normal needs for attention and love. Mothers usually have those needs met by the cooing and attachment of their child, while fathers can be left out in the cold. These losses are typically aggravated by the natural drop in sexual desire experienced by his wife for many months before and after the birth.

Further, as the husband watches his wife baring her breast to feed the baby, as he smells the odors of infancy, as he lives again in the intimate setting of childhood, long-forgotten feelings toward his own mother may be re-awakened. Unconsciously, he may want the closeness with his wife that his son enjoys, but there is room for only one in that particular relationship: the child.

He loves his child incredibly, but as a moment to moment matter the child probably does not have the same centrality in his life that he or she has for his wife. The child is not flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. His relationship to his wife is still a top priority in and of itself, not merely as a means to the end of caring for children. He (usually) didn’t marry a mother; where did his wife go?

His child is indeed a rival for the attention, care, and touch of his wife. He can try to separate mother and baby, or withdraw to find other satisfactions in work or perhaps different relationships. Often he will go back and forth between these alternatives while feeling hurt, angry, and guilty. He may assert his needs openly, or resent his wife (and child) quietly, or repress the whole matter (though with ‘leakage’ from his unconscious).

The wife usually becomes aware of her husband’s feelings in one way or another, which adds fuel to her normal fears that someone will try to separate her from her baby. As a result, she may tend to move even closer to the child and further from her husband.

So what’s a father to do?

 

Understanding

There is actually a lot that you can do. First, you can step back and understand that you and your wife are part of an ancient, universal process that is biologically driven. It’s not personal. This is mother nature’s way: your wife’s withdrawal from you gives her more resources to care for your child

Pride

You can take pride in your contributions and the sacrifices you make. Your wounds in relationship are badges of honor, the signs of your moral commitment to your child.

Take care of yourself

In healthy ways, look outside your relationship for other resources that feed you. But beware the tendency to find solace in a bottle, overwork, or an affair. Exercise, read, go to movies, deepen your spiritual life. What’s kept me (relatively) sane is to go on a long hike with one of several male friends nearly every weekend. I get up early and am back around noon so I feel great and it doesn’t impact the family too much. I also take about a week each year and go have an adventure with two other men. Of course, my wife has a right to the same amount of time for herself while I watch the kids.

The community of men

Turn to men for companionship and support, especially fathers. They have something unique to offer you. You stand in a long line of men reaching back to times when we sat around the fire next to our wives nuzzling our children while we stayed alert to noises in the darkness outside our circle of light.

Pay attention to your heart

Don’t let the problems with your wife build up to the point that your heart feels barren. Blade by blade, the fertile green of our heart can wither and grow stony before we know it. Deal with things early.

Communication

It can make a huge difference to feel that your wife truly gets how it is for you. The facts may not change, but the way you experience them can change through communication. Find a good time to talk with your wife. If things get defensive or heated, perhaps you can write her a little note. It always helps to start the conversation with appreciation for all the effort she makes; you are not the only one who is making big sacrifices.

Operationalize your wants

Translate how you want your wife to be into practical terms. It is impotent to moan and groan without proposing effective alternatives.

Get help

Don’t kid yourself: the arrival of children stresses many marriages past the point of no return. A.P.P.L.E. offers excellent support groups and low-fee counseling, and there are other resources in our community as well. I’m also happy to talk with you.

Enjoy the ride

You are participating in one of the great human dramas. As awful as it can be sometimes, you probably wouldn’t miss it for the world!

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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