Psychologist Ben Ringler and I spent time dissecting some of the core obstacles men face in their transition to parenthood. Ben’s counseling practice focuses on men, particularly as they approach fatherhood, and he is a father of two himself. While most of our readers are women, we hope that you will be able to better understand your male partners with compassion after learning more about the male experience of new parenthood.
Because Glow specializes in prenatal & postpartum massage, we hear from more women than men, and we often hear that women feel under-supported by their partners. Many women express that their male partners aren’t taking the egalitarian, active role they had hoped they would maintain with children in the picture. What are some modern cultural features distracting fathers from being fully present with their partners once a child arrives?
Ben: Before kids come into reality, it’s common for couples to have certain ideas, expectations, hopes of themselves and of each other, but they have no idea what the reality of becoming a parent is like. There can be a real dissonance between the fantasy of what a father wants to do, how they want to show up in their new role, and what the reality is.
This can be particularly hard for men who like to be able to anticipate something before it happens, but having a baby is beyond anticipation. A lot of men solve problems as a way to manage anxiety, and that’s not always possible in parenting. No one can predict how they are going to respond when they have someone truly dependent on them.
Being fully present is very hard even without a child, I think many people struggle with that. It’s the nature of the human mind, especially in this age of technology and busy-ness and disconnection. Unless you’re doing an active meditation practice or some other practice, being fully present is even harder. So, when you add a child to the mix, a lot of men will discover how un-present they really are. Parenthood is a mirror for both parents. It can be ego dystonic, in other words, not how you see yourself.
Having a child will often confront men with the areas in life where they really aren’t present and aren’t fulfilling their goals. So expecting oneself to be present is really a setup for failure. It is very important for men to be compassionate to their own struggles. Being hard on oneself makes being present even harder!
What are some common underlying psychological barriers preventing men from being totally present with their families?
Ben: Some of the biggest psychological barriers are memories and emotional experiences that lay quite often unconscious without extensive therapy. There is a lot of unconscious mapping of what it is to be a child in a family. We all grow up imprinted with particular dynamics that we’ve experienced by being fathered and mothered by our own parents, or not fathered and mothered in some cases.
These imprints are comprised of absences, wounds, and even just particular norms and values that are imbued unconsciously. Men don’t think about that unless they’ve already experienced significant suffering before children come.
So, these unconscious dynamics inevitably come into play in the relationship with the partner and the child. Some of the things that might not have previously come up in the intimate primary relationship- tensions, conflicts, anxieties- will start to surface and put pressure on fathers. These new pressures are uncomfortable and even emotionally painful. As humans, we all try to minimize pain and build defenses to reduce our experience of pain, but these defenses block our ability to be fully present for our families.
Because our children are our mirrors, I truly believe that their job is to push their parents’ buttons so the parent can grow into the parent that the child needs. The parent can then give what they themselves didn’t receive as a child.
Quite often, a prior generation father-son dynamic will come more directly into play when a new father has his first son, and there will often be some projecting onto the child and the relationship. The father doesn’t want to repeat the unhealthy dynamic, and there can be anxiety that the father doesn’t want to repeat history.
All of these factors contribute to the pressure of new fatherhood, and the struggle to be present. For men, this struggle can often take the form of avoidance of family time, or overextension in work, or sometimes it can take the form of aggression, depression or anxiety. It all comes back to unresolved childhood conflicts and the defenses against those conflicts that exert more pressure when a child comes- there’s just not as much room in the family for the their needs.
Also, the change in the dynamic between the parents, particularly receiving less attention from the partner, can bring up all sorts of different feelings. It’s important for the father to be able to speak openly with his partner about the changing relationship in a non-blaming, non-judgmental way. Ideally, the father is given room to speak about his own experience without receiving judgment from his partner. Hopefully the partner won’t feel blamed, and that channel between the partners can remain open, which frees up energy to take care of the child and protect the parents’ relationship with one another.
Along with individual counseling, I also work with couples that are going through this transition. Couples’ therapy is a great space designated for the couple to maintain connection and feed the relationship because it inherently goes under strain. We are not taught how to communicate like this culturally and we do not organically have the time- there are so many distractions, so many pressures. So, making the time, scheduling it into your week is tremendously important. Ideally, you go to therapy both individually and as a couple. When you set apart the time, it’s an investment that will pay off in terms of how much you enjoy your relationship and your child. And while it does take the investment of time, every step is celebratory. Every chance you have to reconnect provides energy that can bring more enjoyment and creativity.
We discussed prenatal and postpartum sexuality in our last two newsletters, and the feedback was overwhelming. In this busy, distracting world, it’s no surprise that there are many couples feeling sexually unfulfilled after having children. How does this lack of presence impact the intimate relationship between a man and his partner?
Ben: A mentor once told me that the number one thing that maintains sustained sexual passion in a long-term relationship is being present with the other person. So, if that’s true, a father’s declined presence and defensive reaction to the stresses of a relationship are going to make it harder for him to tap into his desire.
If you think of things in an energetic flow sense, presence enables a flow of energy, particularly desire and sexual energy. So, when something gets evoked internally- a conflict, certain wounds- there is a defense against that. This defense is going to cut off the flow of energy, the openness, the desire, all sorts of things.
The second level of this lack of desire is that for some men, seeing their female partner give birth to a child can bring into conflict their view of their wife as a certain kind of sexual object. It can go into deeper things like their view of their own mother, for instance. There may be some integrating work to do around how they’ve been attracted to or turned on by women prior to parenthood, resulting in a widening of how they currently see women. If they can dedicate themselves to that kind of work it can actually make sex a lot more fulfilling.
And then there are the feelings that come up when you’re not being attended to in the ways you have been before parenthood. Many mothers, particularly mothers who are nursing, are understandably drained. The mother is the primary caretaker early on, and there’s kind of a developmental necessity for one parent to be a primary for attachment at that time, and that’s going to affect how some men feel. It can bring up certain feelings of abßandonment, resentment, anger, hurt, fear, anxiety, all kinds of things. Many of those things just squash passion, particularly resentment.
There’s also a societal aspect, this conscious story that’s told to us that long-term monogamy is a passion killer, and that becoming a parent is unsexy. These themes reinforce themselves because there are so many cultural reminders. But I am convinced, I know that if there is enough work and investment in the primary relationship there can be a whole other layer of passion that comes from discovering your partner in a new way. Men think they know their partners after a few years, but that’s (a) not true, providing a false sense of security and (b) it’s a passion killer!
We have to get to know each other in a new set of ways, which can be hard with the introduction of a new child. Parenthood is a great opportunity to see the other person in a new light, discovering new aspects of a partner can generate more curiosity and passion as the father discovers things about himself through parenting.
How can we help our male partners, and even our male friends, through this confronting transition?
Ben: This taps back into the cultural reality that men are not supposed to have certain feelings and shouldn’t express feelings. Different men respond differently to varying approaches. One of the keys to supporting men through this time is compassion and understanding, not pushing but providing an opportunity for conversation. Hold compassion for men and what they’re going through. Know that there is a reason why they may not be opening up about their emotional experience.
Sometimes compassion is just something you do internally where you just have empathy for another person’s suffering. Sometimes it’s more action oriented, like “Hey man, you need to get help”, or “Hey, I’m sorry you’re going through it.” Sometimes you do have to be more direct about it, because it can have an impact on the family when one person is struggling. In these cases, find somewhere a man can feel safe, understood, and met, like a therapist versed in the psychology of fatherhood.
In a more direct approach, you may need to say something like, “It’s OK that you don’t want to open up to me, but you can enjoy this a lot more and find relief from this suffering if you find someone to talk to about this, someone who understands and can help you understand this process.” Then you refer the man to a professional or to a support group.
Be sensitive to the man’s communication needs; some men need a more direct approach to suggestion, while others may need a softer approach.
Ben Ringler, MFT
Ben Ringler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, with a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology from California Institute for Integral Studies. He is also a Certified Hakomi Therapist, a psychotherapeutic approach that combines Buddhist principles and mind-body awareness.
Ben is passionate about this work and holds the position of psychotherapist with respect and and humility, particularly because he knows how challenging and vulnerable it is to seek therapy. In my work with clients, he pulls from a variety of practices in order to bring a balance of attention between mind and body so that I am able to listen attentively.