How to Ease New-Father Fears

You have a new baby — but instead of feeling overjoyed, Dad's freaking out. Find out why fathers worry and how to help them cope.

I was outside mowing the lawn when my wife, Ann Marie, announced that she was in labor. She stood on the deck, her face a combination of joy, excitement, and pain. I forced a smile, but I was petrified. Despite the parenting classes we had attended, the books we had read, and the off-key Beatles songs I had crooned to my unborn daughter through Ann Marie's belly, the notion of becoming a dad hadn't seemed real until that moment.

Instantly a cascade of doubts crashed down on me. Ann Marie was preparing to start medical school, and I was starting out as a freelance writer -- how would we be able to afford the added expenses? Would I be a flop as a father? I'd never even babysat before. Were my Sunday afternoons of vegging out watching football gone forever?

I was embarrassed by my mixed emotions at what should have been a magical moment. But after confiding in several college buddies with children, I discovered I was far from alone: All admitted to having had similar worries when their kids were born.

"It's natural for a dad to be scared stiff about money and his ability to be a good parent -- and about the new competition for his wife's attention," says Bruce Linton, Ph.D., a family therapist in Berkeley, California, and the founder of Fathers' Forum, which provides moral support to new and expectant dads. "The key is to cope with these fears, not be consumed by them." Here are five of the biggest anxieties first-time fathers face -- and how to overcome them.

How can we afford our new baby?

"Feeling uneasy about the added cost of raising an infant isn't neurotic -- it's an economic necessity," says Kyle Pruett, M.D., a adviser and author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child. Money pressures can loom even larger when a dad becomes the sole wage-earner. That's what Ned Tobey, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, experienced after his wife, Allison, left her advertising job to take care of their baby boy, Lance. "It was nerve-racking," Ned says. "Suddenly, what little disposable income we had went straight to disposable diapers."

How to Deal: Don't let financial challenges blunt the pleasures of parenthood. If the numbers aren't adding up, do what the Tobeys did: Plot out every household expense, and set a family budget that is within your means. "We had to cut down on toys for ourselves, like a new car and a new TV, and we couldn't travel as much," Ned explains. "But it was a lifestyle change we really didn't mind making."

Will I be a good father?

New dads -- who often are clueless about feeding, bathing, changing, burping, and caring for a baby until their own arrives -- tend to be less confident about their ability to meet an infant's needs than new moms. Eric Brockett panicked silently when his son, Thomas, was born. "It's a totally new experience," says the Upton, Massachusetts, father. "You don't get any practice, so you have no idea how you're going to react to all the demands of being a dad."

How to Deal: Understand that you don't become an expert overnight. Eric met his fear head-on, offering his wife, Rosario, long breaks on weekends so he could do some solo caregiving. The more time he spent with his infant son, the more comfortable, playful, and excited he became about parenthood. "After being together one-on-one for a while, that whole fear of the unknown went away," he says.

How will I concentrate on both my baby and my job?

Today's dads define themselves not merely as breadwinners but also as nurturers. To devote more time to their little ones, some new fathers consciously step off the fast track or arrange to work shorter hours. Others, like John Persano, of Escondido, California, even change plans completely. John was going to pursue a career in the U.S. Marines, but after the birth of his daughter, he decided to look for a private-sector job instead. "I made the decision so I could spend more time with Alyssa," he says.

How to Deal: Ask any working mom. Women have proven for years that with a little flexibility it's possible to be fulfilled on the job and at home. That balance is hard to come by, but John achieved it. Instead of becoming a career military man, he signed up for the Marine Reserves. After a tour of duty in Iraq, he went to work for a military contractor, using skills he developed in the armed services. He arrives at work extra early so he can spend several hours each evening with Alyssa before she goes to bed. "It's the right trade-off for me," he says. "I'm more in control of the time I spend with my family, and I still get to do work that I enjoy."

Will I ever get my wife's attention again?

The scenario is common: With Mom busy tending to the newborn, Dad begins to feel like a third wheel. "I tell new fathers that if your wife isn't paying attention to you, everything's normal," Dr. Linton says.

The adjustment was difficult for Andrew Cope, of Burlingame, California, after the birth of his son, David. For the first two months, he and his wife, Lisa, spent their rare free moments catching up on sleep -- leaving them no time for each other. "I kept wondering, 'Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?' " he says.

How to Deal: Concoct ways to have fun as a family. For Andrew and Lisa, that meant taking daily walks near their home with David. "It helps us reconnect," Andrew says. "It's our time alone together, even though our baby is in the stroller."

Will I ever get my old life back?

Many men obsess about losing their old identity. Peter Igneri, a physician's assistant from Colchester, Vermont, worried he'd have to give up his post at the local volunteer firehouse when Ellis, the first of his two sons, was born. "I've been a firefighter since I was a teenager," he says. "I was used to dropping everything to respond to calls, and I couldn't anymore."

How to Deal: Make compromises. Peter pared back his commitment to the fire department significantly until he settled into a new family schedule. Then, when Ellis turned 1, he gradually stepped up his volunteer efforts. "I can't run out the door every time there's a fire because my wife and kids come first, but I'm involved again," he says.

Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the March 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

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