Positive experiences with 2-3-hour male only sessions on fatherhood
by Eberhard Schaefer, MA
January 17th 2007
last updated January 19th 2007
Men and fathers welcome the opportunity to share and discuss expectations and feelings on fatherhood in male only learning sessions. It promotes their ability to relate to their unborn or newborn child, and help them prepare for the practical and emotional challenges of becoming a father. Mothers too benefit from these male only sessions. The sessions encourage fathers-to-be to talk more openly with their partner about feelings and expectations, and help both the mother and father better manage the often very trying first year of parenthood.
This article yields an experience-based overview that demonstrates how to design and conduct 2-3-hour male only sessions on fatherhood. The sessions were typically run by the author and covered both practical, emotional, relationship and legal topics and perspectives on the challenge of fatherhood. The article also gives suggestions to instructors on questions to ask and reveals the typical answers given by recipients. It also provides an overview of the lessons to be learned by the participating men and fathers.
Experiences from Prenatal Courses for Fathers-to-be
“Every evening when I come home, I tell my unborn baby stories from my workday, and she reacts by kicking."
Expectant father, 35
“I had to pay 75 Euros for the complete 16-hour ante-natal course. They were well spent for just these 3 hours spent talking among men about becoming a father.”
Expectant father, 28
“Antenatal classes at seven in the evening are oversubscribed, because that’s when men want to come. (…) They want to know about issues surrounding fatherhood that won’t necessarily interest the women. Encouraging men to go to parenthood classes would be one of the biggest steps you could take to get men more involved."
Julian Sutton, Midwife at St George’s Hospital, London, father of four
"Men liked having something just for them (in antenatal classes) and they asked questions ranging from “How do you hold a baby” to “How is this going to change my life?” Men discussed what kind of fathers they wanted to be – like their own dads, or different? (…) The men ended up being more aware and better-informed than they might have been otherwise. If only we could do this all the time – but it costs money and properly qualified male facilitators are hard to find."
Dr Andrew Symon, Midwife, Dundee University (Scotland)
These statements say it all: Most expectant fathers today do want to share the experience of becoming a father. Many appreciate being given the opportunity to discuss their feelings and expectations about becoming and being a father in exclusively male settings. Experiences and outcomes from antenatal services for men are presented in this chapter, which is concluded by remarks on the further development of practice and suggestions for accompanying research/evaluation.
Setting up special 2- to 3-hour men-only sessions
In 2002 we started co-operating with midwives offering antenatal courses. In these courses, special sessions for the participating fathers-to-be were integrated into the programmes for couples expecting the birth of their (first) child. The all-male sessions were arranged by taking a of 2- to 3-hour period out of the course. The midwife-instructor used this time for working in a women-only group with the expectant mothers. Since the launch in 2002, some 40 men-only sessions have been carried out. The average number of participants was 7 men. Thus we are now able to assess the contributions of roughly 280 fathers-to-be.
Participants might be considered characteristic of contemporary metropolitan men in Germany: aged between 26 and 62 with a cluster between 30 and 40 (this is higher than the German average age for first-time fathers, which is 31). We can define two major groupings according to where we met them:
(1) Participants from suburban areas of northern Berlin who may be described as “traditional” breadwinner-role oriented men, many of them science/technical university graduates in quite well-paid and relatively secure jobs, accompanied by highly-educated wives are approaching part-time work as mothers.
(2) Participants from metropolitan central Berlin, most of them well-educated and highly skilled, which does not necessarily correspond to a high income: We have not counted lawyers working as sales clerks, job-hopping architects or scientists in-between contracts. In this group, we also find university students working part-time and freelancers like IT consultants, artists/musicians/actors, or small-business owners. An estimated 10 per cent of this group is of non-German background, and there is a considerable percentage of cross-cultural couples. In this group, we would probably find a high degree of parental role-sharing ideology.
Context: German Standards for Prenatal Courses:
Courses are offered by midwives in- and outside hospitals. Most courses are designed for couples, some are offered for women only. Courses are aimed at preparing mothers for the birth of their child, meaning that they focus on the physical and mental changes in the women, informing them on many aspects of childbirth, including empowering elements like breathing techniques for labour, etc. For expectant mothers participation, though not compulsory, is considered a matter of course. Overall, 60% of expectant fathers in Germany participate in antenatal courses. For expectant mothers, participation is free of charge; for their partners, the cost is about 75 Euros for a 15-hour-course.
The 2- to 3-hour men-only session is presented by the instructor as an opportunity for the participating men to obtain information, share their views and experiences as fathers-to-be and talk about their expectations of the situation in the delivery room and, later on, of fatherhood. The time is accordingly divided into three parts:
(1) their partners´ pregnancy
(2) fathers in the delivery room
(3) fatherhood: the first few weeks and the rest of a man’s life.
Participants are invited to tell their stories , to share how they “walk pregnant” (“to walk pregnant” is a German idiom that can be easily “translated” to the fathers-to-be.) and share their experiences of expectant fatherhood.
An initial point: These sessions offer no “standard solutions”. Each participating father-to-be is unique, as is the situation he embodies. The aim of these 3-hour men’s sessions is mutual learning.
What do men say in prenatal classes?
Men’s concerns on becoming a father, being present in the delivery room and being a new father. Topics discussed in men-only sessions:
Becoming a Father
Typical questions from course instructors:
- When did you really understand that you were going to become a father? (Which incident was the most significant in this respect?)
- How do you communicate with your unborn baby?
- Learning about the outcome of the pregnancy test
(Most likely for men who had a Kinderwunsch, i.e. who really wanted to become fathers)
- Seeing the first ultrasound picture
- Feeling fetal movements in their mate’s belly
Lessons to learn
- It is possible to develop a personal relationship with your child before birth. This prenatal relationship is not necessarily exclusive to mother and baby.
(Note: a surprising number of expectant fathers report talking to their unborn baby, feeling him/her in the belly, etc.)
- Understand and discuss the changes your relationship with your mate undergoes during pregnancy
- Discuss feelings of happiness as well as more ambiguous sentiments about fatherhood. This helps mutual understanding and counteracts false expectations.
Preparing the Nest
• Many expectant couples move to a new home during pregnancy.
Lessons to learn:
• Preparing the nest is a way of performing daddy’s pregnancy and can be a strenuous undertaking. Avoid starting too late and working too hard on this matter.
• Buying the right pram, baby clothes, etc.: Men will offer each other advice. This makes caring “daddy talk” a natural matter.
In the Delivery Room
Examples of topics introduced by course instructors:
- What expectations, hopes and fears do you have about being present in the delivery room?
Typical questions from participants:
- What are my tasks in the delivery room?
- Do I really want to be present in the delivery room?
- What am I supposed to do with my baby when I hold her/him for the first time?
- What am I to do in case of a caesarean section?
Lessons to learn:
- Keep talking with your mate about expectations for the birth.
- In the delivery room, you will not be able to determine or even influence developments. This is a situation that does not fit into the traditional male role-stereotype and some men will find this difficult. But it is important to realize that:
- You will be her main helper just by being there. Most new mothers report that their partner/spouse was the most important figure in the delivery room – more important than midwives or physicians - simply because they were the most trusted person present.
- We generally encourage fathers who are in doubt to be present in the delivery room due to research findings indicating that couples want to experience the birth of their child together as the founding event for their family.
After the Birth
Typical suggestions from course instructors:
• Be in charge; manage visits and coordinate offers of help and support.
• Support breastfeeding: Bring baby, carry her/him for burping, learn and watch for the signs.
• Get acquainted with baby by bottle-feeding.
• Take leave from work immediately after the birth.
Lessons to learn:
• Take as much leave as possible after the birth of your child. These first days and weeks with your baby will never come back. (Note: There is no statutory paternity leave system in Germany. During the course many men report intending to take only a few days of leave due to conditions at work. For some fathers, “as much time as possible” may mean full-time parental leave for 3 to 6 months; for most it will mean 2 to 4 weeks of annual leave.)
• Support breastfeeding. Try to cope with any ambivalence you may be experiencing about breastfeeding. (Note: Jealousy concerning the female breast is one of the major unsolved problems involved in spousal relationships and sexuality in the first months after childbirth.)
Handling the Baby/the First Weeks after the Birth
Typical questions from participants:
• How can I feel secure and proficient in handling the baby?
(A central question in the context of “How can I be a good father”)
• Is dad disturbing the close mother/child-relationship? Would it be better if I left the two of them alone?
• Should I wait to get involved with my child until she/he is one or two years old? Do daddies come into the picture only when kids can walk, talk and play interactively?
• What are my tasks and chores; how can I perform well?
Lessons to learn
• Exercise holding and carrying the baby, changing nappies: Course features live exercises using baby dolls.
• Be a responsible father from the outset. Undertaking/performing tasks and chores regularly will support the development of a close attachment to your baby: Your baby will know and appreciate you as a capable and responsible caregiver; when you are capable you will feel secure and be in charge.
• Daddies come into the picture right from birth. All research indicates that fathers are just as capable of caring and playing as mothers and that babies enjoy having two caring and playful parents. Babies are keen to interact with daddy! (read more)
• Communicate your intention to be a responsible and caring father to your mate. Suggest that (sometimes) the best way to support you in taking care of the baby is by not helping you.
Balancing Work and Family Life after Parental Leave
Suggestions from course instructors:
- Coping with the situation at the workplace: (legal) options and strategies. (Note: generally speaking, taking time out for fathering is not highly valued in corporate Germany. Participants report this frequently.
Lessons to learn:
- At work, communicate your needs when it comes to balancing work and family life sensitively, but do communicate them. Do not keep your fatherhood a secret. During breaks, discuss families and fatherhood with your colleagues. This makes daddy talk part of ordinary corporate life.
The Legal Situation
German law grants custody to unmarried fathers only with the mother’s approval. This situation, along with the common judiciary practice of granting fathers limited contact to their children after separation or divorce (depending on the mother’s wishes), is sometimes taken into account, especially when there are unmarried men among the participants.
Development of Couples’ Relationships
Course instructor’s suggestion:
- Many men do not anticipate and reflect on the implications of developing from a couple to a family, from a dyadic to a triadic system.
Lessons to learn:
- Research indicates (as do separation- and divorce statistics) that the first year as a family tends to be a trying time for both young mothers and new fathers. Keep communicating with your mate. If at all possible, reserve exclusive time to spend as a couple. Do not hesitate to seek professional counselling and/or other support. (read more)
Beyond “Topics” and “Issues” (or “Beyond the Curriculum”): What Men Say
From our four-years of experience working in this setting, reactions from participants may be summarized as follows.
- Men are surprised to be given the opportunity to share and discuss expectations and feelings on becoming and being fathers. Fathers-to-be spontaneously appreciate being given this opportunity, and they do seize it. They feel valued and appreciated. This contrasts the notions of female-centeredness they hold regarding the programme – see the second quote at the beginning of this text. During feedback-sessions participants voiced particular appreciation of the opportunity to share their views and experiences with other men, i.e. the men-only sessions.
- When it comes to problems, participants state that talking to other men prevents them from feeling like “the only man in the world” facing specific issues (e.g. feelings of insecurity about handling the baby)
- Most of the participating men look forward to becoming fathers. Many say they want to give their child as much time as possible. Many state a desire to maintain closer relationships with their children than they had with their own fathers.
- Only a few of the men claim their own express desire to have a baby. (Unsurprisingly, these are the men who are most actively engaged during the course). Most men state that their mate was the first to talk about wanting a child. Most men express an initial attitude along the lines of “and I said, okay, that’s fine with me. Let’s do it.”
On the other hand, many men declared feelings of ambiguity about becoming a father. The main causes stated included:
- The anticipation of - at the minimum - a 20-year-long (if not life-long) responsibility for the wellbeing of a child; they feel this to be a daunting task!
- “Everybody expects me to be happy all the time about becoming a father, because we’re having a baby. Nobody wants to hear a word about ambiguity or mixed feelings, about how being a father means being responsible – which is, at least in part, a burden.”
- A wish to create and maintain a close relationship to the child and the anticipation that time will be in short supply.
- The anticipation of female-dominated child-rearing contexts: Will my partner, my mother-in-law, female child-care professionals etc. accept my involvement; will they permit me to father my way?
- For many men the time at which they become fathers coincides with embarking on a professional career. Many men feel torn between working life and the desire to spend time with their child.
- A lack of eligible paternal role models. The old breadwinner-model with its traditional emotional distance between father and child is seen as outdated – but new standards have yet to be defined.
- Most men accept the task of being good, caring fathers as an extension of the standard male gender-role. However, they do anticipate that this involvement will mean a lot of work.
- In contrast, some men perceive the demand for their involvement during pregnancy, birth and afterwards as an underpinning of male gender-role stereotypes. They feel obliged to be triple carers – caring for their family financially; caring for their partner and, finally, for their baby. Men not only feel they must be the main breadwinners (as in fact they are); they also feel required to be responsible carers in looking after their wives and babies. Consequently these men ask: Who will take care of me when I feel exhausted or even depressed? (→ See K2) This is an issue that should be taken seriously and addressed accordingly.
Beyond Men and Fathers: What Partners and Midwives say
- Sharing views and experiences with other men encourages many expectant fathers to talk more about their feelings and expectations with their partners. These in turn feel inspired by the new ideas they are receiving from their partners.
- As class instructors, midwives appreciate the men-only time as benefiting the outcome/quality of the programme.
How to Build New Dads. A factsheet from fathersdirect.com (UK), 2003 http://www.fathersdirect.com/index.php?id=2&cID=85 ]
Duivendak/Stavenuiter (eds.) 2004: Working Fathers, Caring Men. Reconciling Work and Family Life, p.113, http://www.verwey-jonker.nl/images/dynamisch/D9433292_def.pdf
Fthenakis, Wassilios, E.,1999 , Engagierte Vaterschaft – Die sanfte Revolution in der Familie, (Active fatherhood - A Gentle Revolution in Families), Leske & Budrich
Bundesministeriums für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend (ed.), 2006
(German Federal ministry for families, senior citizens, women, and youth)
Facetten der Vaterschaft - Perspektiven einer innovativen Väterpolitik
(Aspects of Fatherhood: Perspectives of Innovative Policies for Fathers)