Dr. Kristin Schaefer-Schiumo| Manhasset NY

Hey New Dads - Don't Be Afraid To Be Afraid! It's Perfectly Normal....

When you think of Father's Day, what comes to mind? Perhaps it's your longstanding tradition of family BBQs or outdoor time with loved ones.Maybe you take some time to think about, or reach out to, the men who have influenced your life. Maybe you stop to wonder who has become a new father this year. Or, just maybe, you are a new father yourself. Everyday, over 360,000 men become fathers worldwide, and most of these men eagerly await and prepare for the coming of their newest family member. Most think of the joys of caring for, loving, and nurturing a child. All a man has to do is check social media resources to see images depicting the joy and wonder of fatherhood. While this is absolutely an accurate piece of the picture that is fatherhood, so too are concerns that are confusing and sometimes terrifying. Many new fathers experience recurring fears of being abandoned by their partners and newborns, which are often related to not being good enough. For example, fathers often fear they will not be a good enough provider or will accidentally hurt their infant due to their perceived incompetence. New fathers also fear unintended accidents, like finding their infant suffocated in the crib. What most new fathers don't realize is how common these negative fantasies, or obsessional thoughts really are. A recent study found that nearly 50% of postpartum fathers report intrusive thoughts about SIDS, 25% about intentional or unintended harm, and 5% centered around sexual contact (while changing diapers, bathing, etc).

Where Do My Scary Thoughts Come From?

Scary thoughts and fantasies are not specific to men or to new parents. In fact, we all go through times when we have very strange, sometimes upsetting thoughts. One very important step is to remember that these thoughts are not real, they are not reality. They are...just thoughts. When you understand that thoughts are not reality, they are far less frightening. There is a great deal of uncertainty around the roles of parenthood, feelings of perceived ineffectiveness as a parent, and an emerging, fragile identity as a father that often lead many men to accept their fears as predictions of their future as a dad. They accept these thoughts as reality. A more positive and adaptive view of these negative thoughts or fantasies may be to understand that they come from the healthy desires to protect and care for your family and children. Your obsessional thoughts can be viewed as ways to try and anticipate, and thus prevent, any threats to your family and newborn. Of course research clearly shows that obsessional thinking increases anxiety and worry, which in turn fuels obsessional thinking. So, while the wish is to reduce potential threats and fears, what is in fact happening is the increase in unwanted anxiety.

How Can We Help New Fathers With Their Scary Thoughts?

One response that is quite helpful to new fathers is simple information. Know that you are not alone in experiencing scary, negative thoughts. Know also that they are a common way of working to protect your family while adjusting to your new roles. It is normal to feel sad or angry about receiving less attention from a partner now that an infant is in the mix. It is normal to fear that harm may come to you ur newborn. For many men, understanding why these thoughts happen and reminding yourself that they are just thoughts and not reality is enough to help them begin to lessen. Actively rephrasing your thoughts is also of great value. Remind yourself, "I am working to be a great father, I love my baby, these thoughts will pass." For other new fathers, going into treatment is an important and very valuable part of responding to their fears and negative thoughts. For many it is a difficult decision, as the fantasy of tough, resilient, macho and independent men is alive and well in many cultures. Thus, men are expected to just "handle" the transition into fatherhood independently and without as much as a hiccup. This is a fantasy that clearly needs to be brought out into the light and challenged. Instead we need to help men explore the emotions, fears and real needs they have around fatherhood. As a culture, we must support fathers, not just on Father's Day but everyday.