Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
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Becoming a Father

by Carol Campbell, MFT

Trying to prepare for the birth of a child could be likened to preparing for a natural disaster, undertaking an adventure to a foreign land, and winning the lottery, all at once. Few life events are as likely to make as strong an impact on a man as the day he becomes a father. I will focus my remarks on becoming the father of an infant; however, coming to fatherhood by other pathways can also be a tremendously life altering experience.

Steve came to therapy shortly after his wife gave birth to their normal, healthy daughter. Steve feared that his reaction to fatherhood was anything but normal or healthy. He was unprepared for the range of powerful feelings that swirled around in his mind and body as he and his wife went about introducing Ella to the world of their home.

On the one hand he was beaming with pride at having provided the sperm and genetic material that had produced Ella. He melted every time he gazed into Ella's face and saw her resemblance to his side of the family. He felt connected to his own father and grandfathers and ancestors in ways he had never thought about before. Steve's life had such meaning now as he took on the mantle of paternity. This little creature needed him to protect her, provide for her, and guide her through life and into adulthood one day.

At the same time, Steve became shamefully aware of feeling what he could only describe as rage towards Ella. This seemingly helpless 7 lb. 5 oz. floppy being was sabotaging Steve's relationship with his exhausted and preoccupied wife, robbing him of desperately needed sleep, scaring him mercilessly when he could not soothe her to quiet, and stirring up every insecurity Steve had ever thought of having about himself. Whatever had made him think having a child was going to be worth all the anxiety it generated? Financially, sexually, mentally, and emotionally Steve feared ruin.

I would say that Steve's introduction to fatherhood is actually within the range of normal and expected. He recognized that the stress level he was under called for a visit to a therapist. He was not concerned that his feelings would ever escalate to an actual loss of physical control, which of course would not be normal or something to ignore. Steve just wanted a safe place to sort out these disturbing feelings and concerns. A couple months later after weekly therapy sessions, Steve was back to his normal optimistic self and able to handle the frustrations of fathering an infant without attacking himself or resenting others.

What is going on psychologically for a new father? Perhaps the biggest challenge is that he now has to share his wife's body with another person. Particularly in the first year of life, the baby's needs tend to trump the dad's. Steve was able to talk to his wife about how she could be more sensitive to his jealousy, and more tender about what felt like a loss to him. Steve's wife was emotionally healthy and strong herself, which made a huge difference in their negotiating how Steve's emotional needs could be addressed in the midst of such important and essential focus on the baby.

Robert's story has some similarities to Steve's, but some important differences that caused troubles of another order of magnitude. Robert was from an unstable, violent family of origin. His alcoholic father beat Robert's mother and ruled by intimidation and slapping whoever crossed him. Robert's arrival into the family was as the fourth of five children. His mother had suffered post partum depression, and Robert's care early in life was inconsistently provided by whoever got sick enough of the crying to check out what might make him stop.

Robert barely made it through school and had a few brushes with the law as a teenager. He joined the military, where over time he had some exposure to other men whose lives seemed a lot happier than his own. Upon his discharge, Robert used the GI Bill to complete training in automobile mechanics. He wanted to be able to settle down and have a family of his own.

Robert and Brandy met online and started dating. When Brandy became pregnant, they decided to get married. Robert was excited at the prospect of being the man of the family, and became very protective of Brandy, but also jealous of anyone else who spent time with her. Pressures began to build on Robert as he anticipated another mouth to feed. He worried that Brandy's body was becoming permanently unattractive. He couldn't wait for the baby to arrive so he could have his wife back again.

All hell broke loose when the baby was born. Complications with the birth resulted in an emergency caesarian section. Robert had been hoping for a boy, but Alicia Marie was the actual baby they brought home. Robert was angry at the sense of loss of control he felt. He could barely tolerate having his mother-in-law's visiting to help in the first weeks. He felt completely pushed out of Brandy's life as she struggled to bond with her daughter and learn to breastfeed. Robert began to feel incredibly anxious and angry.

On top of all the normal stresses of new parenthood, Robert's unresolved psychological issues from the troubled experiences of his own childhood emerged. Bad experiences from preverbal times cannot be recalled as conscious memories, and yet under sufficient stress, their emotional content echoes into present reality. Robert couldn't stand to hear Alicia Marie cry. He resented the baby and everything about her, and he hated Brandy for neglecting him. Memories of his father pounding on his mother filled his mind.

Robert began to drink heavily. A DUI citation led to his enrollment in counseling classes and Alcoholics Anonymous. Robert was fortunate. Intervention came in time to prevent him from becoming violent with his family, although the road to his recovery was not straight. After numerous relapses to drinking, Robert heard about a program where he could get psychoanalysis inexpensively as the patient of a student of an analytic institute. For the next six years Robert went to therapy three times a week, gradually working through the unspeakable wounding of his tragic childhood, and becoming much more the stable and loving husband and father he had dreamed of being.

My point in sharing these two profiles is that becoming a father entails major challenges for any man (or partner to the mother regardless of gender). Steve and Robert had very different journeys, both made much better because they had the courage to ask for the help of a licensed mental health professional. My hope is that all parents will remember that the transition to parenthood is a wonderful process that can be made much more satisfactorily with professional help. Otherwise, you may run the risk of becoming another participant in the multi-generational transmission of dysfunction.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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