Anyone who has seen the classic 1989 movie 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' would almost certainly remember the famous 'leap of faith' scene, in which the hero has to cross an invisible bridge to get to the Holy Grail and help save the day. In the movie, we see Jones standing on a cliff's edge with a huge void below him. The only way for him to get to the other side is to literally take a leap of faith and trust the invisible bridge to appear out of thin air.
Jones takes a few deep breaths, sticks a rigid foot out and … well, you probably know the rest. He makes it across the divide, and everything comes up roses.
First-time fatherhood is kind of like that. There are a lot of unknowns, huge amounts of pressure, many deep breaths, scary situations … but thankfully, like in the movies, the end result is more than worth it.
However, unlike in Hollywood, there's generally no script to follow for first-time fathers. Of course, most people will get advice from family, friends and medical professionals, and can access a huge amount of information online, but there's still a lot of unknowns as you take that daunting leap of faith into fatherhood.
It's especially difficult if you never had a strong fatherly role model yourself; it's always easier to learn how to do something if you've had a great mentor to show you the way, either through their advice or their actions.
So, where should men turn when they're stressing about becoming fathers for the first time?
The changes and challenges of becoming a dad
When you find out you're going to become a father for the first time, your world changes, and this only intensifies when the baby is born!
MensLine Australia states that "becoming a father for the first time can be one of the happiest times in your life, but it can also be a very emotional and confusing experience.
"Becoming a father may raise all sorts of pressures about being a provider, protector, being an engaged dad and working hard at the same time — the balance can be difficult to find. Moreover, if you want to do things differently from the way you were fathered, you have to work it out for yourself from scratch. This can mean seeking out information or support, something that many men aren't used to doing."
Changes and challenges come at you from all angles during the pregnancy journey and afterwards, and these can lead to a mountain of stress being placed on the parents' shoulders.
For some, it's possible to deal with the challenges comfortably, for others it can be overwhelming, and it's vital to be aware of how you're travelling emotionally. In fact, Beyond Blue states that "depression affects one in 10 dads between the first trimester and the year after the baby's birth. Anxiety conditions affect one in six dads during the pregnancy and one in five in the postnatal period.
"If you have a history of depression or anxiety, it's important to be aware that becoming a dad can be a risk period for you. This isn't guaranteed and doesn't mean you won't be a great dad, but it's helpful to keep track of how you're coping with pregnancy and new parenthood."
How to ensure you're not the 'third wheel'
Some men may feel left out while mothers play the leading role for nine months of pregnancy and while breastfeeding. However, it is still possible to be a great partner and father in those early days.
- Attending antenatal classes
- Being present at the birth
- Learning how to change a nappy
- Finding out what is needed to look after a baby
- Speaking to any other fathers that you know
Beyond Blue states: "Some men feel a bit left out or like they don't 'fit in' to the pregnancy experience, given so much of the attention is on the mum. This can be a real struggle, leaving some men feeling like a spare part.
"If you're feeling left out, let your partner know and talk about how you can become more involved. Stepping up and taking responsibility for certain tasks — for example, becoming the 'researcher' to find out what you need to organise — can ease the load on your partner, get you working as a team, and help you feel more involved."
The teamwork of raising a child
Newcastle University Manager of Perinatal Mental Illness Dr Chris May, who is also a researcher for DadLab, says one of the biggest gifts a new father can deliver to their child is stability and calmness.
"Be a good-quality partner in the business of raising children, and support your partner in making the home life as safe and secure for everyone as possible," he says.
"Find ways to minimise any chaos and aggression.
"If you look up the word nurturing in the dictionary, it says something like 'providing something with the resources it needs to grow and develop.' Raising kids is a cooperative thing, so if your parenting partnership is not working, then home is not going to be a place that your kids are going to be able to easily grow and develop in.
"Some of the work I've seen shows that mums get to spend about 50% of the time one-on-one with their children (in the early years). Dads only get about 10%, while the rest of the parenting time is in a mum-dad-child context.
"That really talks heavily to the importance of dads making that parenting partnership work. So the advice is things like finding ways to make that relationship strong in the early (days of) parenting, finding ways to support (the female partner) effectively, work to support each other across that relationship and develop trust with each other in the business of raising kids. And try to minimise conflict and antagonism.
"Some men are going to be disappointed when people like me come along and say, 'well, good dadding is good co-parenting'. (They might think fathers) are reduced to being a secondary payer, but I don't think that at all, and kids certainly don't see their mums and dads as primary carers and secondary carers — they just see you as dad and mum.
"Fathers are just as important as mothers, you'll have a big influence on lots of things (in the child's life)."
The best resources for fathers-to-be and new dads
Just like Indiana Jones during his many adventures across the globe, it's always best to be prepared before you step into the great unknown. Here are some of our favourite resources for fathers-to-be and new dads.
- DadLab – Australian Research Team
- Birthing Dads
- Birthready | Birth Support & So Much More!
- Dads Group
- Home - The Fathering Project
- Info & Tips for New Dads - SMS4dads
- Dadvice for new and expectant dads (beyondblue.org.au)
- Being a dad | MensLine Australia
- Home - Dads4Kids
- The Shed Wireless, a podcast for Shedders - Australian Men's Shed Association (mensshed.org)
- How Other Dads Dad with Hamish Blake
- Dads Group Podcast on Apple Podcasts