On Psychology

May 28, 1998 / 3 Sivan, 5758

Dr. Wade Horn

The oys and JOYS of fatherhood

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I am 20 and my husband is 21, and we have a four-month old baby, our first. It seems like it is pretty easy for moms to meet each other. We just walk up to each other in the grocery store or at a La Leche meeting and start gabbing. But it isn't so easy for fathers. All of my husband's friends are still in college, with no thoughts of marriage or children. I think he is starting to feel alienated from them. He has to put his family first, whereas his friends can do whatever they want. I think it would help if he met some other "family men" who put their family first but want some buddies. Do you have any suggestions for him?

A: Few things change a man's life faster and more profoundly than having children. Many of these changes are positive. Research shows that upon becoming a father, most men report a shift toward more responsible behavior out of a desire to serve as a better role model for their children. For example, after the birth of a child, men report drinking less alcohol, working more regularly, and attending worship services more frequently.

This helps to explain why married men, and especially married fathers, are healthier, wealthier and happier than their non-married counterparts. Interestingly, this shift toward more responsible behavior occurs even when fathers are not living with their children at the time of their birth, such as in the case of incarcerated fathers. In fact, becoming a father is one of the most "teachable moments" for men precisely because of this shift away from self- centeredness and toward child and family centeredness.

Unfortunately, becoming a dad can also lead to difficulties with one's non-dad friends. Spending time burping one's baby means you have less time to bum around with the boys. And few non-dads are really all that interested in hearing about the fine points of changing a baby's diapers.

This happened to me. My wife and I had our first baby when we were in our mid- twenties and I was a young assistant professor at a Big Ten university.

Most assistant professors are so busy building their curriculum vitae that they don't have time to build a family.

Certainly that was the case with my particular peer group. Not a single other assistant professor, male or female, had a child; few were even married.

There was simply no time, according to my peers, for anything other than work.

Once, soon after establishing myself in this peer group, a weekend was planned at a retreat the university owned in a remote part of the state. My wife and I were very excited about going. Unfortunately, our daughter came down with a particularly nasty cold the day before we were to leave, and I had to cancel our participation in the trip.

Incredibly, rather than hearing sympathy on the other end of the phone line, what I got was an earful about how inconsiderate I was to cancel at the last minute! Dumbfounded, I called several others in my "peer" group of assistant professors. Not a single one expressed a word of concern for my daughter. Instead, I was lectured on the need to be more thoughtful of the feelings of others! Lesson learned: don't expect the uninitiated to be understanding of the unpredictableness of fatherhood!

After that experience, I actively sought out a peer group of fellow fathers.

Surprisingly, not only was this less difficult than I had imagined, but I found myself enjoying their company even more than that of my unmarried and childless friends. As an added bonus, I found that having older, more mature friends was immensely helpful in my career. Whereas the younger assistant professors were invariably self-absorbed in their careers, these older friends -- many were tenured faculty -- had the time to act as mentors and advocates for me at the university.

This is not to say that I have no unmarried or childless friends. I do. But I have to work hard to make sure I don't take too much offense when I notice their eyelids drifting downwards when I brag a bit too long about the latest accomplishment of one of my daughters.

So my advice to your husband is to follow your advice and seek out some fellow fathers as friends. One place to look is work. Encourage your husband to talk with other men at work who are fathers themselves. Believe it or not, most men love to talk about their kids -- the good, the bad, and the stinky diapers. Asking other fathers at the workplace for advice (even if, in doing so, he has to make up a problem) can be a great ice breaker.

Another good place to find other fathers is at your place of worship. And do more than just go to services. Every shul, church, or temple I know of, has adult-oriented activities during the week and/or on Saturdays. Many have men's groups. Some even have groups specific to fathers. Encourage your husband to find a group that does things he enjoys and encourage him to join.

A third place to look for fellow dads is adult sports leagues.

Fatherhood is the most joyous, wonderful, exhausting and challenging undertaking any man can make. It can also be a lonely experience when it comes at a young age. But if you give up the idea that adult friends have to be the same age as you, you will discover that fatherhood is also a wonderful club. And all it takes to be a member, is, well, being a dad.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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5/6/98: Collision with a pathetic reality
4/26/98: It's time parents learned to 'Just Say No!'

© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn