First-time fathers describe their experiences of separation and helplessness

Ante-natal classes only serve to increase fathers’ feelings of separation from their pregnant partners, according to a series of in-depth interviews with ten White British fathers.

Anja Wittkowski and her colleagues interviewed the men to help increase our understanding of what it’s like for men to become a father for the first time – a neglected area of research. All the participants, aged 27 to 47, were married to their partners, they were middle-class, employed, and the pregnancies were all planned. The men were interviewed when their babies were aged between 7 and 12 months, and all said they were motivated to be hands-on fathers.

Using a process known as “interpretative phenomenological analysis”, the researchers extracted key themes from the interview transcripts and observational notes and wove them together with existing theory. Although the men weren’t asked directly about their partner’s pregnancy, all of them spoke about their experiences during this time. A key recurring theme was feelings of separation, from familiar social lives, but also from their partners and the pregnancy.

“I feel that it has to feel different with the mum as they are carrying the baby and feeling it move and grow inside, that must mean that the emotional attachment that must build must be extraordinary and I don’t think that any bloke could ever understand that,” said participant Bob. 

Ante-natal classes, where the men were recruited, only served to deepen these feelings of separation, they said. This was because the classes focused mainly on the birth and the mother. One participant said it would be more helpful to hear from other fathers what the experience had been like and how they coped.

In the early days of fatherhood, the men reported feelings of helplessness. “You’re not overly sure what you’re supposed to be doing, and there are times when you have the emotion of complete helplessness,” said Kevin.

The participants responded to this challenge through trial and error learning with their partner, team-work with their partners, such as sharing night feeds, and they also described watching and learning from their partners. “This [last] perception may have been due to the fathers’ feelings of anxiety, or believing that the mother-infant bond had an innate, almost instinctual quality which was lacking in the father-baby dyad,” the researchers said.

On a positive note, the men described how they gained in confidence over time and a sense of control returned to their lives. “The more you do, the more you learn and as time goes on you remember how you’ve dealt with things in the past,” said Bob.

The researchers said their results are consistent with Transition theory – the idea that men pass through stages of separation, transition and incorporation. They called for more research on men’s experience of fatherhood, and for ante-natal services in the UK to consider providing more support to fathers. Reducing new fathers’ anxiety is beneficial not just to them, but to their partners and offspring.

“It may benefit men more if the contemporary man’s passage to fatherhood is viewed as a continuous process, which does not end at the birth but continually evolves as the man negotiates the complex personal and social changes of fathering practice,” the researchers concluded.

The findings are obviously based on a small sample and more research is needed on the experiences of younger fathers and of fathers in less fortunate circumstances. As a new father myself (to 8-month-old twins), I also couldn’t help feeling there was an unusually negative tone to these interviews. Although I didn’t attend ante-natal classes, I have spoken to other new dads. Yes we mentioned the great challenges, but only secondarily to the magic and wonder.


Kowlessar, O., Fox, J., & Wittkowski, A. (2014). First-time fathers’ experiences of parenting during the first year Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 1-11 DOI: 10.1080/02646838.2014.971404

further reading
Babies’ anxiety levels are related to their fathers’ nervousness, not their mothers’
How becoming a father changes your brain

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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