Expectant Fathers Find There's Lots to Talk About

Groups grow as men seek advice on new role

Randall Jackson of Chicago was looking for advice on how to prepare for fatherhood.

He read the books and attended childbirth classes. Still, "for the fathers-to-be who want to be involved, there's not much out there," says Mr. Jackson, whose baby is due in September.

But on a recent Saturday morning, Jackson hit pay dirt.

For three hours, he and 14 other expectant fathers met at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to hash out their common concerns: Will I be able to take care of the baby? What about my social life? Will I be too tired to go back to work? How can I help my wife during pregnancy? What will happen to my marriage?

"It's a great opportunity to hear that everybody is going through the same trying circumstances," says Warren Silver, who attended the one-time class.

It's also an opportunity more expectant fathers are seeking out as they cast about for new role models in a time of changing expectations and aspirations. Their own fathers often concentrated on being the main breadwinners and stayed out of the way when it came to feedings, diapers, and spit ups. But as many mothers go into the work force, day-care costs rise, and relatives move away, more men are spending more time with their children and taking on new responsibilities.

"Times have changed dramatically," says Brad Sachs, a psychologist whose Father Center in Columbia, Md., holds workshops for fathers and couples. "The expectations placed on men often whipsaw them."

As a result, programs for expectant fathers have begun to spread. Swedish Medical Center in Seattle and Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland, Wash., for example, have programs similar to Northwestern Memorial's. Private counselors in different cities have also gotten in on the act. Other hospitals, such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, Wash., have started groups for dads once their babies are born.

Some men attend "Boot Camp for New Dads," a workshop now in 20 states where fathers and their infants meet with expectant dads to show them the ropes.

A road map

The roughly 4 million men who become fathers each year have a good reason for going to these groups, says Mr. Sachs. "There's a wilderness of parenthood they're about to enter, and they want a road map."

Women often turn to relatives, new moms' groups, and friends for advice on how to handle pregnancy and motherhood. Men, by contrast, don't have many outlets to talk about the changes they are going through, says Tim Kelly, a father who leads the two-year-old class at Northwestern Memorial.

"There isn't much opportunity in today's society for men to ask these tough questions of other men," Mr. Kelly says.

Indeed, most prenatal classes are geared toward women, says Armin Brott, author of "The Expectant Father." "But the changes men are going through psychologically and emotionally are just as profound," he says. "Men don't want to just be helpers. They want to have their own place in the process."

One place where men are definitely playing a greater role is during childbirth. In the 1960s, about 15 percent of expectant fathers planned to be present during childbirth, says Jerrold Lee Shapiro, a professor of clinical psychology at Santa Clara University in California. Now as many as 85 percent plan to help during birth, says Mr. Shapiro, the author of "When Men are Pregnant" and other books for fathers.

When prenatal classes do include men, they tend to focus on teaching the dads-to-be how to coach their wives through childbirth. But a lot of men also are looking for advice on how they can be better fathers once the child is born, Shapiro points out.

And, some experts note, classes for expectant fathers can help men negotiate the marital strain that can occur as young parents adjust to having children.

The need to share became clear to Shapiro 16 years ago when he and a friend started talking in a locker room after playing racquetball. As they discussed their wives' pregnancies, he noticed that about eight other men in the locker room had stopped what they were doing and were listening to the conversation.

Despite growing interest, attendance at many groups is still small, Sachs says, adding that their success tends to vary with the region of the country. "Colleagues who have tried similar things in different areas haven't had similar success," he says.

But Bruce Linton, founder of the Father's Forum in Berkeley, Calif., which offers counseling and discussion groups for dads, predicts the groups will grow once more men hear about them.

Go to the class, honey

Women also may push their partners to go once news of the various programs spreads. Some women don't want their family's secrets aired in front of a group, but others feel it helps their relationships, Mr. Linton says.

The classes can reassure women that their partners are taking an independent interest in their pregnancies, says Stacey Rubin-Silver, whose husband, Warren, attended Northwestern Memorial's class.

"I think it made me feel good afterward about how excited he was," Mrs. Rubin-Silver says. "We're still talking about it." In fact, she says, the single session that most hospitals offer may not be enough. Because her husband enjoyed it so much, she muses, "I think he should go every week."

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