Fathering Right from the Start: Straight Talk about Pregnancy, Birth, and Beyond
Because fathers are all too often "invisible partners" in the parenting process, Dr. Jack Heinowitz's cogent and simply written book comes as a welcome addition to the literature on parenting. Its principal strengths are that it finds means of including fathers in the process while normalizing "negative" feelings and giving concrete suggestions about how to process them, alone and together with your partner. The basic thesis of this book is that fathering-and parenting in general-is not a question of clever technique, of learning how to do something "right" (despite the pun on this word inherent in the title), but of becoming an authentic person by facing our feelings and our own childhood wounds and by learning to reparent ourselves in the process.
I especially liked Chapter 8, "Facing Our Fears," in which the author does a skillful job of encouraging fathers to confront their feelings. Since men (and most of us in contemporary civilization) have been raised to function well mechanically by stuffing feelings, it's a major paradigm shift to reverse that tendency. By pointing out how much both the child and the partner need fathers to be feeling men rather than hollow role-players, Jack nudges fathers toward authenticity. He makes concrete suggestions for how this process might begin. However, if I have any criticism of the book, it would be that it makes the sometimes daunting process of confronting and working through the feelings that arise at this significant stage as relatively simple intellectual exercises. (On the other hand, if he told how challenging it actually is, he might lose his audience!)
I also liked Chapter 10, "What Our Partners Really Want," which focuses upon the relationship between the parents and, similarly, argues for men to drop their roles (Protector, White Knight) and to become more authentic. The chapter covers important ground in an efficient manner. Communication exercises are provided, including speaking our likes and dislikes. I would like to see a clearer discrimination between blurting dislikes of the partner, which is usually perceived as an attack, and stating one's own internal reactions to what a partner does, which is more likely to be perceived as informational. He does end the chapter with the all-important exercise of moving on to asking for what we want.
There is also good information about how to organize around pregnancy and the changes it will bring, and the effects on the pregnant couple. For instance, in his two chapters on sex, during pregnancy and after birth, Jack states what everyone should know-that often women (and sometimes men) go through changes in their sexuality around both states. If a woman is having profound morning sickness during the first trimester or when her nipples are tender and her vagina dry or still healing after birth, of course she's not going to feel especially erotic. Some men find their ardor dimmed by seeing their lovers with a bulging belly or with a baby at the breast. The antidote, he says, is accepting what comes and speaking lucidly about it with each other, knowing that passionate sexuality will return in the future if you can navigate the present with openness and good humor. Meanwhile, he encourages warm sexuality in whatever form works for both partners.
Similarly, the author points out that men often feel excluded, by their partners or by their own past feelings, from connection with their newborns. He offers checklists to help dads sort through their feelings and moms to look at whether they might be pushing the father away. I admired the way Jack finessed the breast-feeding v. bottle-feeding issue: He doesn't discuss it at all, simply assuming that any rightminded parent would opt for the former, given its obvious advantages, a few of which he mentions.
There are also good practical suggestions about beginning to father in utero, navigating labor and the postpartum period, and what children need from us, generally and at the various life stages. One gem: when friends ask what they can do around the birth, tell them, "Bring dinner." I agree. When our first son was born, we had three weeks of dinners scheduled to be left at the front door. We didn't even see the bearers, much less have them in to view the baby.
The core of the book is stated on page 121: "The truth is that effective fathering does not require an instruction manual of any sort; instead it calls for strong character and a loving attitude. Children do not need the latest in child-rearing techniques. They need parents who know themselves and each other, and who understand that parenting is a spiritual endeavor sustained by love and nurturing."
Right on. Whether it's suggesting that fathers cuddle with mother and child during breastfeeding so as not to feel left out or to use the significant transition of having a child as a means of connecting with our own childhoods and moving through the ineffective ways we learn to be in the world, the messages are right-minded, solid, and pragmatic.
Throughout, Fathering Right from the Start maintains a warm and accepting tone, permissory to both fathers and mothers to not be perfect, to bumble through, to keep an eye on the long view. A good book for new and even experienced parents.