Mothers have nine months to get ready for the life-changes that a new baby brings, but dads often need a little extra time to adjust to parenthood. Parental leave can help working parents make that adjustment by giving them time to bond with their new child.

According to the Jobvite’s 2019 poll of American workers, 63 percent say that parental-leave benefits are important to them. About 40 percent of employers offer some type of leave for new parents but most don’t offer paid leave. That’s probably why only 21 percent of workers have taken parental leave – they can’t afford to miss a paycheck.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires companies with at least 50 employees to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child. Employers are not required to offer paid time off but must guarantee an equivalent job when the employee returns to work.

Moms are the biggest users of parental leave. Dads are more likely to feel pressure to return promptly to work. Most dads take one week or less following the birth or adoption of a child. However, this lack of time to bond with a newborn may be doing a disservice to the child’s future health.

The sooner that dads bond with their child, the closer the two will be as the child grows up. Children who don’t have that bond with their father often assume dad doesn’t love them or there’s something wrong with them. What feels like rejection to an infant can haunt him or her throughout life. Dads who miss that early closeness with their child often say they regret it.

Everything changes

Many men feel powerless over the changes brought on by a new baby. Here are some of the new-parent adjustments that dads face.

  • The relationship with your partner changes. Many new dads feel their needs have become secondary to the baby’s needs.
  • As the new mom becomes the baby’s chief caregiver, her attention is less on you and more on the baby. It’s not uncommon to feel a little jealous of the new baby, or fear that mom likes the baby better than you.
  • Physical and mental exhaustion hinders everything – your relationship, job, ability to make good decisions, bonding with and caring for the new family member.
  • Thoughts about future financial and emotional responsibilities can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling very vulnerable. Old friendships, how you spent free time, hobbies and what now seems as the care-free existence you once had seem to have vanished. It’s common to feel lost and maybe a little resentful.
  • Advice from Parents magazine: “Gone are the day of being called just “a guy”; you will now be seen by all as a dad. The sports you used to play with your buddies become the sports you teach your kids. That overpriced latte on your desk in the morning has been replaced by work coffee in a mug that reads: “I love you, Daddy.” And honestly, you won’t mind the changes because the biggest change is your biggest reward: your kid.”
  • You wonder if you’re parenting correctly and bonding adequately with your child. You will experience a lot of clueless moments.
  • A general feeling of uncertainty – about your role as a father and husband, how to care for this tiny person and if you will be a good father. These feelings can be stressful.
  • Intimacy with your partner changes. WebMD offers this advice: Your partner’s hormones may cause her to have no interest in sex. This is a normal part of recovery from giving birth. Most new moms start having sex again by three months after having a baby. Remember that your partner is coping with enormous physical and emotional changes that can affect both her ability and desire for intimacy. Let her set the pace. Many women say they delay intimacy because they’re afraid of getting pregnant again. Talking with your partner about birth control options can relieve those concerns.
  • About 10 percent of new dads experience post-birth depression sometime during their baby’s first year. Coupled with fatigue, stress or mourning over the loss of their pre-baby lifestyle – depression is very real for a significant number of new dads. If the mother is depressed it can quadruple the chances of dad having depression.

Men’s symptoms of depression can be different from women’s symptoms. A stressed-out, overwhelmed new dad might be weepy, lethargic or sleep longer than usual. Or, he might show other traits like:

  • Diminished zest for life and becoming unusually “flat”
  • Being quiet, sulky or withdrawn
  • Doesn’t want to socialize with friends and family
  • Becomes agitated, restless and has difficulty concentrating or sleeping
  • Becomes unusually irritable, even aggressive
  • Retreats by “losing himself” in work or hobbies
  • Increases gambling, drinking, driving recklessly or other risk-taking behaviors.

Depression often improves as a family routine develops, stress decreases and you begin to get more sleep. Get professional help if depression lasts longer than a month.

Experts recommend that you acknowledge these feelings and changes. Understand that they are common to all dads, at some time or another. Accept your feelings and don’t get lost in guilt or shame. Let go of the negative pressure you’re imposing on yourself. Know that whatever you do, or don’t do, your child will love you unconditionally.

Learning to bond

Bonding refers to the intense attachment that develops between parent and child. The act of bonding makes you want to love, protect and care for your child. Babies need this attachment with someone because without it, they baby can develop a condition called attachment disorder. This disorder can cause behavior problems, difficulty in school and with controlling their emotions. The child may be aggressive with others or withdrawn, depressed or fearful. Without attention or a change in caregiving, this disorder can continue into adulthood.

There’s no one correct way to bond with your child. Venetia Moore writes in Natural Child Magazine that your child needs your support and love in any way you can offer it. Men can nurture children just as well as women. How you and your child bond is the correct way for the two of you. Don’t overthink it. For example, just holding and cuddling the baby reassures you and your child that you matter to each other. Be sure you talk to her because she loves the sound of your voice.

With or without parental leave, try these tips for better bonding:

  • Be involved in baby’s care immediately – diapering, feeding, bathing, burping. Dads need full emersion in parenting as soon as possible after the baby arrives. By building your skills, you’ll feel more in control of a chaotic situation. Mom will appreciate the help, and the routine care of a newborn is a key part of effective bonding. Bonding improves with practice; be patient with yourself.
  • Relax. Repeat. Since there’s no standard you must meet in terms of bonding, let yourself relax a bit and enjoy getting to know your child.
  • Don’t compare your caregiving to the baby’s mom’s nurturing skills or how closely she bonds with the baby. You both have much to contribute.
  • Accept help from people you trust. Even a 20-minute break after a sleepless night can help. People want to help, or they wouldn’t offer to help.
  • Replace action with patience. Most men react to stressful situations by taking action to fix the problem. There are many occasions during parenting where you can’t fix what’s wrong.
  • Work as a team. Each of you bring strengths to parenting. Both of you need regular breaks that are available only if you share daily caregiving tasks.
  • Find a network of dads for the socialization and support it provides. Talking over stressful parenting situations with guys who have been through it can help reduce stress. While both parents experience the same patterns of emotional engagement with the baby, society expects men and women to express their emotions differently. Dads are often expected to suffer in silence with their fears, frustrations and insecurities. A support group of other dads can help.
  • Accept that your new social normal is spending your free time with baby and mom. You may lose some friends or hobbies, but your new circle of friends will likely be parents.
  • Take care of yourself by eating a healthy diet, sleeping whenever you can and getting some exercise every day. Take the baby out for a walk or go swimming to get him used to the water. Just hanging out together, talking, singing or playing provides a relaxing time to bond.

Moore reminds dads that no one can be prepared for the life-changing experience that is fatherhood. “Parenting throws us out of our predictable, familiar comfort zone and spins our compass wildly! It also provides us with a fantastic opportunity to blast out our old ways and get acquainted with some amazing new experiences. The more we give, the more we receive. Babies hold the gift of opening us up to great love.”

Happy Father’s Day!

Photo by Chris Ryan / OJO Images