Paternal Bond Could Come Slowly for Some Dads

Dads who lack an instant bond with their kids need not panic, psych experts say.

June 9, 2009, 7:17 PM

June 10, 2009— -- When Henry, who preferred that his real name not be used, became a father two years ago, he was confronted with a feeling in the hospital for which he was completely unprepared -- indifference.

"In the hospital, I just wasn't connecting," he said. "I could have taken it or left it... It wasn't for eight or nine months before I connected."

It was a feeling that Henry, who lives in Boston, would experience again with the birth of his second child.

"[My wife's] family, from the first day, was lavishing hugs and kisses on the new baby," he recalled. "I just wasn't feeling it.

"After I had my first child and didn't have these feelings, I was like, 'What's going on? Am I a sociopath?'"

For Henry, as with many new fathers, the feeling of indifference eventually passed. By the time his second child was born, he said, he "was head over heels with the first kid" and "almost felt disloyal to baby number one for connecting with baby number two."

Today, he said, he loves his children deeply and has developed a strong emotional attachment to both.

While few fathers may be willing to admit to having an initial emotional disconnect with regard to their newborn children, psychological experts say such feelings are far from uncommon.

Indeed, in a new book titled "Home Game, An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood," author Michael Lewis explored the same spectrum of feelings when it came to the birth of his first daughter, Quinn.

"A month after Quinn was born, I would have felt only an obligatory sadness if she had been run over by a truck," Lewis wrote. "Six months or so later, I'd have thrown myself in front of the truck to save her from harm.

"What happened? What transformed me from a monster into a father? I do not know."

Paternal Detachment More Normal Than Realized

Jerrold Shapiro, professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., and author of "The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Man You Wish Your Father Had Been," said that it is not uncommon for fathers to experience a delay in bonding with their children shortly after they are born.

"When infants first arrive ... it is very important for the mother to bond with the baby," he said. "But for the first period of life, and perhaps longer, basically the father is an outsider. The primary bond is between the mother and the infant; the father is there to protect that bond."

And Leslie Seppinni, a marriage family therapist and clinical psychologist practicing in Beverly Hills, Calif., said it is not just the father who can experience this detached feeling.

"It's really normal, and it's normal for the mother as well, which many people don't know," she said. "It's not automatic that you're going to bond with your child. Usually it does take a little while.

"This is like a foreign object that comes into your world; you are not prepared for it, and it takes over your time."

So if it's so common, why don't more people talk about it? Shapiro and Seppinni agreed that the considerable stigma that surrounds the issue often quells discussion among new parents -- even if they are thinking and feeling the same thing.

"People don't want to talk about how difficult it is when you first have a baby because you don't want to feel like an unloving person," she said. "It's taboo to admit, when you're bonding with your child, that it's taking a little time."

For many men, this reticence to share their feelings may be even more considerable. Some may keep these feelings to themselves for fear of appearing insensitive. For others, fear of revealing their true concern may further prevent them from talking about how they feel.

But help may be on the way for some new fathers; Seppinni said male parenting classes have sprung up to help new fathers and fathers-to-be form a bond with their kids.

For Dads, When Does Bonding Begin?

Still, even parenting classes may not help some fathers avoid an initial period of detachment.

He said there are three times at which many fathers form a bond with their children. Some fathers, he said, form this bond while the child is still in the womb. For some, the bonding moment is at birth. And for others still, bonding does not occur until the child is as old as "little league age."

The delay, it turns out, may have something to do with the way fathers traditionally relate with their children.

"Fathers respond to the interactive qualities of kids," Shapiro said. "Until fathers start to sense something coming back from the child, some won't feel that bond or connection."

Henry's experience, for one, appeared to reflect this tendency.

"Maybe it's just something that's part of being a guy," Henry said. "I didn't start to feel that connection until I started getting a reaction from the baby."

This tendency, in part, may also be partially due to the fact that traditionally, a father's role is to introduce the child to the world -- but only when the time is right.

"The father's role -- to first guard the maternal bond and then to open up the world to the child gradually -- is very important," Shapiro said.

For those fathers who want to speed up the bonding process with their child, Seppinni said that quality time is key.

"The best way to really bond with your children is through the day-to-day routine of sitting with your child, holding the baby, feeding it -- even when you're scared to death of it," she said. "Even if you don't feel an emotion, it's the day-to-day routine that lets you get a feel for it."

Shapiro agreed that there are things that new fathers can do to help foster a bond with their kids.

"Give your wife a break every day. You just spend time with the baby," he said. "If you're a dad and your baby falls asleep in your arms, and you're looking at it, stuff -- magical stuff -- starts to happen."

Henry said that in the time since he went through his own period of paternal detachment, some of the other new fathers he has talked with have said they had much the same experience.

Patience May Be Key in Paternal Bond

Based on his experience, he said that his best advice is to be patient.

"You've just got to keep thinking, 'Those feelings are going to come,'" he said.

But once they did, Henry said, he was hooked.

"It's the most powerful emotion you're going to have," he said.