New Dad, Old Dad, Stepdad
It’s happening. It’s here. Mom’s water just broke.
Cue a panicked Michael Scott–style “Everybody just stay calm, what’s the procedure?!”
There’s no question that once Baby is en route, the birthing spotlight rightfully belongs on Mom. If she is happy and comfortable, chances are Baby will be happy and comfortable, too. Dads, or any life partner for that matter, experience their own physiological and psychological changes in the birth room; let’s not underestimate the emotional and physical impact of being a birth partner. It is a massive emotional rollercoaster, going from excitement to fear to exhaustion to elation in a span of several seconds. In no particular order, a series of questions pass through a partner’s mind as the event unfolds:
What if something happens because I’m not doing my job?
What IS my job?
Am I doing everything I should be?
Is she getting all the support she needs?
Ouch, why can’t I feel my hand?
Expectant dads used to pace the halls outside the hospital delivery room while the mothers delivered the baby. Fast-forward to now, and partners are now expected to be present, guiding the mother through the process. But how does this look for a new father? Is this something that comes instinctually? What does involvement during pregnancy look like, and what is considered “enough” support?
I interviewed several fathers, both new and experienced, who had unique takes on fatherhood, pregnancy, and the birth process. In short, there is no formula to being the perfect birth partner or father figure, but one thing will always remain true: As the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh said, “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother to his greatest ability.”
The New Dad
“Pause. Breathe. Deep breaths.”
Broc Sheets joined the Dad Club on November 4, 2020, at 9:47 p.m., when his beautiful daughter, Sedona Vaughn, made her earthside debut. He got the text from his wife, Allie, during his lunch break: “Come home. Baby is on the way.” With a swift grab of his keys and some deep, cleansing breaths, Broc made his way out of the city and headed straight home to Allie. The 45-minute drive was long enough for Broc’s thoughts from the previous nine months to resurface. Anxiety and excitement about the unknown, and the endless possibilities of molding a human life. How would childcare work? They had no local family members or friends outside of chiropractic school. Concern for childcare during his working hours and Allie’s school hours crept to the forefront of his mind.
Pause. Breathe. Deep breaths, Broc. Broc had spent years training his mind to stay calm during times of high stress, and this event was no different. He knew, for the first time in his life, he had properly equipped himself to be the mature, responsible, and loving father his family needed. Any remaining anxiety quickly melted away.
Once Broc was home, he and Allie headed straight to the birthing center for what would be a four-hour labor. At this point, Broc had been leading Allie through deep breathing exercises to ease her nervous system. New fathers in most Western cultures are expected to actively participate in labor and delivery, yet they receive little guidance about their involvement. They may even feel awkward and wonder where they should stand, what should they look at, etc. With Broc’s prior self-work and birth prep leading up to November 4th, everything came instinctually. He knew pretty much where to stand, how to support Allie, and how to keep her calm when the birth randomly stopped progressing. After several hours of being fully engaged, and no sign of baby Sedona’s debut in sight, fatigue and weakness began to creep in for Broc. Researchers say that up to 60 percent of men experience some sort of physical symptoms when their partners are pregnant or in the delivery room. Although Allie had been doing an enormous amount of work up until then, Broc also found himself taking extra diaphragmatic breaths to stay calm and increase his own energy. He needed to be as physically present as possible until the very end, despite these physical symptoms. It helped that the birthing center allowed them a spacious tub surrounded by their candles, crystals, and musical playlist for the event.
Partner engagement is crucial during the delivery process, and throughout the pregnancy. For the months prior, engagement for this family included a lot of conversation. The parents-to-be read books to Sedona and told her the story of how they met. Allie also received regular chiropractic checkups from Broc to assure her pelvis was in optimal alignment for a growing Sedona. This engagement, Broc thinks, is what likely contributed to the beautiful ebb and flow of the birth process. After one final check and adjustment of Allie’s atlas and sacrum, baby Sedona made her grand entrance. The rush of prolactin and oxytocin was enough to spark some waterworks in the eyes of this brandnew dad. “Allie did phenomenal! She was the real rock star all along,” says Broc, beaming with pride.
Broc’s advice to future fathers to have an active role during pregnancy and birth: Enjoy each moment and experience every high and low, he says. It is the greatest out-of-body experience you will ever have.
The Experienced Dad
“Antonia walked out of the bathroom, pregnancy test in hand, wearing the biggest smile, and said, ‘Welp, we’re screwed!’”
Brett Judson established his membership into fatherhood with the birth of his firstborn son, Alex, in March 2019, and most recently with the birth of his second son, Ben, in December 2020. Both boys came as wonderful surprises. Brett and his wife, Antonia, had been trying to conceive for a few months in each case. Much like their conception stories, their birth stories also came with their set of obstacles.
Brett first found out Antonia was pregnant with Alex about six months after starting chiropractic school. After an estimated seven months of negative pregnancy tests, the pair had just about given up hope for starting a family. That is, until one day, Antonia walked out of the bathroom, pregnancy test in hand, wearing the biggest smile, and said “Welp, we’re screwed!” Brett was instantly consumed with joy, optimism, and a deep desire to make to-do lists before baby #1 arrived. When he found out about baby #2, the shock factor was just as strong. His little family just kept growing!
For a busy chiropractic student on his way to becoming an even busier chiropractic intern, engagement during each pregnancy looked quite a bit different. Brett accompanied Antonia to all of her medical and chiropractic appointments as she carried Alex, and did just about “anything and everything” to make sure she was comfortable, including offering massages, fanning her when she got hot, and offering a listening ear when she just had to vent. Throughout all this, and despite his efforts, there remained moments he felt helpless when it came to easing Antonia’s nerves leading up to the big day. During their second pregnancy, Brett had been consumed by school requirements— national boards, clinical internship, clinical preceptorship, and an upcoming graduation. And with the added layer of “these unprecedented times,” he admittedly distanced himself for a majority of the pregnancy, not by choice but by government, hospital, and clinic policies regarding guests. “Luckily, I have a strong wife who was able to care for herself until I got home every day as the due date got closer. She understood the pressure I was under, just as I understood the responsibility she had to the baby. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked for our circumstances,” says Brett.
It is often said that fathers who do not attend the birth are disengaged during pregnancy. When asked if he believed this was true, Brett stated he thought it was half true, but circumstantial. In his case, he wasn’t as engaged during Ben’s pregnancy as he was Alex’s, but it did not affect his presence at the birth. And, he says, if he was engaged with both pregnancies equally, and somehow missed the birth of one or both of his children, it would not affect how much he would love and welcome them once he got there. Of course, these are hypothetical situations, and Brett stated he was fortunate they weren’t applicable in his case.
Anecdotally, men experience emotional changes during their partner’s pregnancy, such as moodiness and even depression. These symptoms may be linked to their worries about losing their partner’s love and affection once the baby is born. When asked if he experienced anything similar, Brett admitted to feeling a bit jealous once the focus shifted to all baby, all the time. “My love languages are physical touch and attention [quality time], so you can imagine how depleted I felt once both beautiful boys showed up,” he says. “There was less emotional affection between Antonia and me, which I understood was natural—the baby is top priority— but it didn’t make it any easier.” Going out on date nights or even DIY-ing date nights at home took so much effort. The couple constantly found themselves making the most out of smaller time windows rather than planning nights out. Brett considers himself a calm and go-with-the-flow individual, which, he says, “might have been part of the [disconnection].” Nonetheless, it helped them gauge what did and did not work as they further developed into parenthood.
His advice to future fathers/life partner parents: Be the birth mother’s advocate. If you find yourself becoming physically disengaged during the pregnancy due to school or work, get creative. Have open communication with your birth team to make sure Mom is getting the birth she wants. Get organized. Be present. And if you find yourself running out of options, you are only getting closer to finding the right one.
New Blends: A Stepdad’s Perspective
“I wasn’t there for her first steps, but I haven’t missed a ball game yet.”
It is often stated that “paternity establishment is one of the first opportunities for a [man] to affirm his commitment to his child.” In some cases, however, with no genetic ties and the biological father still in the picture, stepping into and establishing a secondary paternity role can provide its own set of obstacles, as was the case for Hayden Klein and his soon-to-be stepdaughter, Haddie Brown.
Hayden met Haddie’s mother, Katie, while in chiropractic school. When the pair first started dating, he was fully aware she had a 3-year-old daughter. Unlike most men in their mid-20s, this was a mere fact rather than a dealbreaker. How did he know he was ready to eventually take on that stepfather role? Hayden Klein comes from what he considers “a blended family.” His parents were both divorced, each marrying second partners, so he is no stranger to the concept of step-families. Understandably, it would be several months until Katie allowed him to meet Haddie.
When asked if dating a single mom is any different than dating a woman without kids, Hayden claimed it wasn’t. Both Katie and Hayden were independent individuals who didn’t require loads of time together, especially during the “honeymoon” phase of their relationship. At approximately four months of dating, Katie officially introduced Hayden to Haddie. Their connection was instantaneous, and their little family only continued to get stronger.
Hayden learned and respected the family dynamic Katie and Haddie had established, and initially took a backseat in parenting. Haddie has always had a close relationship to her birth father, whom she sees on a monthly basis. Hayden continues to honor that when anyone asks if she refers to both of them as Dad. “Absolutely not,” he tells us. “Her birth dad is still in the picture, so he rightfully owns that title. Haddie just calls me ‘Hayden’ or ‘Mommy’s friend Hayden.’ One day she may even call me ‘stepdad,’ but whatever she chooses, I want it to be a name she is most comfortable with. The most important thing is for her to know she has loads of people in the world who love her very much.”
As the family got closer, Hayden slowly became more of the disciplinarian and Katie’s parenting advocate. Stepping into the role came as an instinct. One day, Haddie was throwing a tantrum, and both she and Katie had gotten in an argument. Hayden picked Haddie up and took her to the next room to cool off. He taught her to breathe and explained the importance of staying calm when one gets upset. This was approximately two months after having met her. In this moment, Hayden knew he was ready to be a father figure.
Eventually, he and Katie do plan on having more children. For their next child, engagement during pregnancy and birth are of the utmost priority for Hayden. Pregnancy puts a huge emphasis on the well-being of both mother and child, but we must not forget the crucial role the father and life partner also plays. Hayden firmly believes the spotlight should be on Mom, since she is doing most of the work. As long as he continues to show up and love them both, everything else is just icing on the cake. Hayden doesn’t anticipate worry and nervousness to kick in when that magical day arrives. “I do, however, anticipate having a lot of respect for Katie and all she is doing in those moments,” he says.
The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. These men live by this axiom every day. Consistency and showing up daily are how they demonstrate their dedication to their families. There is no recipe to being the “perfect father.” There is no such thing. Biological ties are also not the deciding factors as to whether or not a child will be accepted and adored. This has been proven time and time again. Love is the answer. When there is love, there is hope.