The arrival of your first child is supposed to be a Hallmark moment that stretches for months — the happiest, most awe-inspiring time of your life. And for many men, or at certain times, it is. But the transition into fatherhood also can be lonely, even for men with partners and a social network of family and friends. The reasons can be situational or emotional (or both): Invitations to grab a beer or watch a game tend to dwindle once your baby arrives, and dealing with the daily drudgery of baby care can be isolating. Almost all of your wife’s attention is now diverted to the baby, and you might sometimes feel helpless about how to raise your new kid, which can increase your tendency to withdraw.
As the concept of fatherhood rapidly evolves from the stereotypical non-nurturing, mid-20th-century breadwinner and disciplinarian, psychologists are realizing that more study is needed to address the problem of loneliness among new dads.
“It’s really lonely trying to figure out fatherhood when you don’t like the old model but don’t feel you can ask anybody,” says Charles Schaeffer Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. “Many dads want to be nurturing and caring but didn’t have models for that, unless they were fortunate enough to grow up in nontraditional households.”
Although feeling lonely and isolated is common among new dads and men in general, Schaeffer says, many men find it hard to talk about, with their partners or anyone else. Many new dads don’t want to tell their wives that they’re feeling lonely because they don’t want to complain when she’s already dealing with a ton of new responsibilities and frustrations of her own. Or he’ll suffer in silence because he doesn’t want to detract from her experience as a new mom. Some dads are awed by the natural bond between mothers and newborns in the first few months of the baby’s life, Schaeffer says, and they don’t want to interfere; or they might resent the close bond and feel left out.
“One of the hallmark experiences of being a man and trying to live up to traditional gender roles is the independence piece, and with that can come loneliness.”
Outdated expectations about manhood also tend to keep men mum about their loneliness.
“Whether we agree with them or not, we breathe in gender roles and norms all the time, unfortunately,” Schaeffer says. “And one of the hallmark experiences of being a man and trying to live up to traditional gender roles is the independence piece, and with that can come loneliness.”
In addition to independence, emotional stoicism, toughness, and self-reliance also are strongly associated with masculinity, and those tenets devalue emotional experiences, so men – still – generally are less likely than women are to talk about feelings of loneliness, Schaeffer says.
“If I can generalize, it’s a common thing among men to not be open about their feelings and be authentic about them when they do share,” says Gabriel Sanders, a fitness trainer, author and founder of the New Dads Place a Facebook group with almost 6,000 members. “I’ve twice visited boot camps for men, and even there, in a private setting, many men acted tough and nonchalant, mocking and immature. ‘Be a man’ was their motto, not ‘be a dad.’”
It would be unfair, however, to broadly claim that fathers feel lonely and isolated, says Sarah C. Hunter, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at Flinders University in Australia who studies men and masculinity. It’s hard to say exactly how common loneliness might be among all fathers, as much of the dad loneliness research focuses on single or stay-at-home fathers.
“[But] given societal norms and expectations, fathers can have negative experiences,” Hunter says.
In studies of stay-at-home dads, men reported that they often feel their role makes others uneasy and uncomfortable, Hunter notes. And they often feel isolated or out of place when picking their children up from school or day care or when trying to join parenting groups, because they’re made to feel that they don’t belong.
“It’s these attitudes and perceptions towards stay-at-home dads that result in them feeling as though they have no support, which can make them feel excluded and resultantly lonely,” she says.
“Feeling isolated and like you have to work things out on your own and not ask for help is a uniquely male view that can lead to numbness and detachment.”
A lack of support for new dads appears to be common across the board. In a 2015 Massachusetts General Hospital survey of expectant dads who came in with their partners for prenatal visits, one-third of more than 900 respondents answered “nobody” when they were asked who they could go to for support and information about fathering skills, says Raymond Levy, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and founder and executive director of The Fatherhood Project.
And because more and more studies support a link between loneliness and social isolation and serious health problems, it’s not something to ignore. Across the population, loneliness is now a health epidemic some experts say. Researchers at Brigham Young University concluded that loneliness and social isolation were as deadly as smoking and obesity in a 2015 study. Loneliness is linked to poorer immune system function, heart disease, cognitive decline, and depression.
Dad-specific research suggests that single dads are twice as likely as single moms to die prematurely, one recent study found. Researchers noted in another paper, however, that being in a relationship and having social contacts doesn’t preclude parental loneliness. The authors of a small study published in 2014 concluded that many dads feel undervalued and unsupported in their new role as fathers. A lack of support, in fact, was cited as a cause of paternal postpartum depression another study suggests.
“We’re starting to realize that it isn’t healthy for us” to bottle up feelings, Schaeffer says.
All this said, though, feeling a little lonely now and then as you’re adjusting to fatherhood isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. But there are signs that loneliness could be becoming a problem. It’s a question of degree, Levy says: How often do you feel lonely and sit around longing for contact with other people?
Feeling consistently lonely more than 50 percent of the time and starting to feel hopeless about it changing might mean you’re edging toward depression (which, unlike loneliness, is a diagnosable mental health condition), Schaeffer adds. Another element of loneliness is a strong, persistent irritability or meanness that doesn’t make sense to you. Loneliness can lead to resentful rage that others aren’t picking up on your feelings, or alternatively, you might feel numb and distant. Men are particularly prone to “numbing behaviors” such as excessive drinking, smoking pot, and promiscuity in an effort to avoid feelings of loneliness, says Schaeffer.
“Being in a relationship and having social contacts doesn’t preclude parental loneliness.”
“Those are validated masculine ways of coping,” Schaeffer explains, adding: “Feeling isolated and like you have to work things out on your own and not ask for help is a uniquely male view that can lead to numbness and detachment, which are often our first signs.”
The most serious of all, Schaeffer says, is if you start thinking your family would be better off if you were dead. If you feel that way, seek professional help immediately.
Although it can be hard to admit that you’re lonely, talking to your partner about your feelings is important. And ideally, you’ve discussed with your partner how to make sure you’ll feel included as a father before the baby has arrived, says Susan Newman, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.
If a husband is feeling isolated and lonely as a new parent, it’s in the context of his family and marital relationship, notes Damon Bayles Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City. So it’s essential that you work on addressing your loneliness with your partner and co-parent.
“Seeking out a solution to the isolation that is personal, or working for him, may not be functional in the marriage,” Bayles says. “The solution as a couple may be very different than the one he might come to on his own.”
Online groups for dads like the one Sanders started also can be helpful, although in-person connections might have a deeper impact on relieving loneliness, Levy says. Certainly though, connecting with other dads online can be great practice for talking about your feelings with partners, friends or a therapist. And seeing that other people feel the way you do about being a dad normalizes the experience, which can be helpful, Levy says.
“This is the first time in history that dads have a place to reach out to thousands of dads across the world,” Sanders says. “Dads come to the group scared because their partner just found out they’re pregnant. Dads ask the group what kind of diapers to use and if it’s normal that my baby does such and such. Without the group, they would be alone.”