by Chuck Schaeffer, Ph.D.
When you think of Father’s Day, what do you think of? Images of outdoor family gatherings, shaving sets, and greeting cards immediately come to mind. Perhaps you think of the men in your life and wonder about who has recently become a father. There’s a very good chance you know a new father—every day over 350,000 men become fathers to a newborn all over the world. Almost all of these men have actively dreamed about what their child and what life would be like for months leading up to the arrival. Dreams of bonding, attaching, and caring for one’s family are ubiquitous on social media and commercials. However, if you look beyond Facebook, you find that the fantasies of many new fathers are often confusing, shameful, and terrifying.
What are scary fantasies?
Scary fantasies are intrusive day dreams or thoughts that are usually centered around a father’s relationships to his partner and/or new child. For example, a patient named Mark* talks about nightmares that his wife and soon to be born child will abandon him because he’s not a good enough provider. Curt shares his recurrent dream that he will find his daughter suffocated during her sleep. Ron tearfully admonishes himself about his daydreams of accidentally breaking his son’s legs or dropping him out a window. Warren wonders if he’s always secretly been a monster because he has unwanted sexual thoughts about touching his daughter’s genitals when he changes her diapers.
All of these fathers are experiencing scary fantasies but none of them realize how common their experiences are. In a recent study of obsessional thoughts among postpartum parents, 45% of fathers reported intrusive fantasies about suffocation/SIDs, 25% about intentional harm, and 4% centered on sexual contact.
Where do scary fantasies come from?
Scary fantasies are not unique to fathers or parents. We all have had strange thoughts or fantasies. When we understand that these are not reality, they are less frightening. The uncertainty around this newly forming parent role, lack of self-concept as an effective parent, and emerging fatherly identity leaves many men vulnerable to accepting these fleeting fantasies as predictions of the future, as reality.
Scary fantasies can also stem from increased dependency needs and fears of loss and abandonment. Expecting mothers become more focused on the child and less on the sexual or relational needs of their partners. Men who have relied on their spouses for dependency needs such as intimacy, holding, and emotional support are now left feeling confused, angry, and guilty as they try to also support their partner’s growing needs. In my work with Mark, he talks about his growing anxiety about providing financially, which he links with his wife’s willingness to be in a relationship with him post-birth.
A more adaptive view on scary fantasies is that they stem from the healthy desires to protect and care for families and children. From this view, scary fantasies can be seen as attempts to preview threats to a new father’s children and family. According to research on OCD and obsessions, casting the self as the perpetrator of violence or harm is an attempt to exert some control/ reduce anxiety. Sadly this often winds up causing more anxiety, guilt, and shame leading to increased obsessional thoughts and anxiety. For example, while Warren attempts to anticipate threats to his daughter, he must continue to change and bathe her. Due to his scary thoughts, he continues to worry that he might be the true threat to her well-being.
How can we help fathers struggling with scary fantasies and thoughts?
One of the most effective ways I help fathers around scary fantasies is providing validation and psycho-education. This means offering genuine concern and respect for the complex emotions including fear, shame, anger, and sadness that underlie many men’s transition into fatherhood. It also means introducing new fathers to the concept of scary fantasies and normalizing this jarring, vulnerable, and unexpected experience. When we work to validate the intensity of Mark’s fears and experiences of dependency, including normalizing his feelings, his worry lifts and he is able to develop a closer relationship with his wife and child. For Warren it takes more time. After months of exposure, validation, and psycho-education, he shares tearfully that he can finally bathe and begin to comfortably bond with his daughter.
Although many men can negotiate the scary fantasies on their own, some seek consultation or enter treatment when these fantasies emerge in early fatherhood. Many more never seek out treatment, instead suffering in silence and isolation, because as a society we all have difficulties letting go of our assumptions of a tough, resilient, independent masculinity that somehow protects men from the developmental crisis of entering fatherhood.
This might be the most powerful fantasy of all — that men and fathers do not need our emotional concern, curiosity, or support. The more we can challenge this fantasy, examining our own assumptions and instead exploring the emotional realities of men’s transition to fatherhood, the better we can support our fathers on Father’s Day and every day.
* Patient stories are examples.
Chuck Schaeffer, Ph.D. is a New York-based licensed psychologist who serves as clinical faculty at New York University and Baruch College. His research and practice is centered on anxiety management, sleep restoration, work-life balance and parental mental health particularly in the transition to parenthood among men and women. His expertise has been featured in Psychology Today, Huffington Post, Mom.me, and the Daily Meal as well in international training for individuals and organizations including Good+, Seleni Institute, and New York University.