Clinical Impact Statement: This article examines the transition of a psychotherapist into fatherhood and his reflections on the ways in which he is impacted by this transition, both as a psychotherapist and as a person.
One of the main components of my job as a psychotherapist is helping my clients navigate transitions in their lives, such as relocating, marriage, death, and starting new jobs. Whether expected or not, life transitions are often seen as opportunities for mental and emotional stress as worry, insecurities, and fear can develop in that empty space between the familiar and the “new.” Many clients put a tremendous burden and stress on themselves to navigate these transitions impeccably, especially given the ways in which society places great social cache on the appearance of flawlessness (thanks, Beyoncé). Not only are we supposed to flawlessly transition through these key “checkpoints” in our lives, but we are also are supposed to do so without a hint of consternation or fear as these are “welcomed” events and we should be “happy” about achieving these cultural milestones. But with this pressure comes real world fears and worries about our abilities to both fully appreciate and be successful in these new places. We all want to be successful parents, partners, and employees but to do so takes much work, most of which occurs between the ears.
An aspect of this potential for emotional stress lies in the very nature of a transition or change. Life transitions represent deviations from the norm and situations where a person is required to use either new or different skill sets to overcome an important challenge or to manage a significant life event. When we ask ourselves to be resourceful and mentally or emotionally flexible it can illuminate some of our shortcomings and the ways in which we may hold negative opinions of our fitness to assume titles such as parent, boss, partner, or others. Transition also has the potential to show us much about ourselves, with some of these observations welcomed while some only serve to confirm irrational negative thoughts about our capabilities or ourselves. For example, our experience of growing up may positively or negatively influence our feelings regarding assuming the role of parent and how a parent should act in order to cultivate a healthy family. As a clinician, my responsibility is to assist the client with being both present and agile during transition. This position allows the client the opportunity to be better aware of irrational or inappropriate thoughts and also more attuned to the various necessary aspects of this change. Successful management of a transitional period in someone’s life is varied but it can often be defined as the client being able to achieve or come close to an optimal outcome while also not assuming any unnecessary residual negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.
There are many factors that contribute to the current stress associated with getting married, getting that next great job, or having children, with aspects of this being associated with the proliferation of social media. Our expectations of parenting, marriage, and other life transitions can be artificially augmented by how we view others in our social circles presenting their successes and challenges on social media. What we may fail to remember is that social media is often a one-sided window into a person’s life where their true struggles or difficulties are often glanced over in favor of projecting a sense of fluidity, control, and mastery to the outside community. Research has also consistently demonstrated the potential negative impact of emotional over-reliance on social media and the ways in which it can pose genuine mental health risks to both the individual and those who read the posts (Fagan, 2015). As psychotherapists, we too must be aware of the impact of social media on the expectations that we may consciously and unconsciously place on our clients. Given our exposure to examples of members of our community navigating these life events on social media, we may lose sight of the often-real challenges that exist when someone is in the midst of a transition and attempting to do so with a present focus and with authenticity. We also run the risk of experiencing the same or similar challenges as our clients when it comes to the negative impacts of social media (Middleton, 2015). Clinicians themselves are not immune to the challenges of managing transitions. Often times, some of the most vulnerable times for a clinician to provide efficacious care can be during these expected and unexpected times of great joy or sadness in their lives.
I am going to be a father in September. My fiancée and I discovered at the beginning of the year that we were going to be parents and we were both elated. The thought of bringing a child into our relationship was one that was met with joy and happiness for our entire community and us as a couple. To understand the depth of the emotions surrounding my fiancée’s pregnancy, one would require greater understanding of my own unique familial experience and narrative surrounding parenthood and pregnancy. When my parents were young and in love, they, too, decided to embark on parenthood and attempt to have children. Without getting too much into the specifics of their situation, they had to endure approximately seven years of unfruitful pregnancy attempts in order to receive clearance to seek professional medical assistance. After seeking this assistance, my parents were able to conceive both my brother and I, with one miscarriage occurring in between. This story about the difficulties my parents endured on their quest to become parents has been a story that has always been a part of my life narrative and an aspect of my later thinking as my fiancée and I seriously considered having biological children. Some of the stress and anxiety that my parents felt in their experience seemingly traveled across space and time to land here in my own experience of this transition. My experience of their pregnancy in my life narrative has had a tremendous impact on my view of family, parenting, and pregnancy. One obvious way in which this narrative contributed to my experience of this life transition was in my awareness of infertility and the difficulties that some experience when attempting to conceive. When we were able to confirm my fiancée’s pregnancy, my heart skipped a beat, but my mind also went to those in our social circle who have struggled to become parents. The questions as to why we had been so lucky with our conception while others have struggled and endured tremendous stress caused me to think about how to communicate our joy to those members of our community that might find this news exciting but also reinforcing of their own pain. This significantly influenced how we communicated this news to friends and family while wanting to be sensitive to those we knew and did not know were coping with fertility challenges. One example of this has been the lack of the typical Facebook or Instagram playful baby announcement as we are aware of the unintended pain that has caused some of our friends in the past. This struggle to celebrate this news but also be mindful of others was difficult and something that I struggled with and continue to explore. Another example where my specific life narrative impacted my transition into fatherhood has been the joyful response of my parents to our pregnancy. Beyond being excited for us, it seems as though there is a palpable sense of relief that we were not subjected to similar challenges with having children, given how my parents understand how impactful that can be to a relationship and to an individual’s psyche. Their joy brought us happiness and we were well aware of how they reveled in our joy and how they were excited about being grandparents.
In addition to this providing me with the opportunity to better understand my adult clients who are going through similar transitions in their lives, my entry into fatherhood has also helped me better understand some of the stressors of parenting. Although some speak about parenting as something that happens once the baby is born, the act of parenting and the emotional connection with your child starts much earlier. During my fiancée’s pregnancy, we have encountered both the usual pregnancy stressors and several that were unexpected. Encountering the unexpected was challenging, as this was uncharted territory for us and we were surrounded by similar pregnant couples who were experiencing stress-free pregnancies according to social media. But this was not necessarily true. As we began to confide in close friends, we realized how common pregnancy medical stress was and how many of our friends experienced similar sleepless nights and concerned looks from doctors. In this case, we fell victim to similar misleading information from social media in terms of adopting the assumption of a carefree pregnancy and not having a sense of the normal bumps in the road that many face while pregnant. When speaking to my father about these events, I remember telling him about all of the times he and my mother told my brother and I that we would not understand certain things until we were parents. During this recent conversation, I playfully joked to my father by telling him, “I get it. I get it. I get it. I get it now.” With that declaration, I both thanked him and my mother for the tireless efforts they selflessly dedicated to raising my brother and I, while also acknowledging the arduous road ahead in terms of growing into the father my child needs me to be—and the father I want to be for my child. This experience then helped me better understand the level of love and dedication that most parents have for their children, especially the children I have the pleasure of working with in therapy.
Becoming a father may also help me better appreciate the ways in which parenting is similar to being a good psychotherapist. According to Firestone (2010), there are numerous commonalities between successful parenting and guiding a client through the therapeutic process. Dr. Firestone highlights several commonalities, including equality, good listening, and investment in creating a fair and balanced atmosphere for growth and frank communication (Firestone, 2010). Reviewing this article made me realize how building a healthy therapeutic alliance is similar to building healthy family connections as a parent. Although parenting and therapy differ in many noteworthy and important ways, the ability for the two identities of parent and psychotherapist to positively influence each other is something that I am looking forward to enjoying. Similarly, I am confident that my experiences as a psychologist will better prepare me for my role as a father. Besides the academic knowledge regarding developmental stages, moral development, and learning disabilities, psychology has taught me how to focus on relationships and quiet the noise around me that may distract from that human moment between two people. My hope is that I can incorporate those same skills to help me target my full and undivided attention toward our child as the child grows and develops. Similar to how I want my clients to feel like they have my full attention from the time they are in my office until they leave, I also want my child and my partner to feel like time spent with them is intentional and purposeful as opposed to just circumstantial and inconsequential.
So, as I embark on a journey filled with dirty diapers and sleepless nights, I look forward to this life transition with both nervousness and joy. There has been no greater joy in my life than finding my partner and beginning to start my family and I cannot wait to add the title of “dad” to my list of names.
Cite This Article
Jenkins, J. (2018). From psychologist to “Whose father is this?”: Transitioning into fatherhood as a psychotherapist. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(2), 19-22.
Fagan, K. (May 7, 2015). Split image. ESPN W. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/12833146/instagram-account-university-pennsylvania-runner-showed-only-part-story
Firestone, L. (October 31, 2010). Being a good therapist and being a good parent require the same skills: Being a good parent is like being a good therapist. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201010/being-good-therapist-and-being-good-parent-require-the-same-skills
Middleton, E. J. (December 21, 2015). The Millennial therapist: How social media affect our lives & work. Time2Track Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.time2track.com/the-millennial-therapist-how-social-media-affects-our-lives-and-our-work