In each new edition of the Psychology of Men and Masculinity, we interview authors from a selected publication to highlight some of the exciting research published in the journal. This feature highlights the article “The “Sensory Deprivation Tank”: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Men’s Expectations of First-Time Fatherhood” by Christopher Kings, Tess Knight, Dani Ryan, and Jacqui Macdonald. The article was published in the April, 2016 issue.
This study addresses an important area of research. What was your inspiration for this study?
Key life transitions, such as the birth of the first child, are challenging and provide distinct meaning to our expectations. Studies suggest that around 10 percent of men report depression immediately after the birth of their first child and this rate may increase to as high as 25 percent in the following 6 months. Given this, it seems likely that individuals psychologically prepare themselves for such transitions and we wanted to explore this process in men prior to the transition to fatherhood. Although previous research had investigated the expectations of fatherhood of men without children, no studies had explored this in men at the typical age for new fatherhood. The Men and Parenting Pathways study (MAPP) specifically targets young men in that transitional period. We focused on a life point when men would be potentially considering starting their own families; when they would experience changes to social networks because of peers starting families; and, possibly when partners or families would be expecting them to make the shift to fatherhood. This was the core inspiration for conducting this study. Therefore, we interviewed nine men from the MAPP study aged 28-30 years without children because they were as close as possible to the peak average age of first-time fatherhood in Australia. We were interested in how their insights might differ from previously examined expectations of first-time fatherhood in younger, university aged, men. Most of the men we interviewed were urban, middle to upper-class, and heterosexual.
What are some of the main points you would want a general audience to take away from this study?
Young men, at the typical age for fatherhood, generate a sense of their future selves as parents that is based on their appraisals of the best they have witnessed in influential role models. They therefore have high expectations to be both emotionally and physically engaged with children, and economically responsible – generally an amalgam of the parenting characteristics they valued because they were either present or lacking in relationships with their own mothers or fathers. They described these expectations as requiring significant levels of self-sacrifice.
Paralleling this seemingly clear expectation was marked uncertainty around their future fatherhood role. The men in our study acknowledged that fatherhood was a topic they had not given significant thought to and was not often discussed in society, and especially not between men. As such, the psychological preparation we had anticipated was not evident in most of the men we interviewed. Instead, the men we spoke to had a pervasive sense of uncertainty when discussing their expectations. One man described the transition to fatherhood as akin to being “in a sensory deprivation tank”, a powerful image of isolation and fear. Previous studies—examining university aged men’s expectations—have noted similar levels of uncertainty. This observed similarity between studies of men of significantly different ages suggests a lack of development in men’s conceptualization of fatherhood between the ages of 18-30 that, to our knowledge, has not been previously discussed. The complete study discusses possible explanations for these men’s felt experience through theories of masculinity, identity and life course perspectives. The findings also have important implications for clinical practice aimed at supporting men during the transition to fatherhood.
What are the implications of this study for professionals who work with boys or men?
This study suggests that men could greatly benefit from services aimed at developing their understanding of fatherhood. Many of the participants were uncertain about what being a holistic father involved, had self-doubt in their ability, feared the associated life changes and had few key role models. Previous studies indicate all-male discussion forums are beneficial in helping men clarify pathways towards future fatherhood roles, identify role models and create a tangible sense of self-image. Considering these represented some of the core concerns of the participants, the current study provided significant support for the use of discussion forums to help men effectively transition into first-time fatherhood. The power of discussion was also illustrated in individual interviews where one participant noted, “The whole topic is a lot more developed just by simple exposure”.
We are extremely grateful to the generous men who volunteered to be interviewed.