Why Dads Leave: Insights & Resources for When Partners Become Parents – NEW BOOK!
“At last someone has come up with the courage to tackle one of the most insidious epidemics in American life. When men leave their families, society feels the destructive ripples for generations to come. Callander and Travis begin a dialogue and offer unique insights that must be heard. We have swept this one under the carpet too long.” — Dean Edell, MD
“A book few, if any of us men, who have married at an early age, raised a family for some years, and then left to pursue whatever dreams compelled us, should or can afford to miss. I am one of those written about, so I know what my journey has cost me, as well as given to me, and what it has cost the family I left.” – Fred Alan Wolf, PhD, Taking the Quantum Leap and featured in What the Bleep
“To say that this book could change human history is not an overstatement. In fact, were it heeded, this book could change our species itself—and definitely for the better. Meryn and John have the details—and in a form anyone can understand and to which we simply must respond.” —Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of Magical Child and Crack in the Cosmic Egg
“Most songs are about getting your man. This book is about keeping your man—especially after a child comes along.” —Naomi Judd, Emmy Award–winning singer/songwriter
Listen to an Audio Interview with Meryn Callander
Kindred’s editor, Lisa Reagan, talks with Meryn Callander about her reasons for writing the book, Why Dads Leave, as well as her invaluable insights gleaned from 20 years of research into the Dynamic of Disappearing Dads. This book shines a bright light on the emotional needs of fathers after the birth of a child, especially in those families who wish to practice attachment parenting.
Video: Why Dads Leave, with John W. Travis, MD
About the video interview:
John W.Travis, MD, MPH, a pioneer of the wellness movement, shares his discovery and insights into the Dynamic of Disappearing Dads, DDD, with Lisa Reagan. The book by Meryn Callander, Why Dads Leave: Insights & Resources for When Partners Become Parents, exploring DDD’s origins, is due out in June 2012.
See the full 36 minute video here.
Visit the website, Why Dads Leave and sign up to be notified when the book is released!
Visit Why Dads Leave on Facebook.
Check Kindred for Interviews and Articles from Meryn Callander!
Meryn CallanderChapter One: Introductions
Our Journey Through the Dynamic of Disappearing Dads (DDD)
The initial hypothesis for Why Dads Leave emerged from one man’s painful journey into fatherhood. It began with his first venture into this terrain over 40 years ago, which ended in divorce and his largely abandoning his then three-year-old daughter—and continued with the journey of the woman he married over 30 years ago, the mother of his second child, who struggled alongside him, and nearly lost him along the way. That man was my husband, and I am the mother of his second child.
I spent most of my adolescence and early adulthood unconsciously looking for a substitute for the nurturing mother I never had. I thought getting married (along with becoming a doctor) would somehow fulfill me, and assumed the right “girl” would magically appear.
I thought I found her my senior year in college and married her midway through my second year of medical school. Much to my surprise, marriage didn’t suddenly make my life “all better,” just more complicated. The feelings of emptiness and depression persisted, and she found marriage to a medical student along with working to support us, very stressful. After three years of marriage she said she had to have a baby or she would leave. I knew I wasn’t ready to be a father, but didn’t think that could change soon, so, reluctantly, I complied, because divorce wasn’t an option in my family. We did a Lamaze course and found the only hospital in Baltimore that allowed fathers in the delivery room. In February of 1972, after a two-hour labor, I became a father for the first time.
It was great at first, the excitement of this new being, but then reality hit—I was a lot lower on my wife’s attention list. I became more and more depressed. Eventually we both got involved in intensive psychotherapy using Transactional Analysis and reparenting. Here I learned a lot about my childhood wounds, and that I actually had feelings and could express them, though with great difficulty. We began learning about the unconscious patterns we’d been playing out in our co-dependent marriage (I provided the thinking, she the feelings), but we seemed relatively powerless to change them. My experience with this work did, however, become the basis for my career in wellness and, later, my understanding of how failed connection is the primary impediment to wellbeing as an adult.
Despite learning a great deal about my inner workings, I was depressed most of the first two years of our daughter’s life. When she was two and a half, the pain became so great that I realized I had to leave in order to retain my own sanity. I was sometimes close to being suicidal. In order to start the wellness center I had been planning for two years, I had to return to California. This meant a 3,000-mile separation from my daughter who remained in Baltimore with her mother. So, in addition to having been emotionally absent for much of my daughter’s life, I now physically abandoned her. Although I loved her to the extent I could open myself to anyone, I had never really developed a strong and healthy bond with her—clearly out of my own inexperience with bonding with a parent. At the time, I wasn’t even aware we weren’t bonded, i.e., that anything more was possible.—Jack
It was nearly 20 years after the birth of his first daughter, when Jack decided to venture again into this territory of fathering. This time, he thought he was ready. He’d come a long way, personally and professionally. Shortly after his first daughter’s birth, he left the lucrative world of medicine to found the world’s first wellness center in Mill Valley, California—at a time when the word “wellness” was unknown.
Jack recalls 1976 as one of the happiest years of his life. For the first time, at age 33, he was doing what he wanted to do professionally and wasn’t beholden to someone else’s agenda. He was in love with a tall blonde named Joy, and his career was starting to take off. The wellness center was getting national attention, and he traveled all over North America giving lectures and workshops. He was featured in conferences alongside such pioneers as Norm Shealy, Jerry Jampolsky, George Leonard, Will Schutz, Larry Dossey, and Norman Cousins.
I bought a $1,200 Brioni suit and a ‘68 MGB sports car, but I also began to notice how empty I felt after receiving a burst of attention from a workshop or lecture. The attention I was getting was for what I had done, not who I was, and like a sugar rush, there was a crash afterward.
The administrative responsibilities of the Center were taking a toll on me and deep inside me, something felt wrong.
After two years of our living together, Joy realized she was unable to meet my desires for nurturing (here we go again). She fell in love with a musician and moved out—I felt abandoned like never before.
Continuing to participate in a variety of “consciousness” programs ubiquitous in the 70s in California, I tried to learn to love myself and follow the tenets of self-responsibility that I was advocating, all the while struggling with my chronic depression.
The following year, as our center was about to be featured (and favorably portrayed) on “60 Minutes” with Dan Rather, I realized that life in the fast lane was not for me. I longed to simplify.
I met and fell in love with an Australian, Meryn Callander. My needs for attention were again met in the heights of romance. Meryn shared my dream of living more simply on the earth. —Jack
We were married in a small ceremony, performed by Joy, and began a partnership—personal and professional—that spanned nearly a third of a century.
In 1980, we decided to move to the mountains of Costa Rica, Central America—a wonderful experience for both of us—but that’s another story (see Wellness for Helping Professionals). We returned to rural northern California in 1983.
The Roots of Wellness
Through my immersion in feminist spirituality, we began to notice how the patterns of dominator/victim (patriarchal/power-over) versus partnership (matrifocal/power-with) manifested in our own relationship as well as in the larger culture. We formed a network of helping professionals that addressed the need we had observed among colleagues for authentic partnership and connection. We were engaged in healing the estrangement—the disconnection from each other, the earth, the divine, and our own deep selves—that is normative in the Western world; and carrying the seeds of these experiences, as “culture-makers,” into the world.
In the early 90s, a member of our network introduced The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff, as being relevant to our work. This book was to be more than that—it was to radically impact the way in which I perceived and tended she-who-was-to-become my daughter, and indeed, all children.
Liedloff, on an expedition in the rainforests of Venezuela, had encountered members of the Yequana tribe and found them to be the happiest people she had ever met. The children were remarkably content and cooperative. She wanted to know why.
After several extended visits to their village, she finally connected the temperament of the adults she’d met with the fact that their babies and small children were seldom out of arms, were breastfed on cue, were never left to cry, and their discomforts were quickly alleviated.
After seeing the shock on the faces of several Yequana mothers she brought to the US, when observing how we treat our infants, Liedloff surmised that the way we treat babies and children is a primary cause of the rampant unhappiness and alienation in Western civilization. We had spent decades exploring and facilitating many avenues of personal growth, only to discover that the roots of wellness are formed in the period from our conception through the early years of our childhood. Now we saw that the conditions that run counter to wellness—from chronic illness, depression, addiction, violence, materialism, to fundamentalism, and ecocide—are not just the “human condition,” but a result of how children in our culture are raised. It was this discovery that fueled Jack’s desire to become a father again. This time, he believed, fatherhood would be different—he knew what he could do to make it work.
In July of 1992, we conceived a child on our 40-acre homestead in the rolling hills of Mendocino County in Northern California. After a carefully tended pregnancy and beautifully orchestrated home water birth supported by a midwife, our beautiful (of course) daughter was born—Siena Ariel.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months and, for Jack, the initial glow began to fade. Meanwhile, though exhausted, I was blossoming and simply loving being a mom and with that, redirecting much of the nurturing I had directed toward Jack to Siena.
Jack found himself spiraling down in despair and into the depression that was eventually to be the stimulus for discovering what we named Male Postpartum Abandonment Syndrome (MPAS)—and the resulting Dynamic of Disappearing Dads (DDD).
But it would be nearly a decade before he would actually be able to put a name to it. And another decade before we would begin to appreciate the strength of the currents that render many a Western man, in the process of becoming a father, as peripheral to his child’s life as the mother is central.
We Knew it All (Oh, Sure!)
We’d been there so many times—engaging in processes recovering from the unmet needs of our own childhoods, and learning to discover the gifts therein. And we’d facilitated many others through the same processes. We knew a crucial determinant of being a good parent is our ability to reflect on our own childhood and learn from it, so that we don’t embody the same dysfunctional behaviors that our parents, albeit unwittingly, inflicted on us.
What we had not considered was how deeply these longings are embedded in our brain “wiring,” i.e., the dysfunctional patterns that were deeply imprinted in the early years of life. Later, learning of discoveries in neurobiology and neuropsychology showing how early brain development is determined by an infant’s experience with caregivers, we realized how greatly we had underestimated the role of the culturally condoned separation of mother and infant/child, in shaping how we approach life in general, and parenting in particular. More on this later.
Meanwhile, Back to the Very Beginning
At 37, after reading The Continuum Concept, my biological alarm suddenly rang loud and clear—I wanted a baby.
While Jack had thought he could never reopen the painful experience of being a father again, The Continuum Concept had opened the doors to a whole new world of parenting and nurturing a well world. He was struck by the simplicity and insight of Liedloff’s theory and how it explained so many of the issues he had encountered in counseling others in his professional wellness work, as well as the driving force of the unmet needs of his own childhood that he’d spend so many years trying to heal.
With these sudden revelations, I thought I might make up for my greatest failure in life—not being a “good” father. It was armed with these new insights, that I thought I could “get it right” this time. And so I made the decision to become a father a second time—this time not under the duress I had with my first marriage.
Up until then I had lived a fairly pressured life of self-imposed deadlines using adrenalin to make myself accomplish things. I gave lip service to love and relationships as my highest values, but I was more deeply driven by the belief I needed to accomplish to earn my keep, always feeling like some unknown, but dreaded, thing was gaining on me if I didn’t have something concrete to show myself at the end of each day. Now, I thought, I was gradually overcoming my depressions. Years of hard work on painful issues seemed to be paying off. —Jack
Fascinated, I went on to find many other studies associating early childcare practices with later personality outcomes. The theme was consistent: social interaction, initially with the mother, then within the family, forms the foundation from which the child will relate to the world. The infant/child who receives a great deal of attention, whose every need is promptly met, most likely becomes a gentle, cooperative adult. Likewise, the child who receives intermittent attention likely becomes a selfish, aggressive adult.
I thrilled to the possibilities.
So inspired, I became a mother at 41 years of age. It surprises me, even today, that such an “everyday” event as “becoming mother” remains the most precious, profound—and at times heartbreaking—experience of my life.
As an adult, I had spent very little time in the presence of babies or the very young, and rarely held an infant in my arms. And so I had managed to imagine that, with our baby, life would continue pretty much as before. Why not? She would be with us, content in sling or backpack as we lived our lives pretty much as we always had, just as they did in the indigenous cultures I had read about.
In retrospect, it is difficult to imagine how I could have been so naïve. Along with a good dose of wishful thinking, I see my unrealistic expectations were, in part, the sad consequence of my lack of exposure to the very young. Little wonder, given the prevalence of the nuclear family and the ways in which we have thoroughly divorced so much of our lives from our children, who are tucked away behind the walls of “their” homes, daycare centers, or schools.
I now believe it is impossible—before a baby arrives—to appreciate the changes in lifestyle that will be demanded of us. And even more impossible to fathom, the changes that will occur within us as we become mother/father, and between us as we assume these roles.
Up until Siena’s birth, Jack and I had been consumed by the excitement of being pregnant, preparing for the home birth, tending our new home and property, traveling and facilitating seminars, along with my working with a passion on a new book, Dispelling the Myths: Conception through the Early Years. We gave little thought to the needs of the postpartum period, beyond the thrilling purchase of a beautiful baby sling, a pile of cotton diapers and a few of the sweetest ever natural fiber (of course) baby outfits. And truly, in terms of what’s required to meet a baby’s material needs, when practicing attachment parenting, this proved to be enough. No need for cots, cribs, pacifiers, bottles, prams, formula, or teddy bears.
The morning of February 28, 1993, three days “early,” I felt my water break. It hit me then: this was real! There is no turning back. I surrendered. It felt so precious. I was ready. Or so I thought.
At 9:29 PM Jack and I were two individuals, used to an unusually high level of independence and freedom from the schedules and demands of others. At 9:30 Siena slid down my birth canal and into the warm waters of the birthing pool, and I was transported to another planet, a whole new dimension of being (and doing). This new reality grew on me over the coming days. Everything was so different. Jack and I were parents together. I had been initiated into one of the most important roles I would ever play in my life. A role I suddenly found myself minimally prepared for and supported in fulfilling.
Caught Unawares: Growing Closer or Apart?
At the time of Siena’s birth we had been together for 14 years. Thanks to our work in wellness, creating “safe spaces,” encouraging personal disclosure, authenticity, partnership, “being real,” etc., we knew each other inside out—more than most couples ever care, or dare, to know and understand. We had spent months reading and writing about “continuum practices,” more widely known as attachment parenting. We had thought that we were prepared, but oh, how wrong we were!
After Siena’s birth, we found ourselves floundering, exhausted, unprepared for the challenges we encountered, most especially those that impacted us as a couple, and with no framework to help us interpret them. Enthralled with the pregnancy and excitement of preparing for a homebirth, we somehow remained totally oblivious to the fact that the transition to parenthood is a time of rapid and profound change for a couple, presenting new stresses and tensions, and often bringing up new and distressing feelings about each other and the marriage. We did not know that while most couples approach parenthood imagining a new baby will bring them closer together, in reality, initially at least, a child tends to push them apart. Even if we had known of this, we’d have been sure it wouldn’t happen to us.
While the challenges of this transition time may have been touched on in a few of the birthing books that I had devoured, it was never presented in a explicit way to catch my attention. Certainly there had been no mention that as many as 30% of men physically leave within a few years after a child is born.1
As for Jack, he hadn’t read many of the books! After all, they were mostly written for women. And raising a child was, in a way, regarded as “women’s business.”
MPAS Strikes Home
Brimming with “love” hormones from our truly “normal” birth, it appeared to Jack that I responded intuitively to Siena’s every need. I rapidly became the “expert,” at least in his eyes. Initially, I had taken comfort in the belief that Jack knew all about birthing and parenting. After all he was an MD, he had already fathered a child, and he had even delivered babies on an Apache reservation. His gradual withdrawal from the fathering role came as a shock to me. I had no idea of the depths of what he was struggling with.
The birth had gone well. Meryn breezed through the final stage of labor, and I was in the pool with her to welcome Siena into the world. We had set up our bed in the dining room where the birthing pool was and a couple of hours after the birth, we were asleep with Siena nestled between us.
The next day, as she lay contentedly on my bare chest, I felt my heart overflowing with love. I had no idea I could love anyone so much. At this time, I had no idea of the long repressed memories, the depth of pain and envy, that would be opened up from constantly being in the presence of someone who knew what her needs were, expressed those needs without qualification, and actually got the nurturing every infant needs and thrives on. I found myself plunged into ever-deeper layers of pain.
Meryn became a superbly nurturing mother, instinctively meeting Siena’s needs in just those myriad ways we had been advocating. And, as I should have anticipated, Siena’s arrival supplanted much of the attention I’d been getting from Meryn, especially nurturance.
While we provided her with a degree of physical and emotional nurturance unknown to most children in the West today, and she blossomed from it, our relationship became more and more strained. I went deeper into depressions, alternating with periods of hyperactivity trying to avoid feeling the pain, and to keep us afloat financially and make up for the downtime of my crashes. I knew it was unsustainable but was at a loss for how to be any other way. —Jack
It was only later that he could begin to articulate what had been happening for him—how his inner child felt abandoned and inadequate compared to the real child sharing a bed with him every night, sleeping and breastfeeding contentedly. His pain was further fueled by seeing how my similarly disconnected childhood was being healed through my biological connection with Siena. He was tormented by his inability to connect emotionally with either of us. Other than being the primary provider, maintainer of the homestead, and sometimes changer-of-diapers, he felt less and less useful as a father. He felt this despite the fact that he was, in my reality, a very involved and wonderfully caring and competent dad—except during his periods of withdrawal into neediness and depression.
I tried to meet my own needs on a number of fronts: during the pregnancy I had converted our newly purchased small cabin, on 40 acres in the wilds of Mendocino County, into an open-ceiling home with a sleeping loft. Then during Siena’s first year, I built a room for my office, a deck, and a greenhouse/solar atrium—all in my efforts to feel more creative, useful, and connected. I participated in men’s groups, therapy, and time in nature—all to little avail. Our new friends, Bruce and Maggie, along with their son the same age as Siena, moved onto the land with us and built a cabin. Creating our own little community helped, but Bruce’s long commute was a challenge and they eventually moved back to the coast. —Jack
Emotionally, he was slowly disappearing and throwing himself into work to minimize the pain.
MPAS had struck home, but it would be years before I could name it. At this point all I can feel is a deep longing. I feel unloved, unlovable, disconnected, and superfluous. Meryn has the womb and the breasts—the physical connection with our child that no man can ever experience. —Jack
While Jack kept on adding rooms and renovating their little home in the hills, all I wanted was for him to rebuild and renovate his relationship—with me, and with our baby.
Our relationship has always been challenging as we have strived to live in partnership rather than power struggles, collaboration rather than competition, loving and learning rather than protecting and defending. Despite our many clearings and revelations, and a substantial degree of personal growth, we each carried a pretty typical layer of armoring, with many of our interactions charged with baggage from the past.
Throughout the pregnancy and at the time of Siena’s birth, our relationship felt positive and stable. I knew I was really fortunate in having a partner who supported me in these continuum practices, and there were many times we shared the joy of being parents. For the most part, except in his really down periods when it was so painful for him to be with either of us, he was there to share the caring for Siena, to take her into his own arms, diaper and delight her. Most important, I knew that he adored her, and that his intentions—like mine—were good.
While Siena brought great joy into our lives, and we were unwavering in our commitment to her wellbeing, her presence was inevitably a stress with respect to the allocation of time and priorities for attention. Jack had always had a greater need for attention from me than I from him. And now, all my nurturing energies were pouring onto Siena. The truth was, Siena was a delight to be with. He, on the other hand, had become more like a whiney, needy little child I didn’t want to be around.
While I had always believed our marriage had been made in heaven, I had often wondered whether it could survive life on earth. This question loomed larger than ever now. By Siena’s third year, Jack was depressed much of the time. Over our many years together, I had come to appreciate how debilitating his depressive periods were for him. I had seen him venture with such hope from one therapeutic approach to another attempting to counteract the basic S-SAD (see next chapter) he had carried since birth—all to no avail.
I had learned that the best I could do was to hold minimal expectations of him, “give him space” when he went under, knowing it would, in time, pass. I knew he dreaded these periods too, but it was so hard not to have expectations for him at this juncture in our lives. This, of course, made it even worse. I wanted a father for my child, a partner, a friend. Instead, it seemed I had not one, but two little children to care for. I felt his neediness as a constant drain on my energies. I struggled with the resentment I felt towards him. And the sadness I felt at the absence of his presence, as a father, that I had anticipated with so much pleasure.
In contrast, Siena’s love for me was so pure, authentic, spontaneous, effervescent. She was so uncomplicated. And so why ever would I choose to be with him rather than with her? The more depressed and needy he became, the less I wanted to be with him. I would dread the times when he wanted to talk about how needy he was, how he wasn’t getting what he wanted from our relationship. I had little patience for this litany, and so much more and better to do with my life: like hang out with Siena, the love of my life.
I was in love and I was loved—unconditionally. I bathed in this field of love. How could Jack ever compete? And if not, why would he want to stay?
I swung between feelings of sadness and anger that Jack had left emotionally. I felt alone, abandoned by him. If only I had understood what I understand now, I would have had more appreciation for the depths of his despair, and a deeper appreciation of the need to nurture our adult couple relationship—the foundation (or the ruins) on which the wellbeing of the family rests. But I did not know any of this at the time. And the very little literature that connected fathers with children described father absence. It was as if a father’s presence did not factor into his child’s health or happiness. As for MPAS, it hadn’t yet been recognized.
MPAS in a Nutshell
A secure mother-infant bond, fundamental to all mammalian species, is the foundation on which all future relationships are built.
Today we know from recent discoveries in neurobiology that—as many indigenous cultures have always known—a secure mother-infant bond depends on many factors: a natural (i.e., unmedicated, intervention-free) birth; breastfeeding; near-constant physical contact through carrying infants in-arms or wearing them in slings; shared sleeping arrangements; and the recognition that babies are social beings who thrive on loving connections. Today, these practices are known as “attachment parenting” or “connection parenting.”
Almost everyone in the Western world born since the 1930s has been subjected to modern practices that interfere with secure attachment—endured a high-tech rather than a high-touch birth; fed artificial baby food rather than breastmilk; placed in isolating and lifeless wheeled carriers, rather than on mother’s—or dad’s—body; left to “cry it out” rather than being lovingly responded to; left to sleep alone in cribs instead of co-sleeping in a family bed; if a boy, circumcised; and subjected to childrearing techniques built on coercion (like “Babywise” [sic] or Dr. Spock, for older generations) rather than connection.
As a result, little boys grow up looking for the mommy they never connected with. If they’re lucky, they find her, and marry her, and think everything’s OK—until the first baby comes along.
Suddenly the baby takes center stage, needing far more time and energy than a single human being can provide. The result is that the poorly connected father once again feels left out in the cold. He is vulnerable to adopting withdrawal and avoidance behaviors (through which he is unconsciously and unsuccessfully seeking connection) in order to cope with the anxiety that accompanies a brain with insecure infant attachment patterns.
Meanwhile his partner may be simultaneously healing her own similar unmet needs, by being bathed in a cocktail of love hormones from her physical connection of carrying the baby in her womb and breastfeeding—which no man can ever experience. If she goes back to work in three months and puts their child in daycare, his pain of disconnection will not be as strongly restimulated and he will be less susceptible to MPAS. But the stage is then set for their child to repeat the cycle of passing on this “normative abuse” to the next generation.
Ironically, the better the mother is able to nurture her child, the more likely the father will be to re-experience his childhood wounding because he sees even more of what he didn’t get. MPAS is now in play, with neither partner understanding the origins, and both likely overwhelmed by the transition to parenthood. A common coping mechanism for him is to leave, either physically or emotionally.
While women are more likely to take the first step towards formal dissolution of the relationship, it is usually the man’s earlier dissatisfaction—typically manifesting in emotional or physical absence— more than her own, which predicts her taking that step.2
Fatherhood, much more than motherhood, is a cultural construction. Its meaning is shaped by a culture that conditions a man into certain ways of behaving and perceiving himself. In this way fathers are made, not born.
In the West, our prevalent cultural story about fatherhood sees fathers as superfluous—either unnecessary or undesirable—or purely as provider or disciplinarian. This perspective is fueled by the belief that men don’t have the biological programming to nurture their offspring. This belief lies behind the reluctance of many mothers to involve fathers in childcare, and behind an enormous range of social and economic policies and practices that not only fail to validate the father-child relationship, but frequently undermine it. Unwittingly beholden to some extent to this prevailing FatherStory, Jack saw himself, like his own father, as a mother’s helper rather than a partner who could parent sensitively and competently, though differently. And I found myself at times wondering whether Siena and I would be better off without him. Unconsciously, Jack and I had begun to accept the myth of women’s biological superiority as nurturer, and the irrelevance of a dad.
Yet, as we will see, anthropology, cross-cultural and cross-species research, and modern primatology, reveal a tremendous range of potentials for fathering. Variations do not appear in response to biological imperatives as much as to changing circumstances, a finding that invalidates the belief that fathering is rigid and gender-specific. An enormous discrepancy is emerging between cultural myth and the day-to-day reality of a father’s ability and desire to nurture his offspring. Studies show men to be competent and sensitive to their children, and, given the opportunity, they seek to be with their children.
Breaking the Cycle
Driven by the need to break the cycle of disconnection, and prevent passing on the same pattern to succeeding generations, we continued to learn about, and practice, attachment parenting. We arranged for Jean Liedloff to lead a daylong workshop as a kickoff for a local group of families practicing attachment parenting. We began to dialog with other professionals in the field, adding fuel to the abandonment hypothesis that had been brewing in the back of Jack’s mind. In January 1998, he published “Why Men Leave: Confessions of a Bottlefed, Poorly Bonded, Thrice-Married, White Male Overachiever” in our 200-subscriber newsletter.
The next year we co-founded the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children (aTLC). In consultation with other international experts, the core group of the Alliance spent approximately 10,000 volunteer hours developing an evidence-based document outlining principles and actions that foster a child’s optimal development—the aTLC Blueprint (Appendix E).
An expanded version of “Why Men Leave” was published in 2004 in both Australian and US parenting magazines (see Appendix A). The editor of one of the magazines reported that the article had the strongest reader response of any to date. We were surprised that our premise struck such a resonant chord with so many people, evident from the reader response and from Jack’s speaking about it at several conferences. At the urging of a friend/colleague, Dean Edell, MD, we decided to begin this book.
I began to review the literature to learn what, if anything, had been written about this subject. I searched for books written by and for men, and in the few I found, discovered a wealth of information I had not seen in all the many, many parenting books I had reviewed. Facts and figures about the multitude of ways fathers are relegated to the periphery of their child’s life throughout pregnancy, birthing, and the early days and months. I was startled to learn, for example, a mother’s relationship characteristics outweigh the father’s relationship characteristics in predicting fathers’ involvement with their children, and anywhere from 14–26% of fathers suffer from moderate or severe postpartum depression (Chapter 9).
I then came across an older article by Michel Odent, MD, the French obstetrician who wrote The Scientification of Love, and head of the Primal Health Research Center in London, who made this connection between birth, men’s “need to escape,” and “covert depression” decades ago:
[A]t a certain phase of my homebirth practice… it was too common… when visiting the family… to realize that health problems of the father are common during the days following birth…[it is] almost always a rather precise diagnosis, such as lumbago, kidney stones, generalized eczema, abdominal pain, or toothache.
A woman gave birth at home on the French Riviera in the presence of her husband…[and] the day after the birth, the father disappeared and went back to Italy, his native country. Another man had his first schizophrenic attack at the age of 35, two days after the birth of his first baby. A woman told me that she divorced because her husband disappeared to play golf the day after the birth of their baby.
Obviously all these men felt the need to escape, one way or another. Modern physiology explains that, in adverse circumstances, there are two ways to protect our health: “fight or flight.” These men had an urgent need to protect their health by escaping. What sort of disease were they preventing?
Referring to Terrence Real’s term “covert depression,” a term coined in his studies of male depression, Odent concluded that we must introduce the concept of “male postnatal depression” and, more precisely, of “covert male postnatal depression.” “Covert” because it is hidden from the men who suffer it, and also from those around them. Why? According to Real, “depression carries… a double stigma… of mental illness and also… ‘feminine’ emotionality. [Hence] men tend to express depression differently than women, usually ‘masking’ it by a great diversity of misleading symptoms.”
While a couple of the books I found skirted the edges of MPAS, none directly connected postpartum depression, or men leaving, with the re-stimulation of unmet infancy needs. We believe this is the underlying factor that exacerbates all other issues in explaining MPAS—and DDD.
Why is this all-too-common event of men leaving—physically or emotionally—in what can only be considered epidemic proportions, not being directly addressed? This, alongside the intensity of our own experience of this MPAS, drove me to research the subject, and delve more deeply.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for many of us as we read this material, as we engage consciously in reviewing our own childhood and our own parenting, is confronting our feelings of regret, blame, and guilt. We do not like to think that what our parents did to us caused harm. We do not like to think that what we have done, or are doing, to our children is harming them. We are all doing the best we can, with the information and resources available to us. Neither guilt nor blame will serve us. We are all products of our time and culture, as were our parents and those who preceded them.
Generational issues are with us always, but at few times are they more salient than when the generational cycle is about to begin again. A first child and grandchild bring the relationship between the parents and their parents into bold relief. When the relationships are going well, these close ties can be a great comfort for both generations…. For some couples, however, past and present relationships with parents can bring a great deal of pain. The birth of a baby can force some parents and grandparents to grapple once more with issues they have not successfully resolved….
As we talk with friends, colleagues, and the parents [in our study], we can see how commonly we all make repeated overtures over the years to our parents and children to try to patch up earlier misunderstandings or rifts. One of our findings—something we did not know in our early years of family-making—is that all relationships across the generations have setbacks at times, but some of us are lucky enough to make some progress toward mending them…. [This is important because] new parents who do not see the connections between their struggles with their own parents and their distress as a couple are less likely to feel that they are on the same side when they tackle difficult issues in their life together. —Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD, and Philip Cowan, PhD, When Partners Become Parents
Guilt Versus Regret
Pam Leo, in Connection Parenting, writes: “It is important to make the distinction between guilt and regret. Guilt is what we feel when we knew better and didn’t act on what we knew. Regret is the sadness we feel when we learn something new that we wish we had known earlier. Making the distinction between guilt and regret is important as we embark on learning some different ways of parenting.”
I was sexually abused by my dad as a child. Very few people understand what I am talking about when I tell this: I had a therapist years ago who said this to me “Try and re-live your memories not as the child you were, but as the adult you are now.”
She explained that when you do this, you do not “feel” as if you are being hurt again, instead you view it from a less emotional place, using an adult’s perspective.
WOW! As far as the sexual issues, this changed everything! I did nothing wrong, I was not to blame! This was just a sick man getting his kicks. What a relief.
The other side of that knowledge was just as liberating, but harder….
When I relived not having my dad in my life, it also hurt less. Two other thoughts battled as well. I was stronger than my father had been, I was more determined and aware, I was a good person! I also realized that I felt pity towards my father and his weaknesses that had kept him from knowing me. He was just a man who was not worth much to me. It was a double-edged sword for me because I then wondered why I wanted a worthless person’s love so badly! I guess it is a never-ending cycle—and on it goes! —Rebecca
Leo continues with, “Becoming better parents means we will always be learning. It also means we sometimes will be living in the gap between what we are learning and what we can do. The more we learn about healthier parenting, the more we will live in the ‘gap.’ As we strive to become more loving to our children, we must also strive to be more loving to ourselves.”
Leo believes that it is never too late to strengthen our connection with our children. Every moment is a new opportunity to strengthen this bond.
- As pioneers of the growing wellness movement, Meryn and Jack begin to understand how “failed connection is the primary impediment to wellbeing as an adult” and discover “that the real roots of wellness are formed from our conception through the early years of our childhood.”
- Meryn and Jack are introduced to the ideas of “attachment, bonding and connection” through Jean Liedloff’s work her book, The Continuum Concept. Integrating their “wellness” experience with Liedloff’s work, they realize chronic illness, depression, addiction, violence, materialism, to fundamentalism and ecocide are not just the “human condition,” but a result of how children in our culture are raised.
- It is the discovery of attachment parenting – and its promises of breaking generational cycles of disconnection and, instead, fostering a foundation for lifelong wellness – that led Meryn and Jack to a focus on infant wellness as well as fuel Jack’s desire to become a father again.
- Fatherhood, and Fatherstory, much more than motherhood, is a cultural invention. Its meaning is shaped by a culture that conditions a man into certain ways of acting and perceiving himself. It may be said that fathers are made, not born. Yet, anthropology, plus cross-cultural and cross-species research, and modern primatology, reveal a tremendous range of potentials for fathering.
- The intersection of their wellness expertise, new parenthood experiences, emerging neuroscience, S-SAD, Prescott, Odent, and Liedloff’s insights form the foundational understanding of what will eventually be recognized as the Male Postpartum Abandonment Syndrome—and the Dynamic of Disappearing Dads.
- An enormous discrepancy is emerging between cultural myth and day-to-day reality of a father’s ability and desire to nurture his offspring. Studies show men to be competent and sensitive to their children, and given the opportunity, they seek to be with their children.
- On confronting guilt and blame, the author acknowledges, “We are all doing the best we can, with the information and resources available to us. Neither guilt nor blame will serve us. We are all products of our time and culture, as were our parents and those who preceded them.”
1. Jack could find very little hard data showing the exact number of men physically leaving after their children were born. Thanks to the diligence of Mindy Scott, PhD, of the Fatherhood and Parenting section, and Kate Welti of the Fertility and Family Structure section, at the non-profit research institute, Child Trends, in Washington, DC, he was able to extrapolate some figures.
A longitudinal study of 14,000 children born in 2001 (ECLS-B 2001, listed below), found that 8% of children who were living with their biological mother and father at birth were no longer living with their father at two years of age and 14% were no longer living with their father by age 4. Their data ended at that age, so additional data were extrapolated from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health, listed below), which interviewed a nationally representative sample of adolescents in grades 7 to 12 in 1994, revealing the child’s age when the father left. (Note: these percentages are of only the population who were to become fatherless, not the general population, hence the actual numbers are higher.)
At the time of the study, 47 percent of first-born youth had a nonresident father. Twenty-three percent of these youth had never lived with their father. Of those whose nonresident father did live with them at some point, 5% experienced their father leaving before the age of 1, and 4% more had their father leaving by age 2 which means 9% of these youth had an absent father by age 2.
A total of 36% of these youth had an absent father by age 6, 62% by age 11, and 90% by age 16. These data reveal that the peak age for leaving is between 4 and 8, so, extending the curve begun by the first study, we can expect the absolute percent of men leaving to be at least 30% by age 8.
It’s concerning that there seems to be no more accurate way to ascertain this figure. The data apparently have been collected by researchers, but the statistic of couples physically separating as a function of time after the birth of their first child does not appear to have been generated—possibly revealing an ongoing societal denial of this phenomenon.
• Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth Cohort 2000 (ECLS-B), National Center for Education Statistics, US Dept of Education .
• The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina .
2. Hirschberger G, Srivastava S, Marsh P, Cowan CP & Cowan PA, Attachment Marital Satisfaction, and Divorce During the First Fifteen Years of Parenthood. Personal Relationships, 2009;16(3): 401–420.
• Gottman JM, Towards a process model of men in marriages and families. In A. Booth, & AC Crouter (eds.), Men in Families: When do they get involved? What difference does it make?Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998.