The pregnant silence

Research shows fathers-to-be tend to bottle up their feelings. Jack O'Sullivan explains why the latest EastEnders story strikes a chord
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The Independent Culture
Ricky Butcher, one of the stars in the BBC soap EastEnders, is showing all the signs of being a frustrated, expectant father. His pregnant wife, Bianca, will not talk to him. She wants a home birth and she is not prepared to discuss his reservations. It's her body, her baby, her birth. Indeed, so anxious has she become that she will discuss nothing about the pregnancy with him.

Meanwhile, Ricky has been staying out late at the pub and with his mates. There are suspicions of an affair. Last week, after a row, he walked out and said he wasn't coming back. It is a plot line which highlights a largely hidden phenomenon - the stress that some men experience in pregnancy and the difficulties they have in talking about it. Last week attention was drawn to another alarming indicator of strained relationships: violent attacks on pregnant women by their male partners. One third of attacks on women are said to take place for the first time when they are pregnant, doubling the risk of miscarriage, according to a report for the Royal College of Obstetricians.

Charlie Lewis, a reader in human social development at Lancaster University, has studied 100 men in transition to fatherhood. "The period was a very emotional experience for men. They felt that they should be strong while their partners were going through such a difficult time. But the problem was that for many of these men their partner is the one person who they can talk to about their emotions but because they didn't feel that they could turn to them during the pregnancy they bottled up their emotions. These feelings emerged in all sorts of strange ways."

One man became claustrophobic. "Suddenly he found he could not bear to take the bus to work any more and he had to get up half an hour early and walk to work. As soon as the pregnancy was over he got back on the bus. Another man could not eat. He didn't let on to his wife. When the baby was born, he left the hospital, went home and cooked himself the biggest fry-up ever.

"There was another case of a father who felt terribly ill all the time, so much so that the doctor gave him time off work. Again the symptoms cleared up after the baby was born."

David Bartlett of Newpin, which runs fathers' groups, says: "Men are often ambivalent about pregnancy because the conventional image of father- hood, involving long hours at work and limited involvement with young children, is not particularly attractive."

He points out that pregnancy also often raises issues unresolved from a man's childhood that can contribute to them feeling trapped. "I remember one man who felt very undermined because of having had a violent, rejecting father. He feared becoming isolated in the family when the baby was born."

Adrienne Burgess, the author of Fatherhood Reclaimed, points out that one of the causes of stress for expectant fathers is that many women become pregnant without proper discussion with their partners. "It is hardly surprising that some of them will feel distressed and hostile. This is one of the reasons why some men may have problems bonding with a baby. And it is not fair just to treat them as selfish little boys who can't take the strain. We should take seriously that for some of these men this has happened without their consent and then they find they have no one to talk to about it."

James, 35, an engineer from Liverpool, was shocked by news of his partner's pregnancy. "It felt like the world had fallen in. In my mind I saw doors closing and my future no longer in my grasp. I had understood from her that it was safe for us to have sex and I was amazed to learn she was pregnant. I felt very let down - almost deceived.

"I have always wanted children, but I suddenly realised that I did not want to have them with her. I wanted to run away. We went through a terrible time, because I felt that I should support her if she decided to have the child. But I couldn't talk to anyone about it. I told no one in my family. I think she knew how I felt and she said that she wanted to have an abortion. But I'm sure that she would have gone ahead with the pregnancy if I had been enthusiastic.

"Afterwards I felt so guilty that I couldn't leave the relationship for a year. It would have been too big a blow. Eventually, however, we split up and I found the person I wanted to have children with. When she became pregnant I had absolutely no doubts. I was completely committed and happy about it."

A different problem has plagued relationships in which Paul, 40, from London, has fathered children. "I was 17 and all I ever wanted was to have a family, meet a girl, settle down. But when my girlfriend did get pregnant I started going out with new friends, hanging out in clubs, pubs and in gangs. I went right off sex with her and I never really got interested again. Before it was love. After just lust. I started living a double life. There were other women."

After five years that relationship broke down, as did the next, from which Paul now has a 12-year-old boy. "This time we moved to Scotland. I wanted a fresh start. But it was weird. The same thing happened. The bigger my girlfriend got, the more it put me off her." Once again the relationship ended. He has had little contact with the children of either relationship. His third partner bore a daughter two and half years ago. But this time Paul did not experience the same revulsion. He was getting therapy. "It helped. I realised that it all goes back to my childhood."

Speaking to these men, it becomes clear how many complicated feelings pregnancy and fatherhood raises. As David Bartlett of Newpin says: "Pregnant women chat with others and rehearse with each other the things that are happening to them. Too often expectant fathers do not have that opportunity. We need to make sure they have that chance too."

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