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The Crisis of the Disappearing Dad:
The Six Hidden Reasons Men Leave Their Families
Jed Diamond, Ph.D. has been a health-care professional for more than 40 years. He is the author of 10 books, including MenAlive: Stop Killer Stress with Simple Energy Healing Tools, Surviving Male Menopause, and Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome. I offer counseling to men, women, and couples in his office in California or by phone with people throughout the U.S. and around the world. To receive a Free E-book on Men’s Health and a free subscription to my e-newsletter go to www.MenAlive.com. If you enjoy my articles, please subscribe. I write to everyone who joins my tribe of followers.
The Crisis of the Disappearing Dad: The Six Hidden Reasons Men Leave Their Families
We were ecstatic. Our first child had recently been born and my wife and I were on top of the world. I took two weeks off from work so that I could bond with him and get to know this new arrival into our lives. We’d both wanted kids and talked about having a child, then adopting a child. We were well on the way to having the life we had always dreamed about having. But a dark presence took hold of us during the first year after our son’s birth that eventually destroyed our marriage. We thought we were prepared for Jemal’s birth. We’d been trying to get pregnant for some time, and when we learned we had conceived, we got busy making preparations. We got support from friends and family. We got new books on childbirth and memorized all the developmental stages from birth through old-age. It took us awhile to overcome our clumsiness of being new parents, but our son taught us well. He let us know what he needed and we learned, little by little, to satisfy his need for mothering and fathering. But what my wife and I were not prepared for was the change in our relationship. It’s Baby and Me, and Daddy Makes…. Well, Daddy Struggles to Find His Place in the Family Before the baby was born, my wife and I had been best friends, confidants, lovers, and marriage partners. I think we both assumed that with the birth of the baby we had longed to have we would be all that and more. We were sure that having a baby would bond us even closer together and the love between the two of us would deepen and grow stronger. But that’s not what happened. It seemed that my wife and son became a unit and I didn’t feel I had a place. She was needed for breastfeeding, holding, and touching. After two weeks at home, I went back to work as planned. I was determined to be a good father, which to me was to be a good breadwinner. When I’d return from a hard, stressful day at work, I longed for the nurturing and
loving touches I was used to getting from my wife. But all the nurturing and support seemed to be going to our son. I kept telling myself, “that’s a good thing. She should be giving her love to our son.” But deep inside I felt that he was getting all the love and there wasn’t any left over for me. I felt ashamed of these thoughts. How could I be so selfish and self-absorbed to be jealous of the attention my wife was giving my son? “I’m a man (I was 25 and my wife was 22 at the time),” I thought. “I don’t need to be held and touched like a child.” I kept waiting for my turn to come. Once Jemal was asleep, I thought I would finally get some of the love and care that I craved. But more often than not, my wife was exhausted, and we both knew one of us would be getting up at night to take care of our son. As the weeks and months went by, I became more unhappy and withdrawn. The more withdrawn I became, the more my wife turned her attentions to our son. I didn’t know how to find my place in the family and she didn’t know how to include me. We both felt our marriage slipping away, but we didn’t seem to be able to stop the slide. However, to all outward appearances, we were doing just fine. Our friends saw us as a successful and happy family. If you’d have asked each of us at the time if there was anything wrong, I’m sure we would have said, “No, just the regular stresses and strains of being parents. Everything’s O.K.” As planned, we adopted a little girl, which solved one problem but created many more. With two small children, I felt more needed at home. In addition to being the breadwinner, I now had major responsibilities for childcare. But we both became increasingly overwhelmed. We didn’t have family close by to help with the children. The idea that it “takes a village to raise a child” seemed like some fairytale notion. We were sure we could do it ourselves. Our daughter had major medical problems that we were not aware of when we adopted her. With two children and not enough social support, it was all we could do to get up and get through the day. The thought of having time for each other soon receded into the distance. Never having had experience with children before, we both felt our lives were “normal” and we just needed to try harder to be good parents and partners. Inside I felt inadequate and overwhelmed. I needed understanding and support from my wife, but often got an exhausted woman who seemed to resent my needs. I felt ashamed of my “neediness” and we continued to drift apart. We eventually sought out a therapist hoping that we could get at the root of our unhappiness and save our marriage. But he was more focused on our being “free to be you and me” rather than how we could find and nurture a deeper sense of “we.” After a few months of counseling, it seemed that our only option was to divorce and go our separate ways. We talked about the kids living half time with me and half time with her or even
full time with me, but everyone told us, including the court, that small children were better off with their mother. I moved out of the house and got a small apartment nearby. We did our best to be good parents and tried to treat each other with care and respect. We did O.K., but it was clear that our children suffered greatly. Looking back, the whole thing seemed like a bad dream. But a dream that seemed “normal” since so many of our friends were experiencing the same thing. As a therapist who sees couples and families in my practice, I know the experiences that I went through are not unusual. Wellness Physician Becomes a Disappearing Dad Dr. John Travis was one of the founders of the wellness movement but, when it came to having kids, he had similar experiences to my own. In the book, Why Dads Leave: Insights & Resources for When Partners Become Parents, he shares his experiences with author, Meryn Callander. “I spent most of my adolescence and early adulthood unconsciously looking for a substitute for the nurturing mother I never had,” Travis shares. “I thought getting married (along with becoming a doctor) would somehow fulfill me.” Travis did get married and he and his first wife had a little girl. But instead of fulfilling his dreams things began to deteriorate at home. “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.” Travis was on his way to becoming a disappearing dad. It was nearly 20 years after the birth of his first daughter, when Travis decided to venture again into the territory of fathering. “I met and fell in love with an Australian, Meryn Callander,” he recalls. “My needs for attention were again met in the heights of romance.” Travis and Callander married and, 12 years later, “after a carefully tended pregnancy and a beautifully orchestrated home water birth, our beautiful daughter was born—Siena Ariel.” Callander describes their initial joy turning to sadness and loss. “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.” As Siena got more and more nurturing and Jack got less, he became more withdrawn. “Jack found himself spiraling down in despair and into 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).
Most of us have heard of the postpartum depression that many women experience after the birth of a child. But Callander found that many men also go through a depression and that can lead many men to leave the marriage, either emotionally or physically. The Dynamic of Disappearing Dads (DDD) How can the joy of childbirth lead to depression? What causes depressed men to withdraw and leave the family they love? Jack recalls the initial joy of holding his child and how the joy triggered long-buried wounds from his own childhood. “I felt my heart overflowing with love,” he remembers. “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.” Like me, and so many other men I know, Jack had great difficulty understanding and talking about these confusing and volatile feelings. As Meryn remembers things, “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.” Meryn goes on to describe the experience of so many fathers in our present culture. “Other than being the primary provider, maintainer of the homestead, and sometimes changer-ofdiapers, 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.” Disappearing Dads Reaching Epidemic Proportions A generation ago, an American child could reasonably expect to grow up with his or her father; today, an American child could reasonably expect not to. --David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America According to Callander, “While nearly half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, an estimated 30% of fathers in the U.S. physically leave home within a few years of their first child’s birth.” While it’s clear that the phenomenon is rampant, it appears there are no actual statistics revealing the exact numbers of fathers who physically leave home within three years of their first child’s birth. And of course a much larger percentage leave emotionally.
We know the costs to the individuals involved are huge. Too many children grow up without the nurturing, love, and support of both their parents. Too many women break down under the weight of trying to raise children without the support of the father. And too many men go through their lives cut off from the family that they loved. The impact on society is also great. “Despite unprecedented medical and technological advances,” says Callander, “children of all races, backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes are evidencing escalating rates of learning and behavioral disorders, drug abuse, chronic illness, depression, violence and suicide. For example, there has been a massive increase in child suicide rates in the past generation to where suicide is now the third most common cause of death for youth.” Male Postpartum Abandonment Syndrome (MPAS) and the Disappearing Dad The causes of this epidemic are often hidden, but Callander has uncovered the truth of what is going on. She describes six stages in the development of the Disappearing Dad Dynamic: Stage 1: Disruption in the Mother-Infant Bond. “A secure mother-infant bond, fundamental to all mammalian species,” says Callander, “is the foundation on which all future relationships are built.” But most of us grow up in families where these critical bonding experiences were absent: * Un-medicated, intervention free, birth. * Breast-feeding the child for six months to three or more years. * Near-constant skin-to-skin contact between mother and child. * Shared sleeping arrangement with infant close to mother and father. * Recognition that babies are social beings who need connection with mother, father, siblings, and others. * Today these practices are known as “attachment parenting” or “connection parenting” and were absent for most of us and our children. Stage 2: Boys Grow Up Looking for the Mommy Connection They Never Had. There’s a lot of talk about why we are attracted to the person we marry. Many boys are taught to “try and catch the sexiest mate you can,” but the truth is that most of us are really looking for a woman who will give us the love and nurture we didn’t receive growing up. Most of us didn’t get enough love and nurture from our mothers who were influenced by a culture
that taught the importance of “independence” and “self-sufficiency.” We also didn’t get enough from our fathers who often followed the patterns they grew up with and became emotionally absent early in our lives. When we find “Ms. Right” we think we’re connecting for all the right “adult” reasons, but we’re really hoping that she’ll nurture and love us like our moms and dads never did. If we’re lucky, we find someone to fit that bill and the early years of our married life are safe and satisfying. Stage 3: The Baby Arrives and Dad Loses the Mommy Love He Has Spent a Life-Time Trying to Recapture. “Suddenly the baby takes center stage,” writes Callander, “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.” Dad usually feels shame over the resurfacing of his long-buried needs. In his attempt to block out the feelings of loss and his shame over feeling competitive with his innocent newborn, he often withdraws into work, alcohol, internet pornography, or some other escape the seems to salve his wounded heart. Stage 4: Mom Heals Some of Her Childhood Loss Through Loving Connection with Her Child. Callander describes the positive changes that the mother often experiences. “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.” She feels so wonderful being with the child that her husband’s irritability, anger, sadness, and withdrawal serve to make her distance herself even more from him and connect ever more closely with her child. Stage 5: The More Successful the Mothering, the More the Dad Pulls Away. Both mother and father do everything they can to help Mom make and maintain a good connection with the baby. But for Dad the more successful the connection, the greater loss he feels. Not only does he feel the loss of the love and affection his wife had previously given to him, but it stirs up feelings from the loss he felt growing up without enough love from his mother and father. And since these feelings are generally unconscious, he becomes more and more depressed, irritable, resentful, and withdrawn. “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,” says Callander.
Stage 6: The More Dad Pulls Away, the More Mom Turns Her Attention to the Child and More Rejected Dad Feels….Until He Feels His Only Option is to Leave. Callander and Travis name the end result of these stages, Male Postpartum Abandonment Syndrome (MPAS). MPAS summarizes the increasing feelings of pain and abandonment that get triggered in so many dads and moms in the months and years after the birth of their child. These confused feelings usually occur out of our conscious awareness and we end up blaming ourselves, each other, or our child for our pain. As Callander concludes, “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.” Travis remembers the final phase of his painful withdrawal. “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 expressed my situation this way: “Looking back, the whole thing seemed like a bad dream. But a dream that seemed ‘normal’ since so many of our friends were experiencing the same thing.” Many Dads Disappear at Mid-Life For those who weather the storm of the first four years after the birth of their first child, their relationship with their spouse is often strengthened and the family experiences a time of love, nurturing, and mutual support. But often mid-life changes can cause increased stress on the relationship that can cause the Dad to pull away. I described this problem in detail in my books, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression and Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome. Here’s a letter, one of hundreds I received following the publication of The Irritable Male Syndrome:
Dear Dr. Diamond, For about a year now (it could be even longer, it’s hard to know exactly), I have gradually felt my husband of 22 years pulling away for me and our family. He has gradually become more sullen, angry, and moody. His general life energy is down and his sex drive has really dropped off. Recently he has begun venting to anyone who will listen about how horrible we all are. He is particularly hard on our 19 year old son, Mark. It’s so surprising because our son has always been super industrious and competent, but now his Dad accuses him of being unmotivated, lazy, and anything else he can think to say that is negative. The thing that bothers me the most is how unaffectionate he has become. I don’t even get the hugs and affection like I like I did in the past and when he does touch me, I feel grabbed rather than caressed. My husband used to be the most positive, upbeat, funny person I knew. Now it's like living with an angry brick! I’m totally confused. What’s going on? Can you help us?
I’ve seen this dynamic arise often with men at mid-life. The men are generally between 40 and 55 and have children who are teenagers or young adults. When the kids were first born, the dynamic had to do with feelings of loss of nurture and support from men who never got enough mothering when they were kids. At this stage, that earlier dynamic often continues, but another is added. Many men feel that they didn’t get enough support to be the person they were meant to be. At mid-life they see their children becoming independent, sexually active, and engaged in life. They often feel that they have been trapped into adult responsibilities. Guys will tell me, “I’ve been a good son, a good husband, a good father. When is it going to be my turn?” They may also see their wives becoming more independent and self-caring. They feel the loss of her attention, nurture, and love and they also feel the loss of their freedom. It’s not uncommon for men at this stage to have an affair, leave home to “find themselves,” and cut themselves off from the family they spend so much of their life loving and supporting. How to Heal the Wounds and Bring the Men Back Home Unfortunately the crisis of disappearing dads is not a simple problem and there aren’t easy answers. As indicated the problems go back in time to the ways we raise and nurture our children. There are things that men and women do, unconsciously, that perpetuate the problem. And there are ways in which the mainstream culture makes it difficult to give our
children what they need go grow up to be mothers and fathers who can give their children what they need. But there are some basic things that can be done to reverse this down-ward spiral and make things better for all of us. Callander suggests the following: 1. Becoming aware of the forces underlying the Dynamic of Disappearing Dads. “Before an identifiable cause of DDD can even be acknowledged,” says Callander, “we have to recognize that men leaving—physically or emotionally—cannot simply be accepted as ‘the way it is.’” First we have to break the silence that we have kept and acknowledge our pain and loss and shine light on the shame that we feel about acknowledging our pain and loss. 2. Realizing that DDD is not just a personal phenomenon. We need to stop blaming and shaming men (and women) for the problem. Let’s get rid of the terms and the mindset of “dead-beat dads.” Let’s start to recognize that we can each take responsibility for our actions and also recognize the power of our cultural beliefs. “DDD is created and perpetuated by the dominant culture that values rugged individualism and the denial of feelings and needs,” says Callander. “Taking it out of the sphere of personal shortcomings reduces the guilt and blame that usually accompanies DDD.” 3. Recognizing the risk to the relationship. No one wants to believe that having a baby or seeing our children grow up can cause a relationship to become so over-stressed it falls apart. To keep that from happening we have to acknowledge the risks we face. “Anyone who is considering conceiving a child, or currently caring for a child, needs to realize that this phenomenon may be putting their relationship personally at risk,” says Callander. “This requires finding the courage to acknowledge and counter the ‘it can’t happen to us’ syndrome.” The same courage needs to occur when we reach mid-life and our children move toward young-adult status. We need to talk about men’s hunger for freedom and conflicts around sexuality. We need to help men and women learn that they can be close, yet free. 4. Reviewing our own birth and early childhood experiences. Most of us just accept whatever we grew up with as “normal.” Men, in particular, are taught to ignore pain and suffering. We are also taught to honor our mother and father. As a result, too many of us block out our childhood experiences or refuse to talk about them. But we need to learn that silence can be deadly and talking about our early experiences can help us each come to peace with our past, give our partner a chance to
help us heal, and allow our family to give us the emotional nourishment we may have missed growing up. 5. Embracing the importance of attachment theory to the needs of children and adults. Many of us have come to recognize the importance of touch, nurturing, and unconditional love and affection when we think about our children. But we often feel adults should outgrow our needs for “childish” holding, cuddling, or nurturing. I know I felt unmanly if I told my wife I wanted to crawl up in her arms and cry or if I needed her to hold me when I was afraid. Many women will say they want men to open up, share their feelings, and reach out for help. But they will often express the culturally sanctioned belief that when men “act too ‘needy’ it’s like having another child in the house.” Most men I know would rather kill themselves than subject themselves to the risk of being shamed by a woman for being less than a man. We need to let go of these unfounded beliefs and recognize that we never outgrow the need to have loved one to hold us, support us, and be there for us when we are afraid. As relationship expert Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight, reminds us, “Adults’ needs—as well as children’s—for emotional connection are absolute.” 6. Engaging the support and embrace of community. I have been in a men’s group with six other men for more than 33 years. My wife, Carlin, and I credit our long-term successful marriage with the support we each have gotten from being in men’s and women’s groups. “By creating cooperative parenting groups, extended families of choice, and caring inter-generational communities, we can find support to parent, and thus, experience more of the nurturing we need,” says Callander. With this kind of support we can live the adage that “it’s never too late to have a happy family.” For more on my work contact Jed Diamond at www.MenAlive.com For more on Why Dad’s Leave visit: www.WhyDadsLeave.com
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