It required some mental discipline to avoid letting my own stereotypes and presuppositions take over when I saw a baby resting in a football helmet on the cover of The New Dad’s Playbook, a book written by veteran NFL player, Benjamin Watson. How much USA football language and metaphor would Watson use? How would “roles” of fathers and mothers be discussed, and what would be implied or assumed?
I ended up appreciating Watson’s words more than I expected. There is practical, basic advice and descriptions about pregnancy and childbirth, with strong attention to the relationship of the expectant mother and father as a couple. What came through most clearly from Watson were love, care, and service for his wife and children. That helmet and child on the cover are held by a strong hand.
The New Dad’s Playbook (NDP) has its stereotypes, assumptions, and limits, but has helpful things to offer to Watson’s primary audience:
I wrote this book for the guy who doesn’t think he’s ready to become a father and, whether he admits it or not, fears the challenges of the unknown … This book explains the terms men will hear during prenatal visits to the doctor, and how the baby develops … [also] what to expect when your wife changes and how to handle those changes. (pp. 28-29)
Indeed, terms are explained, albeit in a basic, introductory way. Chapter 5 (“X’s and O’s: Your Pregnancy Handbook”) is an overview of what is going on physically for mom and baby during each of the three trimesters of full-term pregnancy, including definitions of zygote, placenta, Rh factor, urinary tract infection, Braxton Hicks contractions, and episiotomy, etc. Possible and likely changes in the mother’s body are mentioned (e.g. muscle cramps, changes in skin color, nausea), along with suggestions for how the father/partner may be supportive and involved along the way. Throughout, Watson affirms the natural work and investment of the mother and the value of her partner/husband choosing to be helpful and understanding.
Watson and his wife, Kirsten, have five children, all by vaginal delivery. The first two were birthed in a conventional hospital context with “medicated labor” (e.g. epidural). The next three involved doulas and midwives, in the natural birthing ward for numbers three and four, and at home for the fifth. This range of experience comes through helpfully in Watson’s advice; however, little to nothing is offered for when a vaginal delivery is not possible or is disrupted (there is only one paragraph about Caesarean section, and nothing about life-threatening complications or stillbirth).
Marital communication and connection are clearly a priority for the Watsons and the author addresses several things a man/husband can do to help these happen. Watson overviews Gary Chapman’s classic, The Five Love Languages and encourages men to learn and express what speaks best to their wives/partners (pp. 37-40). There are frequent reminders to listen well, and to respect their partner’s experiences and needs during pregnancy and in the months after birth. He encourages that “date nights” continue, while acknowledging that the demands and sleep-deprived nights with a newborn might put that on pause. Clear, open communication is encouraged about choosing the baby’s name, whom to tell about the pregnancy and when, and handling the barrage of pregnancy and parenting “advice” that the couple will likely receive.
Gender stereotypes show up on several occasions in NDP, but are also challenged. In the context of affirming different parenting styles in the same family, Watson writes: “While many mothers have a gentle presence, fathers encourage risk-taking and are more likely to engage children in challenging activities.” (p. 173) Surely those characteristics are amply demonstrated regardless of gender, and to varying degrees in different contexts. Yet, in the next paragraph he advocates for the active participation of the father, which leads to “setting an equitable example for your children by showing that both men and women can share responsibilities around the home.”
The Watson home is one where the man makes most of the money and does most of the work outside the home, and the woman is primarily at home focusing on the day-to-day livelihood of the children. Does that implicitly reinforce a negative gender-based stereotype? I don’t think so. I wish NDP had been more robust in showing the option for a different arrangement—examples of some of the Watsons’ friends, perhaps—but at least there is a positive mention of it. Watson cites a Pew Research study that numbers stay-at-home dads in the USA at two million, and then he debunks a myth, stating: “Your baby boy will not grow up to be a ‘wimp’ and your daughter will not be any less feminine [if raised primarily by a man] … The emotional and mental stability of your children depends on your love and care.” (p. 175)
Sexual intimacy is addressed and, again, Watson calls men to show regard and respect for the woman’s needs and preferences, summarizing with the basic idea of “let her initiate.” He identifies some of the physical, hormonal, and relational factors that may affect a woman’s desire and capacity for sexual intimacy during pregnancy and in the months following birth. This is helpful. At the same time however, there are implied and expressed ideas about the role of sexual intimacy that I found unhelpful. On one hand, Watson reminds and gives examples of ways to cultivate emotional intimacy apart from sex (pp. 57, 159-162) in the interest of “keeping marital bonds strong” (ch. 12). He affirms that “sex is only a small part of intimacy” (p. 160), and he provides cautions and tips about resuming sexual intercourse in the weeks/months after the birthing process. On the other hand, he writes: “make your wife feel sexy even when she doesn’t think she is; she’ll feel better and want to be intimate with you” (p. 59). A section on finding nice fitting/looking maternity clothes bears the heading: “From Small to XXL: Make Her Feel Sexy as She Grows” (p. 83, maybe the editor is responsible for that?).
Watson’s financial status as a veteran NFL player sometimes makes his good counsel hard to apply, despite several remarks that show he encourages financial responsibility and living within one’s means. His ability to purchase a large and expensive maternity wardrobe for his wife, or to have nice vacations and “dates,” or even to hire a babysitter whenever desired – all of these might be financially inaccessible to many people. More elaboration on the values behind his decisions, and examples of ways to live out those values when money is lacking would have been helpful.
Another area that deserved more treatment in a book to prepare first-time fathers is the pregnancies that do not end in a successful vaginal delivery of a healthy child. There are many miscarriages, C-sections, and physical or mental challenges that attend the pursuit of having children. There are also first-time dads thanks to adoption. Those alternate outcomes or pathways to fatherhood are barely mentioned or not at all. So readers that want to prepare for any of that need to look beyond NDP. Given Watson’s intent and experience, I understand this limit, but I would have appreciated more.
I think NDP accomplishes what it sets out to do. I recommend it to anyone who fits the audience Watson has in mind, but would want to add other resources to make up for what it lacks.