We used to assume all women were natural mothers, born wanting children from the time they’re little girls. In response, women have increasingly pushed back against this presumption. Many don’t want children at all, or are downright ambivalent about it. Men, though, are typically left out of this equation, presumed to mostly go along with whatever a wife or girlfriend nudges them toward. They are, we seem to think, reluctant fathers at best.
But that stereotype is changing, in no small part because of people like Ann Davidman, a marriage and family therapist in California who has quietly been working with men for decades to help them make their own decisions about if — or when — to be fathers.
Called Parenthood Clarity Mentoring, Davidman originally developed the program with the co-author of her book, Denise L. Carlini. Together they wrote Motherhood — Is It for Me? Your Step-by-Step Guide to Clarity. The program they developed, which Carlini broke apart from years ago, counsels men and women who hit a range of snags when it comes time to stare down breeding. A recent New York Times profile of Davidman’s work focused on how she helps women sort this all out, but missing was the acknowledgement that she’s also been offering the same services the last 30 years to men, who make up about 20 percent of her client base.
One course is typically 14 sessions at a cost of $2,700, and it consists of a 55-minute weekly session, writing assignments, guided visualizations and some serious soul-searching. Clients are instructed not to speak to friends or family during the process so as to not invite undue pressure. And it turns out that men have many of the same uncertainties as women surrounding breeding. They’re sure, not sure or ambivalent, just like women. What the NYT piece calls “waverers,” or rather, anyone who isn’t 100 percent on board with their decision to procreate.
I recently spoke with Davidman by phone about her process, how this life-changing decision differs (and is remarkably the same) for men and women and how critical it is for men to arrive at their own decision.
I was surprised after the New York Times piece to discover you work with men, too.
I’ve worked with fathers for 30 years. I definitely advertise more to women. But I do have a page for men and a blog post for them about the decision to become fathers and my process.
How is the process you take them through different than what you do with women?
Well, the process is mostly the same. It’s the same set of exercises. The structure and order is the same. When I work with individuals, I bring in custom-designed exercises for their circumstances. Each woman is different, but each man is too.
The general difference has more has to do with outside pressure and internal pressure. There’s more internal pressure for women to want children. Women — if we’re talking about getting pregnant and giving birth, well, men don’t do that. Women have a time frame that begins and ends. Men’s time frame to decide goes on for quite some time. There isn’t the same time pressure.
In terms of do you want to be a parent in general, well, in the pronatalist society we live in, the focus is women should have children and should want to be mothers. I think men are just supposed to go along with that, too.
You used the term pronatalist. Can you explain what that means?
Laura Carroll writes about this a lot in her book The Baby Matrix. Pronatalist is this idea that so many women and men never question becoming a parent, because we just buy into this idea that you’re supposed to become a parent, and want to. You should want it. But that’s not true. Each person gets to decide what’s right for them. Both men and women can get to a place in their life where I can see a very rich and full life down either path for them, either being childfree or being a parent. But that comes from a very conscientious place. That’s different from “Whatever you want — I’ll be fine.” I encourage each individual to look at what they want and why.
But we also often portray men as being indifferent or reluctant fathers.
Through no fault or blame of men, I think how men are raised by their fathers, and society, yes, men can be apathetic about fatherhood. But I do work with a lot of same-sex and heterosexual couples who call in where the man wants children and the woman doesn’t.
Is that something you’re only seeing recently?
It’s always been true, but it’s more prevalent now. I also get men who call because a relationship just ended over this issue in either direction. Maybe they couldn’t commit. Or men who don’t want to keep dating until they’re clear where they’re at with this issue, they say.
Men come to you to decide their position on kids, and not necessarily because of a relationship?
The younger generation of men, I’d say, in their early 30s, are very conscientious. It’s not necessarily that they’ve been dumped, but they’re dating and realize it’s an issue. They’re getting asked this question by women, and they better figure out the answer.
But it’s all sorts of scenarios. Maybe a woman or their partner is ready to move forward and they’re not. There are gay couples who are deciding if fatherhood is right for them.
Sometimes I’ll get a call from a man whose wife is pregnant and they both decided to become parents, but he’s not as thrilled about as he wants to be. It’s not that he’s against it. He just wants to be more excited. But I work with women who are pregnant and want to feel more excited, too. They both ask, “How can my desire catch up with the decision I already made?”
It’s not always that the decision has been made though. I get calls from men who say, “I’m not against it. She definitely wants kids. How do I get more excited?”
So we look at what might be the unconscious recordings they’re playing they aren’t aware of.
What are those recordings like for men?
I think when men are raised in an environment where — and this happens for women too — if on some level you feel like your parent was ambivalent about you, it can be carried forward. Where you’re ambivalent about whether you want to become a father or parent.
People can be raised in what looks like wonderful family situations, where there’s love, opportunity and care, and even in the best of circumstances, that doesn’t mean a child’s emotional and psychological needs are met, even though that was the intention. Everyone has to work through where there were inadvertent wounds.
Can you describe the process?
It’s just a process about knowing yourself better — a decision-making process I take people through. It’s a course where each week builds on the previous week. There are inquires that look at your early years growing up. Then there are fantasies of looking into the future. You imagine life as a parent. Not as a parent. It’s combined with guided visualization each week, writing assignments to stir the unconscious and subconscious to bring new info forward. When people aren’t sure what they want to do, they need new information.
It doesn’t seem like many people offer this service.
Very few. A lot of people focus on pros and cons [like cost or family pressure]. But that’s the last thing we look at. It’s important, it’s just the order matters. It’s unimportant and inefficient to start with pros and cons. Those are real things, but to entertain them prematurely, before you’re clear on what you want and why, it just gets in the way and clouds the issue.
Do you ever take someone through the course and they still don’t know if they want children?
Yeah, sometimes people get to the end of the course and they still don’t know what they want. But they don’t care anymore because they realize the bigger issue is their self-esteem, or I need to work on feeling that I matter in the world. That’s the bigger issue, and when that gets resolved, they can go in either direction.
So if someone isn’t clear on what they want, they’re usually clear on why, and what the next step is for their own healing. There are people looking for some intense feeling of yes or no, and they come to the end and realize there’s no intensity around it. Sometimes they realize they can have kids or not, but what they really need to do right now is change their job. They think having children is the big issue, but in the process of figuring that out, another issue is revealed because the process is so much about knowing yourself.
Some men say they don’t feel like fathers until the baby is born. How do you address the decision when, for them, they might not even realize what it’s like until the birth?
Well, you can’t know what you don’t know. You can imagine what something might be like or want it to be like. If you’ve never held an infant in your hands, you don’t know what it’s like. It might be scary or wonderful or moving or repelling.
You can’t know what it’s going to be like to be a mother until it happens, either. You can know what you want it to be. Or why you want it. And trust that you’ll be okay. Or trust you can get help if you need it.
This course is about making a conscientious decision and really understanding what drives it from inside out, not outside in. And if men end up going down the path of fatherhood after the work, this will make them a better father, because they know themselves better.
And if they don’t go down the path?
If they realize they don’t want children, it still gives them a better understanding about their own childhood. Or they might know they do want children and still do this work. One man worked with me because his wife was ambivalent and had done the course. She did it, and he said, “I should, too — to do my due diligence.” He came in wanting to be a father and still ended up wanting to, but for different reasons. It was the difference between a more superficial wanting to versus a deeper, more meaningful one. He saw what a big deal it was to make this choice, and he was more conscious about how to raise the child, too.
Do you see a lot of couples together?
I don’t treat this is a couple’s issue. I see it as an individual’s issue. I work with both individually or one or the other. I work with the person in the couple who is most ambivalent. If both are undecided, I work with them individually.
Why is that?
It’s a waste of time to work with them as a couple. If they’d both done individual inquiry, and they know what they want, and both people come out in different places, I might see them a few times to help them talk about the differences. But when people are clear, what happens mostly when I work with one of the two people in the couple, is when one person is grounded in a clear desire and understands why, the conversation about what to do is a different conversation than it can be before one of them has done of the work.
Before you do the work, you’re dealing with projections, fears and trying to convince someone. It’s a murky place I don’t enjoy, it’s not efficient, and there’s too much to work through. Each person has to go to their own corner and look inside, and not outside.
Do you deal with a lot of ultimatums?
I’ve talked to one person in the couple where it’s an ultimatum or deal breaker. I talked to a couple yesterday calling to see how to work with me. The woman is 34; the man is 25. They both want children, he just doesn’t want it now, and she doesn’t want to wait. They’re both clear they want children, it’s just the timing.
It’s never that simple, though. If it’s that simple, that’s going to be a deal breaker. But they want to stay together. So they need to go to their own corners and look again at what they want, why and where is there negotiation that can happen.
But I don’t get a lot of ultimatums. It’s unlikely those people are going to call me because they’ve already decided. So if someone finds out about me and wants to do that exploration, I will work with them. That’s the person usually who has made the decision, but wants to get more excited about it.
So how do you get more excited about parenting?
It’s not about how do you get excited, but what is in the way of you being excited? Are you carrying a belief that isn’t really true? Is there a message you got — someone struggled raising you, and it was internalized that you were a burden and this is going to be a burden? What’s in there that’s getting in the way of you wanting this? Is there something that needs to be cleared away and you don’t have access to it?
And some people I’d guess just realize they don’t want kids, and it’s because they just don’t want them.
Yes, but the question is what do you want then? Do you have a commitment issue? It’s okay if you don’t want children. At some point, you still need to look at the issue that gets in the way of having the relationship you want.
I have no judgment if they never want to commit, if that works for them. If it does, it’s not a problem. If someone, let’s say a woman, keeps picking men who aren’t willing to commit to this, then why is she continuing to do it, what’s going on — what’s she replaying? What’s going on for a man who keeps ending up with women who want a longterm relationship? Any pattern repeated, the question is why?
And people change their minds, too.
I have people who are both very clear before getting married, where neither wanted children, and now they say, “I’m thinking twice about that.” People enter marriage agreements in good faith and then something happens. At that point, they need to do some work.
What about men who tell women they don’t want kids, and women think they can change their minds? I read a breakup story recently about a woman who was sure she’d talk him into it.
That’s disrespectful. You have to take someone at face value. If you think they’re going to change their mind and they don’t, that’s on you. It’s disrespectful to think you can control someone.
What would you most like men to understand about deciding whether to become fathers?
That men matter. You get to matter. This gets to be your priority. You get to decide if you want to be a father or not. No one gets to decide that for you. You’re entitled to that decision.