Parenthood can throw even the most prepared people for a loop. Take Haakon Nelson and his wife, Marit.
Because Marit is pediatrician and Nelson an elementary school teacher — with two sets of excited and involved grandparents — the couple figured that they had the parenting thing under control. “We felt pretty confident and relatively prepared for having kids,” Nelson said.
And, after their first two kids were born, Nelson said that life seemed to be moving along smoothly. Then, after the birth of the couple’s third child, Marit was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and needed to take medical leave from work.
“Life started to get really challenging,” Nelson said.
Even with support from his friends, parents and in-laws, Nelson struggled to keep the family rolling along. Some days, he longed to talk to another dad who’d been in his shoes and could reassure him that things would eventually get better.
“I felt a tremendous amount of pressure and isolation taking care of three kids with a wife who was not well,” he said.
With time and professional help, things started to get better for Nelson’s family. When his youngest was three, he got an opportunity to help other dads when was asked to lead a newly created Dads Group at Better Beginnings, a Twin Cities-based company that provides birth and postpartum support for families. Hallie Rogers, Better Beginnings founder, is a childhood friend of Nelson’s wife. She asked him if he’d step in and lead the group, which was slated to meet every other Tuesday evening.
Though Better Beginnings started with a focus on birth, postpartum and lactation support, Rogers said that creating the dads group felt like a natural extension of her company’s goal of providing holistic care for all members of a family.
“I feel there are lots of new mom groups but not a whole lot for dads,” she said. “We felt like dads wanted a place where they could get the support and connection they needed.”
Nelson, leaning on his years of teaching experience, agreed to lead the group. He figured that even as the facilitator, he’d gain from the experience: “It was important to get out of the house and talk to other dads and connect with them,” Nelson said. The group was a way for him — and other participants — to meet other men who shared some experiences. “This is a great way for people in similar life situations but from a variety of backgrounds to come together,” he said. “We actually had a lot in common. It was fun and easy to vent and talk about things.”
These shared connections helped participants form strong bonds with the men in the group. Men, especially fathers, often have a hard time making friends and building connections, he explained: “If you are working, it is hard to connect. If your friends aren’t going through the same things, it is hard. And if you are new to a community it can be hard, too.”
When Nelson realized how much camaraderie — with all his privilege and support — he gained from the group, he knew how important it must feel for dads from all backgrounds.
“We have all of these things going for us, and parenting is still really hard,” he said. “If I had a hard time, I can only imagine what people with more challenges feel. I feel like it is extra important for me to be able to offer this support to every dad.”
A former high school English teacher, Rogers started Better Beginnings in 2013 when her two children were still young. She said that she and her husband had spent a lot of time preparing for the birth of their first child, but after their baby was born and they arrived home from the hospital, they felt unmoored.
“We wondered, ‘What the heck are we supposed to do now?’” Rogers recalled. “Breastfeeding was really hard that first time around,” plus, she experienced “a little bit of the baby blues.”
After the birth of her second child, life didn’t get any easier for Rogers. “I experienced postpartum anxiety and depression,” she said. “That really galvanized me to want to be part of the solution for parents in our city. I started thinking, ‘I’m going to start a company that helps people after their birth: There is really not enough postpartum support.’”
The dads group had been on Rogers’ mind since the beginning. “Ever since founding the company I wanted to have a dads’ group,” she said. “I believe there is a dearth of support for new dads.”
When Nelson agreed to lead the group, he and Rogers sat down to plan its structure. In the end, they decided on six meetings over a 12-week period. They selected the evening meeting time to accommodate the schedules of working parents — and to allow space for fathers to help put their young children to bed before heading off.
Though most men didn’t grow up hearing this, fatherhood can be hard, Nelson said. The isolation that many new dads feel can make the experience feel even harder. He recalls that when he started the group, there were a couple of participants who seemed particularly stressed by being a new dad.
“They didn’t have a lot of social or peer support,” he said. “They didn’t know very many guys. They came to the group every time. When it was their turn to share they had a lot to say and they really were ready to talk, like it was all built up.”
After some time with the group, Nelson said, the support of the other dads started to have an impact. These men would, he explained, “talk about what was fun and exciting with their kids. At the beginning, when they came in, they were usually ready to vent. By the end, there was a lot more lightness about them.”
This fall, Better Beginnings added a second dads group, when Nelson and his family moved up to Duluth. The organization already offered doula and postpartum services in the city, so it made sense to offer programming for dads there as well.
“We are excited to start another go-round,” Rogers said of the group. She hopes that the two groups will be able to build on the momentum established out of the gate. “Last year, we had to turn away some of the dads because it was getting so big,” she said. (The group is intentionally kept small, topping out around eight participants including the facilitator.) “When the group gets too big it can sometimes stifle conversation.”
Better Beginnings’ Twin Cities dads group will continue, with a new facilitator, Giovanni Higuera, a father of two who is studying to be a licensed marriage and family therapist. Higuera, Rogers said, “has a real knowledge and heart and mind for mental health.”
Higuera moved to the Twin Cities from Los Angeles in 2014. When his first child was born, he and his wife were living in California. “Few of my friends were having children then,” he said. “It felt like I didn’t have a community of people, peers who understood where I was at in my life. I needed a community to brainstorm, to hear how they navigated the challenges that come with being a father, being a partner.”
The family’s second child was born in Minnesota. Higuera went looking for a place where he could meet other dads, but it wasn’t easy. “Finding a dads’ group was tough for me when I started looking,” he said. “That’s what persuaded me to get into the field of counseling and psychology. I want to make sure dads are supported and have a space to come to.”
He’ll bring that same perspective to his work leading the dad’s group, he added: “I would like to see myself grow with this role. I aim to be a support to other dads.”
For information, or to sign up for Better Beginnings dads groups, email email@example.com