The MPAS Crisis
Executive Summary: The Crisis At-a-Glance
The first steps in resolving a crisis are to:
▸ See it
▸ Name it
▸ Understand it
Then we are better able to do something about it.
One crisis is an epidemic of failed relationships shortly after a child is born. A major cause is Male Postpartum Abandonment Syndrome or MPAS. Naming and analyzing the crisis can lead to preventive and remedial steps that a family can take.
The challenges partners face during pregnancy and after a child is born are intense. When a couple isn’t fully supported or resourced within an extended family or community, it is difficult (maybe even impossible) to meet everyone’s needs. The recently instituted and now failed nuclear family disaster (only 1 or 2 parents with no adult relatives nearby) has proven to be far from optimal for raising children.
Having a baby results in parents moving through many phases of growth: preparation, transition to parenthood, healing re-stimulated old wounding, tending the couple’s relationship, and finding balance in a new life.
Families experience massive disconnection due to unmet needs from too little support. All too often the father leaves emotionally or physically (MPAS). The more we can understand and address this challenge and nurture new families through the early years, the more we can expect to give families, and ultimately our communities, a better chance to thrive. Parents need a community or a tribe to support a healthy family.
Struggling families, and those professionals supporting them, can hold onto hope with the knowledge that the MPAS epidemic can be healed through creating or restoring secure connections with significant family members. For families to thrive, we need many people involved with each child, and more support surrounding families.
With proper support, a couple can stay connected, while, as individuals, they can each tend to their personal growth work and heal any childhood trauma that surfaces with parenthood. It is vital that parents and children be strongly attached.
For this transformation to community/tribal support to occur requires all of us. Helping professionals working with new parents are the ideal guides to help families open up to support and direct them to appropriate resources.
A Destructive Epidemic
Why do so many couples separate—physically or emotionally—soon after the birth of their first child? This silent epidemic of failing partnerships is reaching epic proportions.
Approximately 30% of couples split up within a few years after the birth of their first child. And upwards of 90% separate emotionally, along with a plummeting sexual connection.
Having children seems to destroy marriages,
especially in nuclear families.
The introduction of a baby taxes a nuclear family system (only 1 or 2 parents with no adult relatives nearby) beyond capacity. It’s impossible to meet everyone’s needs with so few people in a household.
“One or two parents do not a village make.”
—Scott Noelle, EnjoyParenting.com
The extreme stress leads to further disconnection, and often to separation, divorce, and broken families.
Usually it is the dad who seems to disappear, because the mother stays with the child, usually in the family home. But it’s really the partnership that has disappeared.
The Gottman Institute reports up to 2/3 of couples are unhappy after baby comes home. This statistic was translated by the media (Huffington Post) as tongue-in-cheek advice to “divorce while baby is young”—an all too common trend.
“If you split right after a baby’s born, not only will your baby be too young to hold that against you, or even have memories of it later on, but you were going to be sexually frustrated and emotionally distant in your marriage anyway. Honestly, I just can’t think of a better time—can you?” — Vicki Larson, Huffington Post
Why? Why grow a family just to separate and end up alone with child or just alone? What if there is another way? What if you can stay connected and enjoy the early years of parenting, even thrive?!?! You can!
How MPAS Develops
Because of cumulative unmet needs (see Roots of Disconnection, below), many boys grow up looking for a mother-connection they never had. If lucky, the man finds and mates with “Her,” thinking he is now complete and fully connected.
Once the honeymoon has passed, distance grows. Our disconnected culture has few resources to teach maintenance of bonds or communication skills—particularly for men. The resulting lack of connection, security, or communication skills, leaves men with inadequate resilience—especially when massive changes occur in their primary relationship, caused by the arrival of an infant.
When a man’s first child is born into a nuclear family, he often feels like he must go out and earn more money to support his wife and her new “lover.” He can’t consciously admit this, even to himself, but this is how his own little boy may feel inside.
He craves the attachment he is witnessing between his baby and partner, which he likely didn’t even experience himself, as an infant. And now he’s saddled with even more responsibility, as well as a loss of the attention he’s used to getting from his partner. This can be a devastating experience for a man at a time when he is expected to be joyful at the arrival of his child.
These losses, stacked upon the wildly unreasonable demands on parents attempting to raise children in a nuclear family, creates a stress that so often leads to disappearing dads. This is made even worse if one or both parents are working outside the home.
Breakdown is imminent.
Roots of Disconnection
Our culture is in breakdown. Really the whole Western industrialized culture is impacted by the separation of our family and the disappearance of community structures. We are suffering from an epic state of disconnection, violence, addiction, depression, emotional pain, crises, and chaos. A lot of hurting is going on in our culture. People who are hurting, hurt other people.
To understand this phenomenon more fully, check out the book, Why Dads Leave. It describes many of the types of the disconnection that can be activated within a couple, especially when roots are newly forming for an addition to the family—the sweet and innocent infant. That little one can stir things up!
When a family adds a new member, the dynamics shift dramatically and can trigger old wounds, old traumas (including hidden or misunderstood generational trauma), and unhealthy dynamics like co-dependency and individual dysfunction.
In our “advanced,” industrialized culture, the mother/baby unit has become far removed from the center of the community. In fact, mother/baby units are often expected to be quiet and relatively unseen, with nursing corners hidden away and play areas, if available, off to a side or in a corner. While birth can be a celebration, caring for mother/baby and caring for growing families is neither celebrated nor prioritized. With unawareness of the mother/baby unit as the center of a society, the needs of the mother and baby can’t be met, and the needs of the father fall even farther behind.
The societal impact on mothers without adequate resources is huge. As a result, far too many new parents slide down the pain side of the Pain-to-Joy Connection Continuum.
A dad leaves a family emotionally or physically for a vast range of reasons—at the core because his needs are not met. Let’s look further into how this happens.
To understand the whole picture, we’ll start with an historical perspective.
Our Mammalian History
Mammals arose 60 million years ago, after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Mammals were unique in that they nursed and nurtured their young, slept together, and mostly lived in bands.
Humanoids arose in the last million years. They cared for their young in the same ways.
Humanoids had a new, developing mammalian brain, formed atop the old reptilian brain, and began to experience emotions and intuition, as well as a drive to connect with others.
It’s the unique ability of this feeling-brain (the limbic brain) that creates resonance between individuals and ultimately fosters bonding. The limbic brain is what draws us to one another and regulates much of our behavior, especially our social behaviors.
As a result, the most successful emerging humans lived in tribes and villages, and maintained extended families.
Collective social structures are actually requirements for optimal human development and secure connection.
Because humans lived closely together, the benefits of community were available for most of our time on earth—the past 200 millennia—and we were able to thrive.
The Nuclear Family
Unfortunately the industrial revolution eroded much of the village way of life, forcing families and villages to break down into smaller living units, housed in squalid urban tenements, working long hours away from family members.
More recently, the mobility of jobs further tore apart what may have remained of extended families with close relatives often living hundreds of miles apart. This aberration—which John Travis, MD, MPH, originally called the nuclear family experiment—is only a little over 100 years old, yet is now seen as normal. At this point he calls it the nuclear family disaster.
It is not healthy. Far from it.
From decades of wellness research, and especially infant wellness, Dr. Travis asserts it takes a minimum of 3.87 adults per infant to adequately meet a family’s needs. Doing this math for a nuclear family is very simple—and sad.
Even the most basic care, like holding an infant, requires actual human arms. And constant motion/rocking of being held, like that experienced in the womb, is needed for an infant to feel worthy, welcome, safe, connected, and loved. It’s also required for optimal nervous system (brain) development.1
This devastating shortage of arms in the nuclear family disaster has seriously impacted the “in arms” period of development (also referred to as the fourth trimester or the primal period). Our feeble efforts to make up for this arms shortage has led to a variety of damaging substitutes such as cradles, cribs, prams, strollers, high chairs, and walkers. These lifeless containers are a far cry from human arms, and ultimately anchor us in a permanent sense of separation/separateness—a conjoint anxiety as we grow up. Some evolution to the stationary containers include built in sound device to play a heartbeat or a vibrating cradle. While these may be better than stillness for the infant, it’s still a far cry from being held in human arms.
Additionally, the cultural discouragement of breastfeeding has led to further disconnection with the substitution of blankets or stuffed animals to replace the comfort of a warm breast and healthy, tasty mother’s milk.
Breastfeeding comforts as much as it nourishes. Historically, the normal weaning age for humans was between 4 and 7 years. Today most babies, if they are breastfed at all, are weaned at 6 weeks to 6 months, despite the World Health Organization recommendation of 2+ years. Many mothers must return to jobs outside the home, and so are unable to see or hold their infants for long periods of time, and nursing becomes impossible.
Another destructive factor is sleeping alone, something that massively disconnects an infant. A baby will eventually give up crying for connection (“crying ‘it’ out”) and slip into despair and resignation. This is mistakenly mislabeled “self-soothing.” An infant cannot self-sooth. Infants are dependent and become dis-regulated when left alone. A part of their nervous system will shut down. Sleeping alone is neither normal nor healthy for an infant.2
Making Matters Worse
Another misstep in our history is routine medicalized birth. Within just the past 80 years, we have created a birthing system that intervenes unnecessarily about 90% of the time. Home births are well documented to be safer and far better for the baby’s first experiences, but so much fear of birth has been created that few women realize this. While crucial for the high-risk, 5-10% of births, these same interventions disrupt the normal bonding process of birth for mom and baby and lead to birth trauma during most medicalized births.
Today’s family life with a newborn is more than strained when we consider the lack of community support along with the mostly hidden trauma that modern birth brings to the whole family, including re-stimulating the parents’ hidden memories, even if they never recognize them as memories – trauma can quietly but insistently recur in a new way.
The lack of constant movement, touch, and the familiar scent of mother disrupts an infant’s experience of safety, trust, and love. This disruption leads to a disconnected child with a fundamental breakdown of normal, healthy brain development.
The demands of an infant wear out the mother and father physically and emotionally, further eroding the couple’s connection—it takes a village.
We ignore our mammalian heritage at our own peril.
While we don’t consciously remember our earlier devastating losses, or intellectually “notice” our deep longing for connection, our bodies never forget them.
This great, deep “missing” (a painful longing for unmet needs to be met) directly results in the depression, violence, addiction, chronic illness, fundamentalism, materialism/greed, MPAS, and ecocide we see all around us today.3
Having many people involved in the life of a new baby is absolutely essential. It is how we are built to live. We must remember and honor our mammalian roots to return to a state of individual and collective health.
“There’s no such thing as other people’s children.”