Bill Williams’ journey to help fellow fathers through his Sons to Dads program started many years ago when he was literally pushed into a direction he didn’t want to go.
After serving in the army for twenty-three years and living in Germany, Italy, Vietnam, and bases around the US, Bill and his family settled in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Still young, he didn’t want to simply retire, so he decided to return to school. “I thought I wanted to teach, become a teacher,” explains Williams. “Because that’s what I had basically done in the military, but that would require me to go to school three hours away and the school there (in Carlsbad) offered a nursing program. I’d been away from my family enough.”
He didn’t hesitate taking the closer education opportunity. In fact, he commented he’d considered medicine many years before, but decided against it. “I was in the hospital when I was fifteen and I had a male nurse. I thought that was so interesting because there weren’t that many. It was mostly women.”
He continued through his medical training, assuming he’d go into geriatric and long-term care (nursing homes/assisted living facilities) because the nurses told him he was a “natural”.
That was his plan, until he had his Neonatal ICU rotation. (Neonatal ICU or NNICU is where babies go after being born too early or need extra medical care after delivery .)
“I didn’t want to go,” he laughed. “I mean, babies, really small babies?” His first day of this rotation, his nurse instructor impatiently stood with him in the hallway before the double doors of the unit as Bill made the decision whether or not to proceed.
“She finally snapped at me. ‘Are you going or not?’ Then the doors opened and I saw a baby in there.”
His eyes lit up as he recalls the moment. “It was just something about that baby and I looked at my instructor and said ‘how cool.’” From then on, he was hooked. Bill didn’t mind being one of the few male nurses around. “I loved it being a nurse for these tiny babies.”
After working in the unit for a short time, Bill became painfully aware how much the fathers were being left out of the child’s care and diagnosis. “I remember one case, this mother would sit at the bedside all day and the father was a big man, a rancher. He’d come in at the end of the day and have to catch up on what happened that entire time he was gone.” Shaking his head, he replied, “It didn’t seem right. This man was lost in the care of his own child.”
Excluding the father is nothing new in the medical community. Williams laughed when he recalled the night his older son was born years ago. “I take my wife to the hospital there on the base and they tell me to leave my phone number and they’ll call me after the child is born. I mean, they just wanted me to leave and come back later.”
The old movement to exclude the father from the experience of being in the delivery room and raising a child is something that has been essentially abandoned, but for Bill Williams, that’s only one of the first steps.
In his book, based on his website Sons to Dads, Bill states, “Some time ago, long before my lifetime, a misconception began to evolve. Claiming the woman makes the better parent; because she, bears the child, makes her more caring, and nurturing than the man. What is even worse, we have bought the idea. Women have had more experience and better care giving role models than we have had over the years. However, we are beginning to realize, dads can contribute to the infant’s quality of life and development, when given the instruction and the opportunity to prove what we can do.”
After watching fathers being ignored and excluded from the child’s first few days of life, Bill had enough. “Someone had to help these dads out.” He started to put some ideas together around 1997 for fathers to become more involved in the baby’s care. “I mean, when you take care of the baby, you take care of the mom. So many fathers are pushed aside during these first days, years of the baby’s life, but these fathers don’t even know what to do or how to step in to help.”
In 2001, he and his wife moved to San Antonio, Texas to be near their first grandchild. There, he started work at the Baptist Hospital System and took over their father program. “It was in bad repair and it was boring,” Williams explained the program consisted of a film with a female nurse in a white uniform showing a mother how to give the baby his/her first bath. “That was in February and we didn’t have, but a few dads in the class. In April, I had the next class, but this time, I bought dolls for the fathers to actually bathe and practice. By May, there were five dads taking the class and from then on, more dads were signing up.”
As he compiled and sculpted his program, he researched and found minute pieces of information for fathers on baby instructions. “Most of it was focused on the moms and very little consideration for the dads.” Williams also discovered it wasn’t only the lack of information, but family dynamics had a huge part in this excluding the fathers as well. One example he gives he how the fathers hold the babies as opposed to the mothers. “Dads like to see the babies, hold them in front of our faces, look at them. Then we hold them high on our chests where as the mothers hold them in more of a protective way. So many times, I’ve seen mothers, mothers-in-law, tell the father that’s a wrong way to hold a baby.”
Because of basic anatomy, fathers can hold the child high on the chest or nestled between the pectoral muscles, where the mothers are either engorged or their breasts have filled out because of the pregnancy. It’s easy for the child to hear the heartbeat on the father’s chest simply because of anatomy and Bill took that natural difference and expanded on it, calling it kangaroo care. This technique has been done with premature babies and with mothers who are breastfeeding their children, but Bill incorporated it for newborns and fathers as well.
Once the baby is born and the initial assessment is completed, the father is asked to sit in a chair and get comfortable. “The nurse places the newborn vertically, head up and midline of dad’s chest, allowing the father to cradle the infant in the fetal position with one hand from underneath, while holding a blanket over the infant’s back with the other hand. Usually, after a brief period of adjustment, the infant will settle down and cuddle into the dad’s chest. This encounter provides more than just holding the baby, rather it gives the new father the opportunity to hold and communicate with the newborn.”
Other activities the class offers training in swaddling the baby, burping, hiccup cure, bottle feeding, how to pack a bag for the hospital, and even on how to help the mother with breastfeeding.
Williams says the average class size is any where from seven to eight fathers, but the room only accommodates ten. “So seventy to eighty percent attendance isn’t bad.” One thing Bill wants to stress is this is a dads’ class. No mothers allowed. “I remember, I had a nurse simply peeked her head into a class, to tell the fathers how great it was they were taking it and my evaluations plummeted. They usually are always great, but that one little thing made the evaluations go down.” Dads want a safe and neutral place to learn with only other fathers who have just as many questions and concerns.” Shrugging, he adds, “I’m not trying to be chauvinist, but there are so many classes and books for mommies, why can’t the fathers have something on their own?”
Excitedly he told me because of the popularity of his classes and the education he offers fathers on the post-partum unit, he is now a full-time instructor and has left bedside nursing. Despite spending the past seventeen years in the NNICU, he is excited about the new adventure of teaching. “Not only do I get to teach classes, I’ll go to the post-partum units and simply ask the fathers if they need anything.”
He said the father not asking questions or being involved shouldn’t be interpreted as disinterest. “I’ve walked into a room where the nurse said the father just slept in the other bed with his back to the door, but when I walked in and asked if they had any questions or needed anything, that father jumped up and had plenty to ask.” Smiling, he adds, “Sometimes, men just want to talk to other men about their concerns.”
Bill hasn’t kept the classes to only new fathers. “We started grandparent classes recently and I couldn’t be more excited. We had one man come in and sit with his arms crossed and angry that he had to be there, but by the end of the class, he was smiling and loving it.”
The expansion of the Sons to Dads program nationwide is a dream of Bill’s. “I would love to see this be standard of care for families in a few years.” For now, Bill is happy and busy helping the fathers (and mothers) of San Antonio, Texas at the Baptist Hospital System. If you have questions about Bill’s program or want to order the book based on his classes, you can visit Sons to Dads.