If you’re following along in our story so far, our hero has just had a beautiful baby girl… and her husband is a mopey mess. Yep, that was me. If you haven’t read the first post, catch up on the saga here. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I’m the same guy who felt so disoriented, estranged, and confused during the nascent stages of fatherhood. After all, I’m a stay-at-home-dad of almost five years, with three children ages four and under. I’m one of “those” dads. I took my (then) two-year-old daughter on an 800 mile road trip (each way!) to see a “Newgrass” concert. I taught her pre-school class last year how to make pickles with fresh cucumbers from our garden. My two-year-old son and I surreptitiously trekked the 700 miles to Louisville during March Madness this year to surprise my brother the night UK and Louisville threw down. I literally held my wife up in my arms while she labored with our newest baby boy. I’m pretty good at this dad thing now. You might even say I’m dad-ass bad! [lead]But, the temptation to forget, or worse, rewrite my own history would be nothing but a self-serving edit- a defense mechanism built for one- rather than extending my story outward for those who might find solidarity and hope therein. [/lead] With that in mind, I’d like to share a kind of retrospective on that tumultuous time, offering up some of the things we did that seemed to help. And, as promised, some insightful words of wisdom from a dick doctor.
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Communicate– I typically abhor this bit of advice, but not because I’m the reticent type (which should be obvious by now). It’s just trite and tired. But, whether you’re male, female, or otherwise, all human beings have a propensity to hide from each other. It’s in our existential DNA. What I’m suggesting here is that this season, especially, is not the time to hide. I felt guilty for feeling as I did, so I didn’t want to tell it. I felt guilty for needing to tell it to my wife, who just had her undercarriage reconstructed and her nipples repurposed. I was mentally bombarded with reasons NOT to confess my grief…
“C’mon, be a man about it. You didn’t even have to do the hard part!”
“Everybody else seems to be ecstatic. Just get with the program.”
“Don’t put that burden on her! Look what all else she’s facing. Plus, what will she think if you tell her?”
“Just fake it till you make it.”
An inhuman indifference, wrapped in an unmanly depression, smothered with a very bitter sauce of guilt and shame- who would want to confess that gnarly amalgam?! For that matter, who would want to hear it? But, I knew better than to bottle it up (that elixir would have been stamped with a Jolly Roger). So, I sucked it up and told her everything. Like a man. And, like a balm to my soul, she was gracious and understanding. In return she shared her feelings, good and bad. We worked together to protect and encourage one another. She didn’t judge me for my feelings of listlessness; I didn’t resent her for her feelings of glee. She didn’t try to placate my feelings and cheer me up; I didn’t besmirch what was amazing about that new life- neither the one who we held nor the one that we were beginning. Talk to your partner about what you’re feeling. It might be your salvation. It was for me.
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Seek Help– You may have read that last part and thought, “I don’t have a partner like that” or “My partner really is going through enough”. That’s fair. And, quite frankly, even if you do have the support of your spouse it may not be all that you need. Get to the ear of a friend, parent, pastor, counselor, physician, therapist, doula, midwife, support group, or, God forbid, blogger– and spill your guts. You are NOT the only one out there who feels all this shit and you are NOT alone. Let someone help you.
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Love by proxy- I can remember the first time that I ever thought of our daughter as a person. My wife was in the late stages of pregnancy and it was winter. I had walked down the hallway to adjust the thermostat (again!) and I heard her laughing in the other room. Baby had the hiccups and Mary was inquiring of her belly as to why it had startled her so. Before I knew what was running through my mind I had the thought, “I really like those two”. I froze in my tracks (but that also could have been the result of Mary’s chosen thermostat setting). It was my way in. It was the first authentic emotional ground that I could stand on as an expectant father. This life growing within my best friend’s womb was her secret, like a childhood playmate that I’d hear a million stories about but never actually met. Of course I could open a space to love… whoever it was! This idea served me well throughout this time. I have changed as many diapers out of love for my wife as I have out of care for my child. And I’ve changed many, many more because I just couldn’t stand the stench. Find a way in, even if it doesn’t start with you.
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Do the love- Hopefully it is clear by now that I’m not big on ignoring one’s emotions or masking over genuine experiences. This next bit of advice might, on the face of it, fly in the face of the premium that I have placed on authentic expression: Do the work of love, even if you don’t feel it. Yes I was, at a sensational level, forlorn and distressed. However, the immediacy of my feelings was not the only thing that was authentic about my experience at the time. I also had a deep sense of pride in my wife and family, a passionate love for my wife’s journey into motherhood, a wondrous awe for this new possibility that lay swaddled before us, and a heavy dose of sanctity for the miracle of life. So, I changed diapers, I fed bottles, I played. I did the work of being a dad. This wasn’t a “fake it til you make it” approach. It was just the right thing to do. This amounted to a more honest approach, one that wasn’t based on mood, but was rooted in the essential ground of what I valued and who I desired to become. Nourish and protect. Clean and soothe. Do the love. And, in the case of diapers, doo-doo the love.
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Process- There was a younger guy that came to my door selling security systems a few months ago and he quickly surmised that I had children. Maybe it was the infant in my arms that tipped him off. He said he was about to have his first child and spritefully asked, “If you had one piece of advice to give me, what would it be?”. I tried really hard not to laugh in his face… or punch him in it. As the baby continually tried to dive out of my clutches and the din of mischief echoed from the big kids’ room, I hurriedly uttered, “It’s a process, man. Let it be okay that you’re not going to have it all figured out right away”. I think there is a reason that my preoccupied, frazzled brain lighted upon this language when put on the spot. Becoming a parent is a process, one that we’ll probably be involved in for a long spell. Embrace that idea and allow for the ebb and flow of it all.
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Words from the dick doctor- As I said before, I was out of sorts and looking for answers. I made an appointment with a urologist to have my testosterone levels checked. I had done some online research about what I was feeling and it seemed like it might be a contributing factor. He was a little older, with pictures on the walls of his college-aged sons playing baseball. He came into the office and sat down, perusing my chart for a few moments. I told him about my situation, in detail. He fired off a series of follow-up questions in rapid succession:
“Is this your first child?” Yes.
“Have you told your wife how you feel?” Yes
“Did your wife have any trauma during delivery- did she tear?” Yes.
“Did you see it happen?” Yes.
“Are you helping with the baby and your wife’s recovery?” Yes.
He paused for a second. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what he said next:
“Well, as far as I can tell you are perfectly normal. I went through something similar when my first son was born and I see this all the time. In fact, I think you and your wife are doing an admirable job of handling things and it sounds like you’re taking the right sorts of steps, especially talking about it. I can’t stress how important that is. In my years of practice I have seen hundreds of men in your position throw their entire lives away- have affairs, break the bank, drinking problems- all because they didn’t know how to handle what they were feeling and ended up becoming self-destructive. If I had to guess, I’d be willing to bet you’ll feel like your normal self again in six months.”
[lead]I wasn’t fixed when I left; I still had tough days after that. But, I never again worried whether I’d make it out. [/lead]
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