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When my first child was born, I thought I was prepared for everything
I don’t read manuals. But when my wife was pregnant last year with our first child, she studied every so-you’re-expecting book she could find. I scanned the sections she assigned, sat through birthing classes, watched the self-help VHS on swaddling and shushing, and viewed a tutorial on infant care she pulled off Netflix—but mostly just to show solidarity with the woman who, five months pregnant, followed my job from our home in Indianapolis to Atlanta last August. I smiled and nodded at the unsolicited advice from my parent friends. This is between my child and me, I thought. I talked to Abilene, the girl we had named years before she was conceived, in my wife’s belly like the intelligent being I knew she was. We joked about how her grandparents would never let her feet touch the floor. She was a baseball fan, of course, and I dutifully reported the daily Cardinals scores. When our team came from behind to even a playoff series against the Phillies, I felt a nudge from the womb that could only be interpreted as a celebratory fist bump. And at night, I’d sing her to sleep, usually Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” We had a bond, an understanding. I figured that when the moment came, my little friend would provide me with all the revelation I’d need.
That moment was not in the hospital room while listening to Abi’s heartbeat churning through the monitor, as I tried in vain to write my unborn child a letter of wisdom and profundity. It was not in the operating room minutes later when an actual baby was pulled from an incision in my wife’s abdomen, me looking on as it was presented to its mother, who was weeping with a joy I had not seen in the decade I had known her. (The nurse reminded me to snap a photo with my iPhone.) Nor did the revelation come when I held her for the first time, screaming and writhing in my arms, piercing blue eyes boring into me like I was a stranger, or worse, a fraud who was never going to have the answers she was looking for. Over the first few sleepless nights at home, no amount of rocking or singing could soothe her. I croaked “Hallelujah,” but she did not respond. My wife urged me to use my training, the swaddle and the shush to simulate the womb, but I was indignant. I didn’t want to have to trick my child into submission. I wanted her to know me, to recognize my voice, to know that as long as she heard that voice, everything was going to be okay. During one all-nighter that I was supposed to man alone, I flipped on the bedroom lights, marched toward my waking wife, held the crying baby at arm’s length like a pot of scalding water, and declared, “I’m through with her.” I swear I just meant for the night.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love her. Of course I did. That was the problem. I wanted more than anything to be father of the century. But she didn’t need me to be a father. She needed me to be a caretaker, someone to change her diapers. I needed validation or at least recognition of the effort. I was working my ass off and seeing zero results. A puppy almost hyperventilates with glee when she sees you go to the dog food bag—she knows she’s going to get fed. Meanwhile the sound of the fridge door, the beep of the bottle warmer, the sight of me screwing on the nipple right in front of her meant nothing to Abi. She didn’t relent until the milk touched her tongue. “She’s a baby,” my wife would say in her measured, motherly tone, making me feel that much worse for comparing my child to a dog while simultaneously expecting her to be a logical, thinking semiadult.
That’s the other thing: While I was failing as a father, my wife had found her calling in motherhood. She worried about every little cough and sniffle, but she was quick to act, self-assured and calm in crisis, with the patience and easy persistence of a river carving out a canyon. I was in awe of her. And Abi was by all reasonable measures a good baby. She was inconsolable when hungry (which seemed like always), but she was strong and healthy, not at all colicky. She slept, if only for a couple of hours at a time, and she adapted well to strange people and surroundings. I was the only one in the family not adjusting to the new situation.
My company allows one week of paid paternity leave. Most of the dads I talked to get a day, maybe two, if anything. In fact, only 8 percent of American companies offer mothers paid leave. The average mother without paid leave takes six and a half weeks.
I tacked on a week of vacation, but I’m not sure a month would have been enough. I returned to the office I hadn’t even unpacked yet, weighted down with new boxes of mental clutter. Running on maybe four scattered hours of sleep, I could barely keep my head off the desk, much less summon any creativity. Frustration gave way to anger, then desperation. More than once, I shut my door, sat down on the floor, and let the tears come. When I came home, it was time to spell my wife, who’d been with Abi all day; the evenings and early mornings I had always dedicated to catch-up work were now loud with baby din. And when I had a rough day, when I came up empty at idea meetings, when the I-85 gridlock was too much, when an innocent comment from my editor sent me into a full-blown crisis of confidence, there was really no one to turn to. My best friend, my confidant of nine years, was now focused on her new occupation, her new identity. Meanwhile, I was quietly sucking at two new jobs.
I’m not big into going to the doctor. It took most of the humility I had to turn to the Google bar and type in “postpartum depression” and “men.” I was surprised to learn that as many as one in every four new dads suffers from some form of the doldrums. That’s 2,700 new fathers each day, nationwide. I found out that after childbirth, a man’s testosterone levels ebb while his estrogen surges—conceivably to make him a more faithful and nurturing parent; no one’s sure. The hormonal shift leaves us just as susceptible to mood swings as Mom. And it’s thought that a major trigger for depression is the lack of response from the child. On one site I took a self-assessment—ten open-ended statements like: “In the past week, I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong . . .” or “In the past week, I have felt sad or miserable . . .,” followed by choices ranging from “No, not at all” to “Most of the time.” Each answer was given a numeric value. A total score of five to eight meant you suffered merely from anxiety. If your number was nine or higher, it “was likely that you had depression.” My scrap of paper tallied to fifteen.
For the first time in my life, I considered seeing a therapist. But before I dialed that number, I got some key advice from a couple of friends who had each had babies in the past two years. I was relieved to hear that both friends related to the lack of response during those first few weeks, with one going so far as to jokingly refer to the bundle as “nothing more than a little digestive system.” They both talked about the confusion and guilt, and they reminded me that the baby could sense and reflect my unease and tension, compounding the problem. But they advised patience: “Once you get to three months,” one of them said, “you’ll see it.”
They were right. Slowly my body got used to the lack of sleep. With more energy, I took a Zen approach to the late-night crying fits, closing my eyes, breathing through my nose, and swaying and singing as much to calm myself as the child. And she responded. Gradually my embrace came to mean safety and comfort. She began to grab my finger and put it in her mouth to soothe her aching gums. I even occasionally got a smile when I walked in the door from work. She still screamed bloody murder until the bottle hit her lips. But the first time I made her giggle, I warbled and jumped around like a loon, slapping myself red to coax another.
In March I drove the family to Des Moines, where Abi and my wife were going to spend the week with my in-laws while I flew back to work. We broke the trip into two eight-hour legs through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. Abi, awake and alert, handled the flat, interminable drive with far less frustration than her father.
The week alone was going to give me a chance to refocus on work and catch up with friends. I knew I’d miss my girls. I had no idea how much. I’ll admit I enjoyed that first full night’s sleep. But as the days wore on, the silence in the apartment became unbearable. By week’s end it took a couple of glasses of bourbon and the sound of her crib-side wave machine crackling through the baby monitor to put me out.
When my Friday night flight finally landed in Des Moines, I raced into my in-laws’ house, threw my bag to the floor, and went straight for the rocker. Abi was squirming, crying. My wife said she had been fussy all day; no bottle or song or funny face from Auntie or Grandma could still her. I picked her up and kissed her once on the forehead, once on the cheek. I could not put her down. Eventually I took her back into the bedroom and by the faint glow of a night-light, I held her to me, began to sway back and forth while softly repeating Cohen’s refrain. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Abi quieted. The four-month-old looked up at me and sniffled, then buried her face in my chest. My hand on her back, I could feel her heave and sob as she slowly drifted to sleep. I rocked and sang until all I could feel was her heartbeat.
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett