New dad feelings

A lot is written about postpartum depression and post-birth feelings in mothers. This is natural since the vast majority of responsibility for parenting is placed on the shoulders of women. It’s a great thing that a lot of resources exist for mothers and that many couples are aware of the signs of postpartum depression, which undoubtedly helps with catching it early, and dealing with it.

But dads have feelings too. I certainly did. Unfortunately, how dads deal with birth and babies isn’t talked about much. In our society, men don’t discuss feelings, and this certainly extends to feelings about being new parents. This made me feel very alone.

So this is my experience:

I remember distinctly that the first 4 days of N’s life were some of the most overwhelming of my life, and mostly not in a good way. The first day was okay, since we were still full of post-birth excitement — but we didn’t really know how to make him sleep in his bassinet, so we weren’t getting much sleep. The acute sleep deprivation all too quickly crept up.

He was born on December 21st, and on Christmas Day we were supposed to go to a relatives’ place for dinner. By then, we’d endured 4 nights of terrible sleep. Since we didn’t know how to get N to sleep in his bassinet, we were taking turns having him sleep on our chests in bed. We were terrified of hurting him, so we didn’t sleep while doing this.

We tried to escape going out on Christmas. Added to the sleep deprivation, it was winter (in Canada), and we had not yet taken him outside. It was all too overwhelming and we tried to convince the relatives to come to our place instead. Probably thankfully, they pressured us into coming anyway, and we took N in the car to their place.

I don’t remember how Christmas dinner went, but I remember standing in the hall of the relatives’ place after dinner, holding N, just wanting to go home, and becoming increasingly angry and frustrated that no one else seemed to understand that N needed to go home, and that we all needed to sleep. N was fussy, and it seemed like it took forever for the others to get ready, and I was just pissed off. It’s not in my nature to become outwardly angry, but I may have then.

At home, I remember I was getting something from a closet — I’m not sure what — and simply broke down. I just sat down and cried. I didn’t understand how we were supposed to spend years raising N when we couldn’t handle even 4 days. I thought we had made a terrible mistake.

The absolute hopelessness of that feeling sticks with me. It felt like nothing was ever going to get better.

Our Christmas miracle was that N slept that night, better than he ever had before. Whether we finally figured out the right combination of nursing and diaper changes required to get him to sleep in his bassinet, or R’s milk coming in made him satisfied after feeding, it was better.

The sleep deprivation came and went over the following months — we were still waking up several times a night well past 6 months — but it was never again as bad as it was on that Christmas Day. Over time I realized that we hadn’t made a mistake, and that things would turn out okay. Eventually putting N to sleep was normal, and we started being able to participate again in the hobbies that we’d done before N was born. There wasn’t as much time for them, but there was enough to feel like ourselves again.

Life wasn’t over.

I feel incredibly lucky that the worst part of our newborn ordeal only lasted 4 days. We were blessed that N regained his birthweight by Christmas Day, and we were no longer required to wake him up at night for feedings (although he woke up plenty on his own). I have the greatest sympathy for new parents who have to go through that for weeks, or even months, before they get past the worst.

What helped through it all was having a great partnership with my wife, R, and 4 weeks of paid paternity leave. I can’t imagine having to go back to work a day after birth and leaving R alone with a baby. It’s simply unconscionable after my experience. A supporting relationship is crucial in those first few days and weeks. Nevertheless, I know many people have to do it, since the opportunity for paternity leave (and even maternity leave) is scarce in some jobs and countries.

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