It doesn’t take instinct to change a diaper

Recently seen on social media: a long post written by an acquaintance, praising her husband for being such a good father.  Or at least that’s what she thought it was.  What it turned out to be was a rather depressing description of how she learned to accept traditional gender roles in her marriage.  About how she was wrong to expect him to be a mother, because of course he couldn’t be a mother, he was a father.

The line that really stuck in my head was about how she had been unreasonable to expect that he would “instinctively” know when to change their kids’ diapers.  But it was OK!  Because he wasn’t overprotective and he had better insight on discipline and [insert additional stereotypically manly qualities here].

Now, in general, I don’t care all that much about how an individual couple divides the work of parenting and running a household, as long as both are contributing.  What works for you is what works for you, and there’s nothing wrong with splitting chores along your strengths.  It’s when it gets justified with explicitly gendered language that it bothers me.

“Instinct” about changing diapers?  Nobody has instinct about changing diapers, at least not in the very beginning.  There’s a reason why newborn diapers nowadays come with those lines that change color to let you know when they’re wet.  Fortunately, for new parents, there’s a simple set of rules.  You know it’s time for a diaper change when:

  1. Your kid stinks.
  2. It’s been more than 2–3 hours since the last diaper change.
  3. Your kid is crying inexplicably and you want to rule out possible causes.

And that’s it.  No instinct required.  If a dad doesn’t figure that out, it’s because he’s not trying, not because he’s male.

This kind of gendered language about instincts frustrates me for two reasons.  One, it lets men off the hook for doing the work of parenting and housekeeping—work which men are perfectly capable of doing.  (This is a good place to note that my husband changed more than 90% of Little Boy’s diapers for the first week, and continues to share that job today.)  Second, this language implies that I, as a women, am supposed to be “instinctively” skilled at this stuff.  I’m not!  And there’s nothing wrong with that!  I learned by doing it, just like anyone else can.

Tell me, readers, what are you good at?  Is it the stuff you’re “supposed” to be good at?

My husband is an equal co-parent

(This Father’s Day post is a day late because I spent Father’s Day hanging out with three generations of dads and ran out of time to finish writing.  Priorities, what can I say?)

In honor of all the dads out there this Father’s Day, especially the dads in my life, I want to talk about giving dads more credit.  I’m torn about using that phrase, “giving them credit,” because on the one hand, dads already get a lot of credit.  Watches his kids for an afternoon?  Wow, what an awesome dad!  Looking for a job to support his family?  He’ll be extra dedicated, let’s hire him. (This is a real effect.)

But we give fathers almost no credit at all when it comes to one very important thing: taking care of their children.  How often do television commercials play up the bumbling dad, baffled by the thought of changing a single diaper, whose incompetence leaves the household in a mass of confusion and chaos?  How many jokes rely solely on the punchline “ha ha ha men are such idiots at parenting”?  Heck, just yesterday my Facebook feed included a “humorous” set of images supposedly contrasting mothers and fathers.  Mom shops with the baby like a normal person, Dad piles random groceries in the stroller on top of his kid.  Mom carefully helps an older child slice vegetables; Dad lets his toddler stand on the BBQ to flip steaks.  Really?  I’m sure there are fathers out there who haven’t got a clue, but let’s be honest, there are mothers out there who haven’t got a clue either.

When dads do take on parenting duties, they still get treated as “substitute moms” or “mom’s support system” rather than fully qualified parents in their own right.  I like what blogger Mannly Mama says about this in “It Ain’t Babysitting“:

If you see a dad out with his kids, let’s stop assuming he is “doing mom a favor” and getting them out of the house. He might be but he may want to take his kids out because he, I dunno, loves them?

Go read her whole post, it’s great.  My husband shared it on Facebook a while back.  The idea that moms are the primary parents is so darn pervasive, though, that when one of his relatives chose to comment on that very link, it was to tell my husband that he was “a good father” because he had “helped [Crazy Grad Mama’s real name] a great deal.”  I know she meant it to be complimentary, but way to miss the point.

Dads are perfectly capable of being proficient parents, and we should both expect them to be and give them the opportunity.  My husband changed all of his son’s diapers during the first week of Little Boy’s life (except for, as he always insists I point out, the two times the hospital nurses did the job).  He taught me how to give Little Boy a bath, and continues to manage the bedtime routine solo on a weekly basis so that I can attend a postpartum support group.  Except for actually making breast milk, there is nothing that I, the mom, can do that he, the dad, can’t.

In fact, for more than six months, between the end of my maternity leave and the start of Little Boy’s time in daycare, my husband used his ability to work from home to trade off shifts of work and child care with me.  While I spent mornings busy with research at the university, my son was home with his father, getting love and attention and snuggles and playtime.  My husband wasn’t doing me a favor, and he wasn’t “babysitting.”  I didn’t have to give him a detailed list of instructions on how to look after his own child.  He’s not a secondary caregiver.

My husband is an awesome guy, no doubt about that, but he’s not some kind of magical miracle father.  He’s just a good parent, doing what good parents do.  He and I sometimes have different approaches to the details of parenting, but that’s because we’re different people, not because one of us has ovaries and the other doesn’t.

I recognize that in many families, by choice or necessity, one parent (and it’s usually the mom) stays home with the kids while the other parent works.  The stay-at-home parent is going to be the more experienced one, and that’s OK.  But there’s a big difference between “doesn’t know this week’s favorite toy” and “doesn’t know where the diapers are.”

Men, as a group, are not doomed to be idiots about babies.  (Or about cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. etc.)  Let’s not treat them that way.

Happy Father’s Day!

Dads get PPD, too: my husband’s story

As a society, we’ve slowly become more aware and understanding of postpartum depression (PPD) and other mood disorders in new mothers.  Gone are the days when unhappiness after the birth of a child was considered a character flaw and women were expected to “suck it up” in silence.  Today, many childcare books contain a section discussing the symptoms of PPD, and doctors routinely screen for it at postpartum check-ups.  Actually accessing good help remains problematic, but we have come a long way. 

Fathers, however, remain notably missing from the conversation – and when they do appear, it’s usually in the context of how to support a depressed partner.  But men get PPD, too.  Studies report that 10% of new dads experience postpartum depression (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that number turned out to be an underestimate). 

My husband is part of that 10%.  Very little of my postpartum depression story was news to him, but he was proud of me for sharing it.  He was motivated to write up his own story and has asked that I share it with you as well. 

I want to warn you that some of what he has to say may be upsetting, especially since his story is not fully resolved.  I’ll let him take it from here (with a few notes from me in italics):

Depression runs in my family, but until the last couple of years, it seemed that I successfully evaded it.  Instead of depression, I’ve suffered from “wonderfully” enormous anxiety issues, which have grown worse with age… but never depression on the order seen in my family, the kind that could lead to someone trying to take their life.  Looking back, I probably started showing small signs of depression with my anxiety a couple of years ago, but who knows if it would have otherwise grown into such a problem as it was to become when my wife was pregnant with our son.

When my wife became pregnant, I was excited.  We had been planning for nearly two years, and I’ve wanted strongly to be a parent for a very long time.  That excitement burned out, but it was eventually replaced with anticipation of some of the great beginning milestones in pregnancy:  telling our parents, seeing the first ultrasound, making our big announcements to the world, finding out the sex of the baby, etc.

I’m not sure when things started getting worse.  The last year is a foggy mess of blurred memories.  I’ll shamefully admit that I was disappointed when the ultrasound showed we were having a boy.  When I thought of myself as a parent, I often imagined having a daddy’s girl.  I didn’t have a close or even good relationship with my father growing up, and unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of close father-son relationships.  Such a relationship seems to be thought of as “unmanly” in our society.  (My brother and his two-year old son are an exception.)  I wanted that really close relationship, to be completely important in someone’s life, if only for a while.  Stupid TV, movies, and books for putting that romantic notion in my head.  BUT, we were having a son, and I got over it.

During the middle part of the pregnancy, my wife started to have down episodes.  I tried, but I couldn’t help like I could in the past.  When she wanted to be held, I could do that.  But sometimes she just wanted to be left alone and I just had to wait for things to pass.  As her episodes became more frequent, I became more and more frustrated.  My frustration would border inexplicably on anger, exacerbated by three additional things happening at this time.  One, we had new neighbors move in, who eventually made me want to break something (preferably of theirs) with every stomp/thump/bang they made.  Two, my restless leg syndrome, which I have had from childhood and which runs in the family, went from an hour-a-night, 1-to-3-nights-a-month problem to something that bothered me half the night, every night.  My sleep had already been problematic, as I had started waking up completely every 60-90 minutes all night every night in early grad school. (Note: My husband has already survived grad school and has a PhD.)  Restless legs meant I would either not fall asleep for hours, or I’d wake up after 90 minutes and then not be able to go back to sleep for several more hours.  I began sleeping on the couch because my constant movement in bed and my new loud snoring (from being so tired) made sleep even more unattainable for my depressed, anxious, and already-uncomfortable wife.  The cool living room and the ability to constantly move my legs back and forth made things better for a bit… until I started getting back problems from the couch.  An air mattress fixed the back problems, but this all still meant even less close time with my wife.  And finally, three, I was traveling across the country a lot for work during the later part of the pregnancy.  So not only was I missing doctor’s appointments, but I was also constantly changing my sleep schedule.

Put all of these things together with my anxiety issues, and I started to spiral headfirst (excuse the pun) into depression.  I felt further and further away from my wife, which I alternatingly felt guilty about or just numb.  I know I haven’t been truly happy for a long time, but now I only felt just okay down to downright miserable every minute of every day.  I felt like I was just barely treading water, and that it would be easy to just stop trying and let the world drown me.  As a coping mechanism, I withdrew further and turned to superficial things to release endorphins, like food, caffeine, and the internet.

The morning my son was to be born via C-section, I was sober and resentful.  I resented that we had to do a C-section that day because I was already beyond exhausted, and all I could think about was how any possibility of sleep before the next grueling set of months with a newborn was now gone.  Fortunately, when I stepped into the operating room, adrenaline kicked in and focused me.  My thoughts were on my wife and her well-being.  When my son was born, I was also ready to do everything that I could to be a perfect dad, including doing skin-to-skin while singing to him gently for 45 minutes while mommy was being sewn up, changing nearly every diaper in the hospital and the week after, waiting hand and foot on my immobile wife, and doing generally every little thing the nurses would let me do, all while sleeping on a tiny, cramped, two-person couch (which, by the way, sucked immensely for my restless legs).  (Note: He is not exaggerating here.  I would never have made it through the C-section, much less the first week, without his help.)

From here on, things are very blurry.  The lack of sleep meant I wasn’t forming long-term memories… and by the way, that’s a bitch of a thing when it comes to work.  It’s not fun when your boss has to explain things to you 3+ times.

From the time our son was born until he was about two weeks old, there were some hints of feeling, some occasions when I would look at this little boy and think, maybe I will eventually love you.  I felt that little bit of endorphins that are released when you hold such a tiny infant.  I was also driven with a singular purpose: to take care of my son and wife like no one else could.  I liked the feeling of being needed – because I felt like I was constantly being reminded wherever I looked that mom was the most important.  After all, the baby depends on her for food and comfort, and apparently daddy doesn’t know how to do anything.

After the first couple of weeks, things started taking a turn for the worse.  When the baby would cry, I wanted to pull my hair out.  I began being consumed by extremely dark thoughts, like how relieved I would be if he didn’t wake up, or if he accidentally drowned while taking a bath.  People would feel sorry for me, but it would be over.  My wife and I would probably separate because neither one of us would be able to handle the ensuing depression, and I would probably just walk away from everything I knew and become a hermit somewhere where no one could find me.  I recognized that these were unnatural thoughts and there was no way I was going to try to make them happen – I am incapable of that.  But I did occasionally push the swing a little harder than necessary, or pick him up a little faster than I should.

My work had instituted a paid parental leave policy two months prior to my son’s birth, and I was the first person to file for it.  The only problem was, no one knew how to pay for it, and many people weren’t happy about that.  So I became the center of the controversy.  Theoretically, I could have taken up to 6 weeks of full leave, or 12 weeks of half-time leave.  I had already arranged with my boss to take two weeks of vacation, so I chose to take two weeks of full leave and 2 weeks of half, for fear of angering her and others at work.  After my leave was over, and while my wife was still on her leave, working from home was only a matter of consuming enough caffeine and sugar, playing loud music on headphones, and trying to focus on small projects that didn’t require a lot of heavy thinking.  When she went back to work at 6 weeks, half of my work day was spent watching the baby while also trying to get work done.  If he didn’t want to sleep or was crying because he was bored (which was nearly every minute), I couldn’t work.  To partially make up for not working during these times, I would file for sick leave.  But I was perpetually self-conscious, afraid that my boss was not happy with me and would find out that I wasn’t getting anything done at home or at work.  She was hiring new postdocs, so what was to stop her from letting one go and hiring one more to replace me?  (In retrospect, she never really gave me any reason for this fear.  I’m apparently not horrible enough to put the work in for replacing.)

Still more time passed, and I started yelling at the top of my lungs, until I was hoarse, to no one in particular.  Sometimes at the baby from across the room, prompted by his crying, sometimes at the neighbors for being particularly awful.  (Note: The neighbors remained oblivious.)  I was angry A LOT.  When I wasn’t angry, I was serious and numb.  I couldn’t even feel love for anyone, not my wife, not my brother (who I used to feel the closest to outside of my wife), not my parents, no one.  All of this was not good for my wife, who was also suffering from PPD.  She was getting help through support groups and a psychiatrist, but I couldn’t bring myself to find anyone for help.

Anger was also interspersed with heavy thoughts of life and death.  As an agnostic, I don’t see evidence for an afterlife.  This pervades my thoughts and frightens the shit out of me, especially late at night.  During this time in my life, this morphed into me thinking, “What the hell does it matter if I die when I’m 100 or today?  Life doesn’t mean anything.  It has no purpose.  I don’t mean anything.”  I would have thoughts while driving about hammering the throttle and driving into a pole at full speed.  I know it probably scared my wife, but I did tell her about these thoughts.  (Note: It definitely did scare me.)

Still even more time passed, and my depression head-butted into my wife’s depression, resulting in loud arguments.  One night, I snapped completely, lost it, and just started crying uncontrollably.  This may not sound like a big thing, but for someone who hadn’t been able to shed a single tear for over a decade (not even when my grandfathers died), it was definitely a big thing… I did feel a bit better after, at least for a short while.  That same night, my wife and I decided to start sleep training the screaming child who was taking us two-and-half hours every night to put to bed.  THAT was the singularly best thing we could do for my condition.  He took to it right away, leaving us with a couple of hours to decompress every night.  I could start making more complicated meals again, sit and watch TV, etc.

Since sleep training at three months, I have started getting better.  With our son also sleeping through the night on his own, we were no longer spending half our night monitoring the baby for our shift.  (Note: Little Boy was now sleeping in a crib in his own room.)  My legs continued to be a problem, meaning I was still sleeping in another room, which weighed heavily on my wife.  I don’t blame her.  She missed me.  While my sleep was still very broken, just like it had been before the baby was born, at least I was getting some sleep now.  I was also able to start exercising again after three-and-a-half months off, something that’s a big big deal for someone who hasn’t ever stopped running for longer than a few weeks in over 20 years.

So, here I am.  My episodes of extreme depression have lessened and my time doing okay has lengthened.  I can act happy when needed (though not all the time) and I even have plenty of time when I’m not miserable.  I’ve even grown to miss my son when I’m away from him for a few hours.  His crying still cuts into me really easily and deeply, driving my blood pressure concerningly high, but he’s happy quite often now.  He’s constantly talking, and he has the biggest open-mouthed smile you can imagine when I walk into the room.  He shrieks with laughter when I nom his cheek or tickle him.  I love the little dude.  My anxieties about work have lessened to a smaller degree, mainly because they were a big problem before all of this.  However, I’m able to get some of the more-complicated projects done, even if it still requires my boss to explain very simple concepts to me several times.

BUT, I still have bad episodes, even if few and far in between.  I found myself thinking recently how easy it would be to down a bunch of pills, as one of my parents did when I was younger.  Fortunately, other family were present when it happened then, so we could rush that parent to the hospital, but I could do it when no one but the kid was present.  Fear of death and a conflicting worry about what would happen to my wife afterward (conflicting because the world ends when I cease to exist, so what does anything matter, yet how could I hurt her so much) have kept me from taking those final few steps, but it’s very disturbing that I could even get that far.  My wife is helping me find professional assistance.  I don’t see someone ever being able to help me with my thoughts on life and death, but I need someone to help me not contemplate going there sooner rather than later.  I want to be able to feel happy again.  I don’t even remember what the feeling is like.

We are still searching for a psychiatrist and/or therapist that can help my husband.  (The difficulty of finding good mental health care in this country deserves its own post, I think.)  He is also taking steps to see a sleep specialist, who will evaluate the physical issues that are preventing him from getting good rest.

If you are a new dad struggling with PPD, or a new mom worried about her partner, head to PostpartumMen for support and resources.