In the realm of parenting, for a man, is there anything more cliche than hearing about the “joys of fatherhood?”
When I talk with my fellow dad friends, it is not about the great aspects of being a father. It is a pure gripe session. And, I bet, if you are reading this as a father and a husband, you know exactly what I mean.
Being a parent is hard on the best of days. This we all know. Being a father brings its own unique set of challenges, just as being a mother does as well. Sure, there are some commonalities regarding the plight, but there are some dramatic differences as well.
For example, in my family I work an office job, while my wife works from home. As a result, she does the yeoman’s job of parenting from the moment I walk out the door to the moment I walk back in. I couldn’t be more appreciative and proud of the mother my wife is to our children. I never have to worry about them, as I know they’re in good hands. However, from the moment I walk in the door, no matter what kind of day I’ve had, the expectation is that I’m “on.”
This means that I have to suck up whatever feelings I have boiling away in my gut, put them in a cauldron, and make sure they’re covered with a heavy lid. The two or so hours that I have with my kids before bedtime should be magical and fun. It’s as if every time I return home from work, I am hit with a parenting pop quiz. Losing my temper, wandering to my smartphone, and taking a work call are all wrong answers.
And, to be honest, I fail most of the time.
What you wouldn’t know from looking at my ruggedly handsome, easy-going exterior, is that I’ve been suffering through mental health issues related to the birth of my second child, my son, for nearly five years.
My wife’s pregnancy with our son was difficult from jump street, with an early scare. From there, she continued to spiral, suffering from what we later discovered was prenatal depression. A meeting with her neurologist, related to severe migraines, turned into a discussion about his concern that she would develop what he called a “walloping case of postpartum depression.”
And walloping it was.
I will spare you the details, as my wife, an accomplished writer, has chronicled her struggles with prenatal and postpartum depression on her blog and in a book that was released in late 2017.
What I will say is that for many, many months I was living in a heightened state of vigilance. This was all in order to protect my wife from herself. I felt as if I was a soldier, standing sentry nearly twenty-four-seven, with no relief. At the same time, I was caring for my four-year-old daughter and newborn son, working an important job, and acting as a go-between for my wife and concerned family members and friends.
Mentally and physically, I felt as if I was spiraling in a great vortex.
Recently, a friend asked me how I coped during that time. I was ashamed to admit it, but I was honest and I said that I self medicated. Sometimes it was on the rocks. Sometimes neat. Fortunately, never straight from the bottle. I was so singularly focused on helping my wife overcome her monumental struggle, that I completely numbed myself from, well, myself.
Those were dark days.
The first time I realized I needed my own help came in one of the most unlikely places. I had taken my daughter to see a movie, and during the trailers a preview for a movie about lemurs was shown. The trailer used an Imagine Dragons song titled “On Top of the World.” I was sitting in a dark theater, my daughter’s head resting on my shoulder, watching a trailer about lemurs, when I realized I was sobbing.
It was in that moment that I recognized that I was starting to crumble. I had been a rock for my wife for so long that I had neglected to look inward and see how I was doing.
A week later I found myself in the office of a psychiatrist recommended by my wife’s therapy team. I started taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication for the first time in my life. Between the talking and the medication, I was able to stop relying on my own self medication.
That didn’t mean I was suddenly all better.
In fact, it was the opposite. I was still sliding, and the farther down I went, the darker it got.
What I realized was that my depression and anxiety, the negative thoughts I was having, and my inability to break the vicious mental cycle I found myself in were not just the result of watching my wife suffer. It was something else, something different and more sneaky.
Sadness and guilt was consuming me, I had completely lost interest in things that I normally enjoyed, I couldn’t make decisions, I was obsessed with my ability to be a good parent, I wasn’t sleeping, and, finally, I was starting to have thoughts of harming myself.
If those symptoms sound familiar, that is because they are all typically associated with postpartum depression.
It got so bad that one snowy night, I found myself fantasizing about going outside into the freezing cold darkness, in nothing but the pajamas I was wearing, laying down in the snow and falling asleep. I knew what that would mean. Somehow, my wife was able to summon her own strength to recognize that I was in tremendous trouble and made sure I got the help I needed that same evening.
I ended up in approximately two months of intensive out-patient therapy, but I started to see the edge of the dark forest I’d been lost in for so long.
Being a caregiver for someone you love who is sick, whether it be a physical or mental ailment, is one of the hardest jobs on the planet.
Being a parent is one of the hardest jobs on the planet.
Couple those two things together, and you suddenly become Atlas with the world on your back. Unfortunately, in that situation Atlas can’t shrug.
Postpartum Depression is an insidious disease that, sadly, is usually kept behind the closed doors of a family. It’s a shame as the impact of it on the family is monumental. We’ve all heard the worst-case scenarios, which are tragic, but what we usually never hear are the more common situations. Situations like the one my wife and I suffered, and from which we are still recovering.
If there is one thing that I learned from my experience with Postpartum Depression, is that there is no recovery within a vacuum. Do not be afraid to talk about how you are feeling. Do not be afraid to say that you are hurting. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
You might be surprised by just how many people are out there that want to help.
I began this piece by mocking the “joys of fatherhood.” I stand by that.
I do not find fatherhood to be a joy. I find it to be hard, emotional, tiring, and frustrating. I also find it to be fun, funny, beautiful, and rewarding. But, let’s be honest, it isn’t a joy, it’s about finding joy in the challenge.