“Your life is not your own once you have a child,” Stephen O’Connor writes in “As Long As He Knows You Love Him,” an essay from the anthology I edited, When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood.
In those first few months of your child’s life, “Everything you do must accommodate this very small, demanding and helpless person who has come to live with you,” O’Connor writes. “Long accustomed freedoms become mere memories. Spontaneity is confined to the trivial: Shall we order pizza or Chinese food tonight?”
Sometimes, no matter how well you care for your infant, the baby cries, and there will be times when nothing you do can quell their (or, eventually, your own) tears. You will likely find yourself exhausted, stressed out, and confused about how to best take care of your newborn, and also how to navigate this new experience of parenting with your partner. For all of this, you won’t get a thank you from your kid, or even a smile, or perhaps even a cessation of fussing. As O’Connor dryly puts it, “Newborns don’t give a lot back.”
My wife and I certainly found the transition to parenthood a challenging one. Neither of us dealt well with the nighttime feedings, and my son’s tendency for anxiety manifested in a near constant need to be held or touched the first year of life. I sometimes felt trapped with him during the day when at home alone. Worse, it was difficult to share these feelings, when most people treat babies with an, “Aww, isn’t that precious? You must be so happy!” mentality.
“I could just hold him all day,” one childless female friend told me.
“Please, be my guest,” I responded.
I’m sure that to many I sound like a whiny, selfish parent with his head in the clouds. What did I expect, that taking care of an infant would be a cakewalk? But for some new moms and dads, the first few years of parenting — and in particular the beginning months — can be filled with overwhelming insecurity, anxiety, and sadness. And no, I’m not talking about postpartum depression. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, psychology professor Eli J. Finkel writes that while we attribute postpartum depression to hormones — how else to explain the feelings of despair over what should be the joyous arrival of your new child? — that isn’t necessarily the case. He writes, “…many women and men experience significant psychological distress in response to becoming a parent… [caused] in large measure by the objectively bleak circumstances new parents often face. That you love your child is not always sufficient to counteract this reality.”
Finkel points to studies that show our society’s expectations of new parenthood may be out of whack with reality. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that a whopping 42% of mothers and 26% of fathers display signs of clinical depression three to six months after a child’s birth. Surely the lower number among men stems from dads not playing as active a role in childrearing at that early point, but they catch up, as the journal Pediatrics reports that the typical man has an increase in depression tendencies in the first five years of fatherhood, if (and only if) they live with their child. The news gets worse from there, with studies showing men and women experience less satisfaction in life after becoming parents, and have a reduced network of friends, and experience an increase in marital problems.
As Finkle points out, economics play a role too: depression rates among wealthy parents are not nearly as high as those living in poverty, probably because the rich can pay for childcare and so not be as personally involved in every minute of their child’s life. But no matter your income level, “this research… provides clear evidence that for many people becoming a parent is one part blessing, one part trauma.”
Once upon a time, not that long ago, really, people lived in smaller, tighter knit communities, where multiple generations would reside in the same village or part of town, so childrearing didn’t solely fall on the parents’ shoulders. Nor were expectations the same. My parents, who grew up in a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia, talk about long childhood days spent playing unmonitored in the streets playing stickball. Meanwhile, I’m writing this piece with an icy wedge of guilt in my gut, as my son sits downstairs watching TV, alone. Nowadays we expect parents to be more involved in their kids’ lives. Two parents taking on this responsibility is a huge one; it’s no wonder many end up feeling resentful, unhappy, trapped, angry, and depressed.
Like Finkel says, we need to be mindful of this and sympathetic when we hear about new parents struggling. What’s more, I think we need to share our own struggles, and stop hiding behind, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world!” type bromides. It’s OK to say that you’re not a baby person, or that there are parts of the parenting experience that drive you kind of crazy. (Nothing makes my wife and I more sure that we DON’T want another child than spending time with our friends’ newborns and toddlers.) These opinions do not mean that you don’t love your kid, or that you’re not a good parent or person. It just means that you’re a human being with a range of feelings, some of which are negative. That’s reality. And perhaps our expectations will fall more in line with that reality once we all stop hiding behind smokescreen smiles.