As early as middle school, I was working tirelessly on my image and wanted to make sure everyone knew how tough I was. After all, I was the younger brother of a tough guy. It was a difficult sell in high school when I was 5’10” and 130 pounds, but I played sports and had big, tough friends. This image stuck around after high school, as I worked in construction and at auto body shops, and culminated when I joined the military. I’ll never claim to be a Navy SEAL by any means, but getting through boot camp for enlisted Sailors was still quite the feat. When I was deployed to the Persian Gulf for nine very long months at 22 and newly married, I felt I had seen it all and couldn’t be broken. Boy, was I wrong!
Shortly after returning home, my wife became pregnant. 36 weeks later, still the same tough guy that I had always been, I got the call that it was go time! We went to the hospital and after 33 hours of labor, I was a dad. I was expecting this feeling that life was different, but aside from my son’s first diaper change (mine too), it was only the smell that brought me to tears. However, the scariest time of my life was lurking around the corner, and I had no idea it was there.
When my son was a week old, I was at a going-away party for a co-worker while my wife was home with the baby and her parents who were visiting. While there, I got a call that my wife was being rushed to the ER. It turned out she had postpartum cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure, and was heading to the ICU. I didn’t know what to do. Should I head to the hospital or to my newborn? Cue her parents. With the baby taken care of, I rushed to the hospital to see my wife; I put on that brave face I’ve used for so many years. After that, I went outside to make a phone call and broke down in tears. I was nowhere near ready to raise a baby by myself.
Growing up, I never saw any emotion out of my dad. And all of the dads on TV were either funny or tough and never let their emotions get the best of them. I heard phrases like “Toughen up,” or “Be a man about it,” on a regular basis. An example of this tough guy mentality came in boot camp. My all-male division had one guy crying in his rack at night, and the red ropes (Navy’s version of a drill instructor) were relentless with him. He ended up getting pushed backwards in the process. These lessons about being a man in the late ’80s and ’90s didn’t lend well to the guy sitting on the ground outside of a hospital bawling his eyes out. I didn’t really know how to let my emotions out at this stage in life. Who was I? What was happening to the tough guy persona that I worked on for most of my life?
That was the beginning of my transition from tough guy to overgrown baby. Luckily, my wife was OK after a hospital stay and some medication for a few years. In fact, she was even cleared to get pregnant again, which she did about two years later. I’m here to tell you that it is completely normal to have that journey. I’ve cried over my kids’ hard times, their bad injuries, my guilt of not being around (due to three more deployments), and even thoughtful things my kids have said. I remember doing homework one Sunday and my son said he wished all of it was done so we could play together. Needless to say, I quickly finished the paragraph that I was writing and took a break with him — after cleaning up my tears. Another time, he asked Santa for his daddy to have a new job because I was so unhappy at work. Then when I was having a really bad day, my daughter unknowingly grabbed my hand and proceeded to skip. Was someone cutting onions nearby? The tears were flowing. My daughter has the ability to make you smile at any time with her goofiness and huge hugs — there’s nothing else like it.
I am a changed man now.
Being able to release these emotions seemed to take a huge weight off my back. I immediately saw benefits from handling my emotions better, like improving the relationship with my father. We as dads need to break the tough guy mold that has existed for so long. The importance of that cannot be overstated. If we can openly express our thoughts, our relationships will flourish. Our kids will benefit from a positive role model who can teach them that it’s OK to be emotional and when to express these feelings. I believe that had I known this as a kid, I wouldn’t have had so many outbursts from pent-up and misplaced feelings. As a society, we have enough stressors; being forced to hide your emotions shouldn’t be another one.
Stay strong out there babies … I mean dads!