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When fatherhood doesn't go to plan
Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love my son.
This is me with my son Bodhi. I love this photo. I love it not because it’s cute (I mean, of course it is.) Not because I love the woman taking it. I love this picture because I love the boy in it. And because it took me a long time, and a lot of hard work, to get to a place where I could say that.
Today I want to talk about what happens when fatherhood doesn’t go according to plan. And, to be completely honest with you, I’m terrified about sharing it publicly. But many people have asked me what led to starting this newsletter, and what you're about to read here is what gave me a first-hand understanding of the need for a space for fathers to talk openly and honestly.
As I promised from day one, vulnerability is going to form a big part of this conversation—for all of us. So here I go.
It’s July 2018 and I’m sat on a park bench. Crying. Wondering what was wrong with me.
Why I didn't love my son.
Bodhi was born three months earlier—happy, healthy, and everything we could have asked for. We'd moved to Barcelona 6 months earlier, cutting a sabbatical short when we realised we were expecting our second child.
He was born in our bathroom, at around 2am. Home births in Spain are very rare, with only 0.32% of children born "en casa" in 2017. We had to find a private midwife that would do it for us. Bodhi came into the world after a relatively peaceful 6 hours (lightning fast, compared to his sister.)
After we settled into the unique cadence new parents face—moving abruptly between cute moments and sleep deprivation—I started to sense something wasn't quite right. It wasn't something I came to mind intentionally—it was more of a dull background static, that I initially attributed to exhaustion. But when it didn't shift, even after the occasional eight hours of sleep, I started to notice it a lot more. I felt a darkness had crept up on me. I was angry, all the time, over nothing. I didn't want to talk to my family. Didn't want to be around friends. I felt like I was making my way through mud, with a 50kg weight strapped to my back. The only thing that motivated me was playing videogames: staying up until 4am grinding on Destiny 2 with random people in California. And, most painfully of all, I didn't want to spent time with my son.
I didn’t understand why, but everytime I heard him cry, or show any signs of being upset, it was like nails on a chalkboard. And he cried a lot. At least I thought he did, though I now—just now, writing this, close to 2 years later— realise that in all likelihood my mind was blowing this out of proportion. And because it seemed like he was always crying, it made me not want to fix the problem, because I felt he’d just start crying again.
So I shrunk away. From being a husband. From being a father. I went to a dark place.
While sat on the bench crying, our always-sad basset hound watching tears run down my face, I tried to get my head around what was happening. In hindsight, I was lucky that this was my second child, and I had some kind of benchmark to compare this against—I knew that what I was feeling wasn't "normal". So I started searching online about why I might be feeling the way I do. Whilst Googling things like "new dad sad" and "why I am crying new dad", and I came across an article featuring a doctor who had been having trouble connecting with his second child. I read it, and it was like reading what I'd have told a doctor myself.
Then when Zachary was but a few weeks old, Dr. Levine became convinced that the baby hated him. “He cries as soon as I walk in the door,” he told his wife who pointed out that the baby was too young to hate anyone.
Feeling isolated and rejected, Dr. Levine became “verbally vicious” to his wife and demeaned his son constantly. As the weeks went by his thoughts and feelings about, and towards his son, get darker. “I hate him. I wish we’d never had him,” he told his wife.
I read the symptoms, and felt an odd sense of relief. Ongoing feelings of anger towards your partner and child. Feeling numb and empty. Increased irritability. Increased use of alcohol. Significant weight gain or loss. Loss of interest in work or hobbies. Feeling sad and crying for no reason.
Paternal post-natal depression. I had no idea it existed.
I was aware of post-natal depression. I think all dads-to-be are. There's so much discussion around it, what the signs are, what to look out for when your wife and female friends give birth. But it was slim pickings when looking for help about the father's mental health after the birth. On the WHO’s website, if you searched for "paternal mental health" it replied: "Did you mean: maternal mental health?" I remember reading that some mental health charities wouldn't allow writers to use the term "paternal post-natal depression" on their sites as the father wasn't the one who had given birth. They just wanted to call it "depression as a dad."
I searched some more, and found a limited amount of discussion around the topic online. A few links, here and there. The occasional blogpost, that I can either no longer find or has been deleted. And then I came across this blog, written by an incredible man named Ross Hunt who was working non-stop to raise awareness of the problem, and whose post-natal depression toolkit really helped me get out of a hole (Ross, if you're reading this—thank you.)
After a few weeks of reading anything I could get my hands on, constantly searching in Private Browsing mode so my wife wouldn’t see the links (see, it’s not just for porn), I finally plucked up the courage to tell her:
“I’m not well. I need help.”
The relief flooded through me. We cried. My wife told me she was worried that I was unhappy with our family, and wanted to leave them all. I told her it couldn’t be further from the case. That I wanted to love him. But it was too hard.
She said to me: "We'll get through this. But you need to promise me something. That you'll do everything you can to get better."
It was exactly what I needed to hear.
We put together a plan.
I started therapy, which I’ll talk more about in the future, but, in short: that shit is amazing. That helped. So did yoga. Starting a daily meditation practice. Getting routine back into my daily life. Cutting out things that were putting me in a negative headspace: limiting my news and social media intake. Purposefully spending time with me son, on our own, getting to know each other, and building confidence that I could actually do this.
I learned to manage my illness. To identify the triggers that lead to me getting angry and breaking down. To notice the tics, the external manifestations of the internal turmoil, that were my body’s way of telling me I wasn't doing OK. For me, it was scratching my arms. I realised that I was scratching my arms every time I felt uncomfortable, when I wasn't in control. So I started to notice the signs, my body telling me something my brain wasn't quite ready to hear yet.
And you know what else helped? Opening up to other dads in my life. My friend Justin called me a few days after I’d had the chat with my wife. “How are you doing," he asked "everything ok?”
I found myself about to drop into the back-and-forth us men do everyday as a reflex, no matter how we’re feeling: “Yeah all good, you know. What about you?”
But I stopped. I went off-script. And I told Justin:
“No, I’m not. I haven’t been for a while. I don’t really know what is going on, but I think I’ve got this thing, it’s like post-natal depression but it’s for dads now? I didn’t even know it exists. But apparently 5% of dads get it.”
I’d read that stat a few times and it had worried me. Because if 5% of dads get it, then I’d need to talk to 20 male friends with kids to be odds-on I’d find one of them to talk to about it. I was doing these calculations in my head, realising things weren’t in my favour, when Justin interrupted my train of thought: “I have two friends that have told me something similar. Do you want to talk to them?”
I honestly couldn’t believe my luck. The first father that I’d told about this already knew two people who’d been through the same thing.
Justin put me in touch with D back in August 2019. D was another dad working in advertising, who’d had some struggles after the birth of his second child. Listening to him tell his story, it felt like a reflection of my own: after his second child was born, he’d been feeling angry, disconnected, just not himself. And he’d also spent an unhealthy amount of time playing THE EXACT SAME GAME.
(A quick aside. As I’ve thought more about this over the years, I have a theory about the game thing. One common symptom of many mental illnesses is addiction: drug dependence, alcohol abuse, gambling, impulsive purchasing. Part of me sees the pattern here. And I'm thankful, because getting hooked on a videogame is infinitely less damaging to your life, and your family, than developing a drug habit or losing your life savings at an online casino. Wired even wrote an article about how this very game was like "catnip for people in depression." But another part of me realised the videogame addiction was also about control—something you often hear from those who are managing other disorders like bulimia or self-harm. When I sat down and played this game, it wasn't about escapism, but it was being able to be in control of a situation, something I was missing in my real life. I could press a button to tell a character to jump or shoot and he'd do it. But no matter what I did with my son I couldn't stop him crying.)
D and I spoke every few weeks. As I scroll back through our WhatsApp history I can see how we texted back and forth (and continue to do so to this day.) We’d share how we were feeling, swap occasional news articles about upcoming content drops for the game, or share interesting cool things that we'd found on the internet.
Whilst going through our chat history, I found this article I sent to him in November 2019. I can't remember how I came across it, but it written by Aubrey Hirsch on Gay Mag, Roxanne Gay’s Medium publication. It was a look at paternal post-natal depression from the wife’s point of view. It was, and continues to be, the best piece of writing out there about the feelings I was struggling with.
Every now and then I ask him, without pressure, without expectation, How are you feeling about the baby?
His answers hover between pessimistic and neutral. I nod the same way each time: once, dispassionately, and change the subject.
Until one day I ask, How are you feeling about the baby? And he says, I love him. I really do. And we cry together, sweet tears of relief that the storm is beginning to lift.
Eventually, through hard work and support, I got there too.
I was originally hoping to share this essay a few weeks ago. It’s basically the origin story of this whole newsletter, so I knew I had to. But I just wasn’t comfortable yet. Maybe I’ll do it next week, I thought; maybe I’ll do it when the newsletter is over 1000 subs; maybe I’ll just keep kicking the can down the road. Maybe I’ll do it when I’m feeling a little braver.
But—in yet another reminder of the cosmic workings of the universe—I was hit with an advert for Masterclass at 5am this weekend.
It was Roxanne Gay. Again. A writer who I'd admired for years, capable of wielding words in a way so effortless she can convey depths of emotion in a phrase where us mere mortals would require pages. A true inspiration in showing your vulnerability through the written word. And here she was at 5am, talking to me via a YouTube ad about her new Masterclass: “Writing for Social Change”. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as she looked into the camera, telling me: “You don’t need to be brave when you’re writing. You need to acknowledge that you’re terrified, and then do it anyway.”
In a strange way, Roxanne bookends this story. The article on her Medium publication was a piece of writing that helped me understand what I was going through, by seeing it through the eyes of my wife. It reminded me of the power of writing, how it can communicate the shared struggle that couples going through post-natal depression deal with. I sometimes think if Roxanne hadn’t used her platform to allow others to share their vulnerabilities, who knows if I’d be here sharing mine? And if that advert hadn’t showed up at 5am on Saturday morning … who knows how many more excuses I would have thought up to leave this in the drafts and not share it with you?
When I look back on photos from that time, I almost don’t recognise the man in the picture. Of course, there's photos of me holding my son and smiling. I knew enough to know that I needed to put on a happy face for those. But there's other photos—ones where I don't know I'm in the shot, wandering around the park or sat on the sofa in the living room. And this man looks broken. Truly defeated. Empty. Shattered, in every meaning of the word. I look at him and realise what my wife must have felt, seeing this man she loves be so far from the person she fell in love with. I needed help. And I'm so thankful that she was there to give it.
When I look at those pictures now I feel something else. I feel determined to help other dads, suffering in silence.
The changes that are happening in fatherhood are altering the very landscape of parenting. A problem that was previously thought of as something only happening to mums is now affecting dads too. As men take a more active role in the lives of their children, they're having to deal with the sleep deprivation, the pressures on them to be both a perfect parent and productive employee, and the hundreds of other things that have contributed to post-natal depression in women over the years.
And we’re not equipped to deal with it. The Edinburgh Post Natal Depression Scale is used by nurses, doctors and social workers to uncover PND in women—any mums you know will have been asked these questions. But because men present different symptoms, and we're never asked questions related our mental health, it goes undiscovered. When this is overlaid with the fact that men are much more reluctant to talk about their mental health and feelings, this makes the 5% figure feel woefully short of the real deal. My own discussions with new fathers has pretty much confirmed this—and some recent studies have said that paternal post-natal depression could be faced by as many as 25% of us.
Which brings me back to reason I’m sharing this.
Today I'm a lot better. But I’m not all the way there. I still have days where I can’t deal with my son crying, or when a minor issues like toys left out on the living room will feel completely overwhelming. Bodhi isn't sleeping at the moment, so the last week has been a little bit of a rough patch. But I've learned how to deal with it. My wife does too—she knows the signs, and knows when to remind me to take a little bit of time to step away and breath. It’s a process.
But it’s not a process any of us should have to go through alone. For fans of The West Wing, you might remember this scene, a conversation after Josh had come back from his compulsory therapy after cutting his hand during “an accident” at work.
Leo tells Josh a story:
This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out.
A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you. Can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.”
The friend says, “Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out."
Since dealing with my own illness, I’ve been intentionally contacting friends who have become new fathers, to share some version of the story you’ve read above. Normally it's not this long (again, sorry.) Sometimes it’s just a text: “Hey it’s OK to not be OK, I had a tough time and I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.” Other times it’s a phone call, and I'll talk to a new dad who is finding it tough. When I tell them what I went through, occasionally they’ll have the same realisation I did when I was heard D telling me his story, or when I found Ross's blog for the first time:
“I’m not alone in this. This isn’t all in my head. I’m not just ‘being soft’.”
So if you’re reading this, and feel that right now?
I want you to know that I’m here with you.
I've been down this hole before.
And I know the way out.
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Normally I’ll post lots of other good fatherhood stuff: tweets, links videos and more. But there’s none here this week. Writing this really took it out of me and now I’m going to go for a walk and try to minimise the inevitable vulnerability hangover. If you made it all the way to the end, thank you for reading. If you want to talk about any of this, here’s my email, please get in touch. Or send me a message on Instagram. If you’ve been through something similar, and are happy to jump in the hole too, please let us know.
One last thing, before you go. You might have noticed the newsletter looks a bit different—a nice new logo, new font, more colours, just generally looking a million times better. I’ll talk about this more next week, but I wanted to say thanks to Johnny, Chris, John, Nicole and all the other folks at Selman Design for their stellar work on The New Fatherhood. It’s felt like a real thing to me for a while. But now it looks like a real thing too. Can’t wait for everyone to see the rest of it.