I Want to Be a Good Dad. That Means Showing Up for Myself, Too
The first time I went on a solo outing with our new baby, I came home with an oat milk latte for my partner and a panic attack for myself. I’ve lived in New York City for nearly 10 years, and I’d made that same walk to the coffee shop countless times. But now, as I walked there with our one-week-old daughter strapped to my chest, other people felt too close. The sidewalk seemed harder; the cars, much bigger and faster. The dire realization that the only thing standing between her and danger is us—her parents—came swiftly.
I kept it together enough to get her home, back to safety, then completely broke down in my partner’s arms. The tears weren’t just about my anxieties on the errand—after all, we were fine. It’s just that…I’m a first-time father attempting to traverse the mental health challenges that come along with this new part of my identity. And given that I’m also actually parenting a baby with my partner, that’s a lot to handle.
I have dealt with anxiety even before I knew there was a term for it. And with depression, too. When, a few months before our child was born, my therapist warned me that fathers, too, are susceptible to postpartum depression, I took the message seriously. I’d never considered the idea or heard anyone talk about going through it themselves, but my therapist’s explanation of that concept—and other challenges that might arise now my daughter is here—made perfect sense.
I had been thinking about how my life was going to change after I became a dad mainly in terms of the responsibilities I would have to take on (changing diapers, planning child care, etc.) and the time they’d require. My therapist, naturally, wanted me to also be prepared for new emotional terrain. For one thing: Babies are notoriously unpredictable. They eat and sleep when they want and demand long periods of walking and rocking that can be hell on a parent’s body—and they largely express these desires through wails that make you think they’ve broken a limb. For someone like me, who finds stability in at least a loose structure to my days, not knowing what will happen from moment to moment is rough on my mental health. Plus there’s this whole other layer of wanting to protect and care for this helpless person I love with all of myself. Someone has to be her bodyguard on those high-stakes walks to the coffee shop—it’s a lot of responsibility.
So, yeah, I’ve been biting my nails a lot more. (I chalk this behavior up to an anxious mind seeking comfort—not unlike my baby sucking hard on her pacifier.) But I’m fortunate to have entered into parenthood with an understanding and supportive partner, and we’ve done a lot to help preserve each other’s mental health; we’ve divided up sleep/baby-watch schedules, provided each other afternoons for solo time to recharge, and communicated constantly about what our needs are. There’s no way to guarantee we avoid slipping into depression, but knowing we’re in it together helps as much as anything could.
Men aren’t traditionally socialized to seek mental health care, but it’s really important for new fathers.
As boys, many men are taught, often by their own parents, to be “strong” and keep their feelings bottled up. As an article published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness lays out, the stakes of conforming to these societal ideals are apparent when it comes to dads’ emotional well-being: “Families with fathers who struggle with mental health issues, particularly during early childhood, tend to have children with more difficulties managing their emotions and behaviors.” My partner and I don’t want our own baggage to interfere with our daughter’s development, so we’ve decided that talking it out and taking care of ourselves is the only way through.
My concern isn’t so much about how I’ll handle parenthood right now, but how I’ll feel and act later (my anxiety is, for the most part, fueled by the consistent churn of worries about the future). I’m worried about the kind of father I’ll be if I convince myself that being a good dad means feigning emotional invincibility, or being a hard-ass, or assuming any number of other damaging, stereotypical poses men put on around their children. I have to step up and care for myself in order to show my daughter all the love and warmth I feel for our family, because I know how hard it feels to have a dad whose emotions aren’t readily accessible.
I haven’t spoken to my father in several years. Our relationship was never great, and I made the simple decision that trying was no longer worth the effort. I would never say my dad was a bad father, but there was a large gap between the father he was and the father I wanted him to be. To his credit: He provided. Our family was never without a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, or clothes on our backs. We had, for most of my life, the true-blue American middle-class life: two cars in the garage, front and back yards to play in, TVs and Playstations, and family vacations. I may not always have gotten the latest Jordans the moment they came out, but in a material sense, I had nothing to complain about. My father worked to make that all possible (and benefited from an economy in which that was all possible). The gap existed on an emotional level: I think my father saw his role as a traditionally masculine one, based in discipline and breadwinning. I don’t view him as the kind of nurturer I hope to be as a dad.
Many fathers struggle with understanding how to relate to their children and how to express their care.
A Pew Research Center survey from 2015 shows that 57% of fathers believe that being a parent is “extremely important” to their identity, while another 37% say it’s “very important” to them. In that same survey, however, 49% of fathers claim to be the kind of parent that “criticizes too much,” versus 29% who say they offer too much praise. Though some experts have begun looking into the potential pitfalls of praising kids too much, there’s an obvious danger to overly criticizing them: When a child struggles with a sense of never being good enough, it can contribute to long-term struggles with depression or other mental health problems (speaking from experience here—but there’s research to back this up, too).
To me, it seems like many men want to be present dads and turn away from blueprints laid down by past generations but find themselves fumbling when it comes to creating something new. Absent some clear instruction, some of us might fall back on the old scripts because it’s easier, even though we can recognize the harm it does to ourselves and our loved ones. It’s tempting to fall into a “woe is me, masculinity is so hard” spiral here, but the takeaway is: When a father doesn’t step up to the challenges of parenting, it can actually worsen their mental health and lead to emotional pain for their children and partners.
I’m working hard to create a strong bond with my daughter early on while maintaining my own well-being. But I’m terrified of having the pieces of my past that I talk about in therapy the most sneak into my parenting in the future. As I go, I want to create space for my daughter to make mistakes and discuss difficult emotions. Whenever I talk through this with friends, they say it’s good that I’m thinking about it to begin with. This awareness, my friends tell me, is the thing that will allow me to recognize when I’m slipping into old patterns rooted in masculine stereotypes and choose to be a different kind of dad.
I see what they’re saying, but in the hopes of having my self-interrogation feel pragmatic instead of frantic, I’m learning more about how to handle what comes next with more grace and self-compassion. At the suggestion of my therapist, I started reading The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), by Philippa Perry, a British psychotherapist. It offers advice on handling your children’s emotions, as well as learning to be a supportive partner. My biggest takeaway from the book so far is that mistakes are inevitable: You will do the thing you’re afraid of doing. But what will separate you from your parents is the ability to examine your behavior, explain it to your child, apologize, and change.
If I want to show my daughter that she doesn’t have to be perfect to be loved, I need to live by example.
This starts with not being too hard on myself, with letting go of the fear of making a mistake that haunts my every decision and instead do the work of being the parent I want to be. I’m trying to remember that every misstep is only a misstep, not the harbinger of the death of my relationship with my child forever.
When I do fall short, will I be able to maintain perspective and keep myself from falling into depression? There are some ways in which that is in my control and others in which it isn’t. I can keep talking to my partner, my therapist, and my friends who are struggling to do fatherhood differently, the same way I am. (I can also remind myself that plenty of great parents struggle with their mental health and that I have the tools to seek out support if I need it.)
I can see the flaws in the fatherhood script that was handed down to me and I can rewrite the parts that didn’t work. I know that is easier said than done, but I can commit to the practice—even in the smallest moments with my daughter.
Sometimes, during a particularly tough bedtime when it seems she can’t get comfortable enough to fall asleep, I go into our room to put a pacifier in her mouth. Just as I’ve got it placed for optimal self-soothing, she reaches up and grabs my hand. And even if it’s only an involuntary infant reaction, she holds on tight and keeps holding while I look down at her perfectly fat cheeks, hear her breathing calm, and for a moment think that I’m doing something right—that she already knows I’m there for her.
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Here’s What I’ve Learned About Raising Boys in My 30 Years as a Child Psychologist
Originally Appeared on SELF