My eldest child died before I ever knew about him. My wife, Alice and I endured a deadening series of tests and hospital visits to ensure the health of our intended but unexpected son; ten or twelve visits over the course of a month.
”It could be ectopic,” we were told. “Dont get your hopes up.” Then suddenly the story changed. All signs were normal and there was nothing to worry about. We were going to have a healthy baby.
Our happiness died two weeks later in an emergency operation to remove by force the fetus who had wasted his precious strength crushing himself against the fragile walls of Alices fallopian tube.
My son was dead but I had already become a father. It was an extremely odd mental sensation, to know of myself that I was a parent – to have prepared my home
and my mind to welcome my child and yet to have no child to show for it. Life went on but I was fundamentally different for having resolved that I would take responsibility for another human life.
Fourteen months later we brought our daughter Rune Valkyrie home from the hospital. She was two weeks overdue and absolutely perfect. I was elated and feverish but underneath the joy I was horrified to feel, a cold sickness uncoiling. It was rather like the certain dread of knowing that a relationship is about to end. I did not identify it for several weeks. I just knew that fathering was harder than I had expected and that my life seemed to have become a grueling series of demands and hurdles.
It didnt seem to be about the previous pregnancy. Alice and I had discovered greater strength in each other during those terrible weeks and had, in our estimation at least, resolved our grief and anxiety to a calm, quiet resignation. We werent suffering because of the loss of our son. But I wasnt happy fathering my new daughter.
Rune seemed to cry all the time and I would fall into violent spirals of desperate anger as I held her, holding my body relaxed and patting her rhythmically with rigid self control. It was the best I could do. I knew that she could feel my tension even through my forced relaxation but I could not dispel it. Becoming enraged with my inability to give her what she needed, I would slip sporadically into what seemed to be almost involuntary fits of teeth grinding and fist clenching, my bunched arms crooked stiffly around my crying daughter.
As I furiously mouthed silent imprecations against my wife, who was out of the room trying to gather the scraps of her independent identity into a workable fabric, I would gradually gain control of myself, until I could breathe slowly and deeply again. I was terrified of accidentally throwing the baby across the room. At times I felt that when I could finally put her down or when I simply could not trust myself to hold her any more, I was almost throwing her on to the bed. I felt that she was suffering because of my lack of self control. The thought that surely she could not be getting what she needed from me, made it more important for me to control my emotions. Then, next time I picked her up, it would start again. I wound myself up so tightly over this that the mere sound of her crying would set a pulse beating in my forehead and my eyes would prickle with angry tears. I did not feel that I could trust myself and I felt like an abusive father.
Weeks went past and I could not convince myself that I was pulling my weight. Despite staying home full time with Alice and Rune I felt more parasitic than helpful. Alice seemed to be taking what limited time she had away from Rune to take care of my emotional issues.More than once I considered giving up and running away to the bizarre security of the Psychiatric wards in which I worked.
During a routine visit Alice filled in a routine post natal depression questionnaire for the Maternal Health Nurse in our area. She scored within the healthy range. I impulsively asked for a similar questionnaire. It wasnt easy to do. It helped that Alice was so completely supportive and understanding of me and that we had an easy rapport with the nurse, but I felt naked and childish to be asking. I felt that I was crudely intruding on the interview and that I was unfairly dragging the focus to myself. At the same time I was determined not to let my fear of being judged stand in the way of diagnosis and treatment for what I was beginning to believe was clinical depression. If there was a chance that I could understand and overcome the strange emotional blocks which were impeding my parenting I was determined to take it.
The nurse, to her eternal credit, did not laugh. She did comment that they were “really more for the mother than the father” but produced another questionnaire and waited patiently for me to complete it. I scored very poorly. It was then suggested that I accept a reference to a counsellor and having already dragged my inadequacy into the light, it took a much smaller effort of will to accept. Every instinct demanded that I brush it off, inform her that I would make my own arrangements and slink quietly into the background again. Fortunately I managed to avoid doing so.
I can remember feeling as though Alice had died in the operating room as she delivered Rune. The wife who I wished I had treasured more in the two wonderful years preceding our parenthood was gone. In her place was a new woman, a woman I had never met before – Alice had become a mother. She seemed to run deeper and stronger, as though her instincts had aligned with her desires to fulfill her and make her more formidable. Next to her I often felt ridiculous and I fought to keep parenting as we agreed – with equal shares and responsibility. As for being a husband – I began to think that the job no longer existed; that it belonged, along with Dodo herding and lion hunting, to the ages.
Perhaps most new fathers feel this way. I know that I didnt expect to. I genuinely thought that my intention to be a totally committed father and share the time with Rune would make it easy to be equal and competent parents. I did not find this to be true. I just didnt seem to have any nurturing instinct at all. It embarrassed and frustrated me that I didnt automatically know how to interact with my daughter. I searched my experience in vain for clues as to why Rune was crying, or what she wanted to play with or even how to play with her.
Do men play? I remember taking on roles as a child, always being a soldier or a teacher and I know that running around and yelling featured strongly among the highlights of my childhood. When it came to playing though, physically moving with and reacting to a baby, I didnt seem to know how. I felt awkward and stiff and I hated to be watched. I knew that I could react to someone else physically, but in my life (outside of sex and dancing) there had never been a real context in which to do so.
Before Rune was born, I would have rejected the notion that there was a mystical “mothering instinct”, which somehow equips women to nourish and care for their offspring. Laziness, I would have confidently derided, is all that stops men taking just as much of a role in parenting as their partners. Perhaps this attitude contributed to my depression after the birth.
Counselling helped me sort out my expectations, from my fantasies. My wife opened new reservoirs of patience and tolerance to me, and telling my story on the Natural Parenting Forums allowed strangers to support and encourage me. I believe the person who helped me the most, in spite of her job title, was our Maternal and Child Health nurse.
The reason Im writing my story is that I have now met many fathers who are on the same road – lonely, guilty and ashamed of how they are feeling. Id like to make that road a little easier for other men to walk.
Theres a happy end to this story, which is why much of it is in the past tense. Rune turned six months old last December while travelling in Thailand – a wonderful adventure, which deserves to inhabit several volumes in its own right. She is a beautiful and happy baby who doesnt appear to bear any psychic scars from the scowling I so often aimed at her when she was young. She and I are now learning to communicate. The depression which seemed so certain to make life and happiness impossible has receded to a large degree. I no longer feel that Im making both Rune and Alices lives more difficult and unpleasant by being around.