If ever there was a poster child for postpartum anxiety, it was me.
That first night home with our newborn, my brain felt like a beehive. Doubt and fear buzzed inside my head as our baby boy’s screams grew louder and louder. It was 3:30 a.m., and the night had been a disaster. I remember standing over that crib, hands gripping the wooden bars, certain that we would never survive.
My son needed to eat again. He needed to be swaddled again. And dammit, I needed to pump. Again.
Swaddle, feed, pump, swaddle, feed, pump — I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. Two short days after labor and delivery, I could feel my branches groan beneath the weight of new motherhood.
“Honey,” my husband interjected. “I’m worried about you. The sun is coming up. Just get some rest, okay? I can take over from here.”
I watched as that sweet man changed our son’s diaper. I watched as he poured the breast milk into a fresh bottle. I watched him sit in that rocking chair and…
OMG. Those diaper tabs aren’t lined up correctly. The baby will pee straight through that. And did he just shake the bottle? Doesn’t he know not to shake breast milk? My lord, he didn’t even clean the phalanges correctly! Bacteria could KILL the baby! And he isn’t supporting the baby’s head…
NO, NO, NO.
“UGH, Let me do it!” I barked. “You aren’t doing it right, anyways.”
My husband stood up from the rocking chair and handed the baby back to me.
He kissed both of our heads and returned to bed. As I rocked our son to sleep for the 10th time in a matter of hours, my husband began to snore. And in a time that should’ve been filled with exhaustive joy, a yearlong season of resentment was born.
Over the next year, I noticed a man becoming less involved in the daily tasks of raising our son. I heard a man calling my name to change the 50th poopy diaper in an hour. I felt the gentle nudges to get out of bed. “Honey, the baby is awake in the other room.”
And if that was the whole truth, I would say right now that my husband was a selfish jerk. I’d be reconsidering our union.
But that wasn’t the truth. Not even close.
Because anxiety, exhaustion, and stress were blinding me to rest of this picture:
A man who kept a careful distance for fear that his parenting efforts would be picked apart, as usual. A dad who hovered behind me at the changing table, wanting to help, but certain he would just screw it up. A father who was trained to stay in bed, because whenever he got up to rock the baby, his wife popped in to criticize the way he did it and shooed him away.
My husband wasn’t doing everything perfect. But holy crap, who does? I was so tightly wound that I snapped anytime things weren’t done my way. And as a result, the father of my children backed away, hands up in surrender. Defeated.
It’s been three years since we recovered from that season of intense anxiety, and I have to admit: It breaks my heart to remember.
It breaks my heart that a new mama was burdened beyond what she could bear due to an element of mental illness. It breaks my heart that a new father had his confidence undercut by his life partner and friend. It breaks my heart that we were both robbed of being the kick-ass duo we could’ve been from day one.
Because anxiety and exhaustion? Ugh, they are such liars.
They whisper in a mama’s ear that she is the only one who can get the toddler down for a nap. They tell her that if she doesn’t change that diaper, it’ll end up leaking in an hour. They tell her that she might as well get out of bed and get the baby back down because if Daddy tries? Well, it’ll just take that much longer.
And sometimes moms believe those lies, don’t we? It’s so hard not to.
Every day, I hear discussions about lackluster, uninvolved dads. One would think sucky dads are a pandemic issue. I’m sure, like any bag of apples, there’s a few rotten parents in the mix, and I don’t discount the pain of having an uninvolved father/partner. But I can’t help but wonder if there is another culprit at play here sometimes too.
I wonder if there are mamas, like me, who feel out of control and try to reclaim that control by dictating every tiny detail of their baby’s care. I wonder if there are daddies, like my husband, who think they are respecting their partner’s wishes by getting out of the way when asked. I wonder if there are families, like mine, who are simply struggling through the fog of new parent anxiety, and getting a little lost along the way.
Because what I see clearly now that the fog of anxiety has lifted is this: My husband — my best friend — wasn’t trying to step away from his role as a father. He loves being a dad.
I was pushing him out.
And just saying that out loud makes me feel sad.
If I could share my message with one family and prevent a similar season of resentment, then my job will be done here. So, here it goes, parents: Please, don’t let stress and anxiety push your partner out of their parenting role. Seek help if needed. No matter how differently you do things, no matter how strange their ways may seem, stick together. Encourage one another. You deserve the help and support, Mom. You deserve the respite. It will make you both stronger and better, as parents and partners.
Don’t rob yourselves of the genuine joy that is parenting as a team.