Uncomfortably lying on my bedroom floor next to a makeshift crib, I’ve been trying to sooth my inconsolable 8-month-old son Amon for hours. I feel hopeless. I’m certain he may never fall asleep as he thrashes about. He doesn’t want to eat, suck on a pacifier, be held, or be left alone. It is one of three nights a week that my wife works — she’s a server at a restaurant — meaning I put him to sleep. Starting at 2 months, we transitioned into this routine seamlessly, but we’re now deep into an acutely difficult 3-month bout of teething, separation anxiety, and well, life.
In the months leading up to my son’s birth, no one asked me how I would handle long nights of patiently waiting for your child to tire himself out or cry himself asleep. On the contrary, acquaintances and family members routinely asked, in a coy-yet-earnest tone, “So, have you changed a diaper before?”
As an expecting father yourself, I’m sure you’ve been asked this well-meaning dad cliche. It persists because it’s a lot easier and more polite to say than, “Over the course of your life, have you learned to take care of yourself emotionally and physically in a manner relatively free of shame, anxiety and fear? Or at least to the extent that you would wish to model for your child?” It is much better to focus on diapers, baby-proofing, and proper gender socialization.
The diaper-question-formality presupposes several underlying beliefs: 1. As a dad, we don’t expect much from you. 2. Things like diapers, sleeplessness, and even a lack of personal time will be the hard parts of fatherhood.
As I laid there that night, overcome by my own anxiety about soothing my son, the actual hard part became, for the moment anyway, a bit more clear. Like my son, I’m scared and overwhelmed, and despite my 30-something years on him, I’m not sure how to take care of myself. At some point, I started taking slow, deep breaths. Instead of trying to hold him the exact right way or shush him into submission, I relaxed for what felt like the first time in my life. I felt ever so slightly, for lack of a less overly-prescribed term, present. Amon slowly calmed himself and fell asleep.
Perhaps you aren’t a neurotic mess. Perhaps you aren’t anxious, defensive or quick to blame someone else for your own fears. If so, I applaud you, but mostly I have to ask: Really? Are you afraid to be vulnerable or weak? Is your seeming comfort with this new role just reinforcing the world as it’s been and the emotional mess that men more often than not create generation after generation? Did I mention this dad stuff gets dark in its emotional intensity?
You aren’t going to be a hero. You aren’t always going to be great at being a dad. It’s going to be extremely hard, and there is no way around that fact. My advice is do everything you can do to be as fully present, engaged and generous as possible. In the history of this long biological story, I’m not sure such seemingly simple things have ever been more difficult, or the rewards of making an effort so transformative.
I should note that no matter how emotionally and physically exhausting my day has been or how much I’ve looked forward to a moment’s peace, every night I find myself looking at pictures of Amon on my phone, wishing he was awake.
Best of luck,
David Michael Perez