Thursday, August 28, 2014

Confessions of a Once-Disgruntled Father

In less than two weeks, we're going to be celebrating the birth of our son.  It's set, actually, because we have a scheduled C-Section.  So it's certainly not going to happen later than we think.  We're both excited, and scared to death about this.

We have a sixteen-month old daughter, so our son isn't our first child.  But the experience of our daughter's birth was a hard and traumatic experience for both my wife and myself, and the memories are quite fresh.  The question looming in our minds is:  "Will this time be the same?"

You see, before our daughter was born, neither of us, who had lived as the only children in our households (I have brothers, but none of them ever lived with me), had been experienced with babies.  I'd held babies, but like my wife I'd not had to endure the real meat of the challenge that comes with actually living with a baby, and having a share in the real responsibilities that come with it.  I had spent time consoling my wife throughout the pregnancy, assuring her that things would be okay, because people have babies all the time, and raise them, and this is the way we were created and designed.

I knew that babies were demanding, and woke up at night, and required hours of energy and investment every single day.  But surely, things would fall into place.  We would adjust, just as naturally and surely as any other creature adjusts to rearing young, often without signs of complaint or undue distress.

There was only one problem with my high hopes:  I assumed that biology made some sort of rational sense.

Oh you poor, poor ignorant man.

You see, then our daughter was actually born, and I quickly discovered that biology made no sense at all.  I did NOT adjust to losing so much sleep at night.  I did NOT adjust to the baby's constant need of attention or care.  My brain did NOT flip on some sort of "instinct" that made these things come more naturally to me.  Rather, it seemed like the baby's biology, in every possible way, conflicted with adult biology, and there was no change, whatsoever, to the latter to make up for the demand.

I should preface the rest of this post by saying that I have since been diagnosed with clinical depression, and at that time in particular I was probably hit with the male equivalent of postpartum depression.  Be that as it may, I can't possibly exaggerate what a shock it all was to me.  I'm not kidding when I say it actually shook my religious faith, because I could see how blind evolution might make such a stupid mistake as to have the biology of the human parent be largely incompatible with the biology of the baby, but under no circumstances could I envision that such a thing would be true by intelligent design.  Frankly, there didn't seem, to me, to be anything "intelligent" about having such an important task as baby care be something that directly conflicted with the parent's instincts and needs.  The parental need for sleep does not magically subside when the baby is born.  I never experienced a "shift" that made it seem more natural, more bearable, to wake up every hour and a half to assist with breastfeeding and diaper changes.  It seemed to remain as forced, mentally unhealthy, and unnatural as it had ever been.  It's neither hyperbole nor a joke when I say I had doubts as to whether or not there was any intelligent design behind human biology after all.

The first couple of weeks after my daughter's birth, I will not say that I ever formally considered suicide as I did in the incident cited in this post, but it crossed my mind and lingered there very often, perhaps at least once an hour at the worst moments.  "I can't do this," I thought to myself, and I felt like a terrible father for it.  I actually hated the thought of "the rest of my life."  What sort of parent was I?  That this made things harder for my wife, also, only added to the feeling that I was no good to anyone and that no one would really lose anything if I were dead.  I was inwardly hostile, miserable, and saw no brightness left in life.  After all, I had wanted children since I was a thirteen year old boy, and if this beautiful thing to which I had aspired for more than half my life, was now so horrible to me, how would I ever be happy?

How uplifting; he speaks pure poetry!!

These are some of the fears both my wife and I have had about this upcoming birth.  Will it be the same as last time?  Will my depression get worse all over again as we are beset with the intense demands that come with the newborn phase?

I do have hope that this time will be different.  This hope is based in a number of things, and I'll list a few of them here.

1.  I wasn't diagnosed with depression yet, back then.  I now have both medication and counseling for the depression.  As I stated in my blog on suicide, there have been incidents which would have probably seen me dead, by my own hand, before the depression treatment, which have instead found me uncharacteristically resilient because, thank God, they have happened since I've found treatment.  I have hope that it'll be the same with the birth of our boy.

2.  I have a better grasp of baby care as redemptive suffering.  Any parent can tell you that baby's are hard work.  There's a lot of sacrifice.  Losing sleep and putting in energy you don't have does not, by some biological magic, cease to be suffering when you have a baby.  Unlike many other biologically imperative tasks, baby care doesn't come "naturally" for most of us, there is no "autopilot."  But that only means that our design is "unintelligent" if we think we are supposed to be "well oiled machines," working smoothly.  I've said before that in Christianity, and especially Catholicism, there is the belief that suffering is redemptive.  Suffering draws us out of ourselves, via sacrifice (whether bearing the suffering for God's sake or for others), so that we may be better people.  Seen through that lens, the way things work with babies seems less like evidence of blind, unintelligent evolution, and more like a sign of an utterly brilliant design.

3.  We're far better prepared for it.  I don't only mean that we've braced ourselves better, mentally and emotionally.  We have a lot of practical things in place, such as tangible support for the first few weeks postpartum, so that we can both relax a little better without bearing the burdens all alone.  As some childcare experts now agree, child care was never ever intended, especially at the newborn phase, to be a two person job.  Earlier generations had the aid of extended family, to such an extent that it's realistic to say that having to spend an entire twenty-four hour period during which the mother and father were exclusively responsible for the baby's needs was much rarer then.  We're taking even more measures now to see to it that we have that support.  We also know, due to actual medical opinions from my doctors regarding my depression, that I genuinely do significantly more poorly with little sleep than many others might, so in getting more outside help we're keeping my sleep needs in mind, rather than treating it as though I'm just "lazy" or something as I feared the first time.  This alone makes those first few weeks a lot less scary than the first time, when I felt like I was literally stretched beyond what I could give, yet I felt I could only "shut up and take it" because I feared I was just exaggerating and that everyone else--including my wife--would think so too.

4.  We can look forward to the fact that it gets easier.  Caring for our daughter is not nearly the same taxing beast of a workload as it was when she was a newborn.  Not even close.  But back in those early days, we were only able to look forward to this day based on pure faith.  We had never experienced it for ourselves.  It seemed to us, on a gut level, as if the difficulties of caring for a newborn would last forever.  Now we know, in a concrete way, that it gets better.  That in mere months, babies do tend to require less, significantly so, than they do at first.  Knowing that there's a light at the end of the tunnel is a major comfort for the both of us.

This too shall pass, son.  But first, it'll last for an eternity and
make you wish you were never born.

So I'm looking forward to the birth of my son.  I'm going at it with open eyes and a good deal more planning, using what we've learned from the first birth.  I have a more realistic expectation of how hard it's going to be.  This time, in spite of the hardship, I have hope that both my wife and I can find more of the joy in what's going on as we're going through it.  It may be a dry joy, a joy not unburdened by hardship and suffering.  But God willing it will be a joy that we can detect.  I'll never say that joy wasn't there with our daughter's birth, on some level, nor even that we were never for a moment aware of it back then.  But it often felt as though it was "choked by the cares of the world" so to speak.  This time, here's hoping that things are different, and that we can be more deeply aware of the joy even amid the struggle, and enjoy being parents to our newborn son the way we much better enjoy being the parents of our toddler daughter now.

But I'm not naive enough to miss this opportunity to ask for your prayers, dear readers, that this hope of mine will become a reality.

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