My wife’s pregnancy ran nine long, miserable months. She beat the induction buzzer by hours, only to have it all end with an emergency Cesarean. It was such a whirlwind; I actually lost memory of many of the day’s events in a stress-induced blackout. Yet, in the end, my wife and newborn son were safe, and four days later, we were sent out into the world with very little guidance and no instruction manual — not that I really needed one.
You see, when I was nine, my dad and new stepmom started having kids. I soon morphed from being an only child to the oldest of four. Throughout this time, I changed diapers, bottle fed, and otherwise served as a live-in babysitter. So when it came time to raise my own baby, I felt completely ready to make the seemingly simple transition to fatherhood.
It was going to be beautiful and sweet and perfect.
Except that first night at the hospital, my son cried nonstop
When he finally did sleep, I held him. I was exhausted, but he was amazing.This was exactly what I expected and I wasn’t scared. I even remember telling my wife on that first night, “I got this.”
When we arrived home, our son kept crying. A lot. Still, I wasn’t worried; I knew how to calm a baby. I held him and paced and hummed and patted and rocked him with all my heart.
But he cried. And cried.
And he cried and he cried and he cried.
To make matters worse, whenever I held him, he wailed even louder. He doesn’t like me, I thought to myself. I had read somewhere that newborns slept 16 hours a day. Well, our baby defied that, sleeping only five hours and crying the other 19. We were inundated with advice on how to calm a “fussy” baby. But ours wasn’t fussy; he was colicky, in the truest sense of the word.
It was around that time that I realized I didn’t “got this.”
Over the next few days, I found myself lingering longer than normal at work. Suddenly, there were numerous projects in my garage that couldn’t wait. I became angry, edgy, withdrawn; I even went to my therapist to vent. At one point he said, “You talk as if you don’t feel like he’s your son.”
I realized I didn’t, not at all. I didn’t want to be around my child — and my wife knew it.
I had no idea what to do
This wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t beautiful and sweet and perfect.
I’m not one who typically reaches out to my friends for help but I was out of options. So I texted the smartest, most put-together father-of-two friend I knew:
“Hey, can you talk?” I typed.
“I'm at work tonight,” came his reply, “but I can call you tomorrow.”
“Ok,” I replied. “Sorry. Just been really hard for me. Don’t feel like there’s much I can do and having real trouble bonding with him. Just need to bounce some stuff off the wall.”
There was a long pause. I could see him typing. Then finally:
“Hey. This may or may not make you feel better, but my son HATED everyone except my wife, including me, until he was about three or four months old. I didn’t really even like him until closer to five months. Obviously, I loved him because he was my kid, but I had deep regrets about having him for a long while. I know it’s not exactly what you are dealing with, but I definitely understand the helplessness and lack of connection.”
Wow. It was exactly what I was dealing with — all of it. In that one text, my “perfect father” friend removed all of the guilt I carried about my terrible thoughts and feelings. I knew I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t alone, and our new life together was going to be okay. (He also mailed me a life-saving DVD, Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Baby on the Block, which teaches new parents how to calm fussy babies. Trust me, it works.)
In those first 90 days of fatherhood, I learned a few valuable lessons:
Life absolutely won’t go as planned. The reason is because there’s no instruction manual for raising a child, and no single path to take. Parenthood is a parade of problems followed by wonderful resolutions and solutions. Your baby may cry a lot, or not eat enough, or have tummy troubles or special needs. The only way to make it through parenthood without becoming a neurotic mess is to handle each situation as it comes, and relinquish control of the uncontrollable.
Your baby (and you) won’t be perfect. And you’ll have thoughts and feelings you never imagined you’d have. I’ve heard stories of new parents needing to step outside and scream, or hand their tyke over to a friend for 10 minutes so they could regain composure. It’s normal, and those things don’t make you a bad person. Caring for a newborn is one of the most demanding tasks you’ll ever encounter. But it’s also the most rewarding.
This, too, shall pass. This is a fantastic mantra to remember — in both good times and bad. Embrace the joyous moments, savor them, and stockpile those memories for when you need them most. Sometimes my son’s smile from yesterday can get me through a screaming session today.
Thankfully, these days, Levett is amazing. He truly makes me laugh out loud, and I often find myself staring at him while he sleeps. Trust me, he still cries a lot, but certainly nothing like he did that first month.
And at times, when he’s beautiful and sweet and perfect in my arms, I find that I am the one who cries. And that’s okay, too.