As I lie on the floor trying to write this, with my 7 month year old daughter crawling all over me, clawing at my note pad, shrieking in my ear and doing her best to be impossibly cute, I’m ashamed to admit to how I’ve felt before; especially when I now know that I’ve never loved anyone more.
What follows may read as brutal, but I feel that for fathers their expectation is to be strong (especially when mum has been through so much with pregnancy, the birth and then the weeks and months that follow). The reality is that it isn’t easy for either and there doesn’t seem to be much out there to help a dad in need. If my words can resonate with one dad in distress, then I’ll deem it totally worthwhile to have laid my flaws bare for all to see.
Our daughter Vesper was born in the early hours of February 3rd at Gloucester hospital. A very difficult pregnancy for Olivia was followed by a ‘holistic’ birth plan that went out the window, a 34 hour labour and pretty much all the drugs we could legally get our hands. However, all of the pain and tiredness quickly subsides when you have a beautiful baby girl in your arms.
The first few days were bliss. We were inundated with family & friends who brought baby grows and champagne en mass at an approximate 1:1 ratio. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, we were making it up as we went along and we were smashing it. As the days went by I kept that appearance up, but the reality was that I was starting to struggle and was feeling very underwhelmed about being a father.
My own mother told me that ‘there is nothing that can prepare you for the love you will feel for your child’. I could see that Olivia was indeed feeling this, but I wasn’t. I was flat, at times felt ambivalent towards my daughter, was easily frustrated when I couldn’t sooth her and didn’t feel any physical bond with her whatsoever.
When we decided to begin our family, neither Olivia nor I were particularly broody but both knew that one day having a family would be important to us. Having been together for 9 years, married for 4 and with Olivia being 35 at the time, we both felt that it was now or never. When Vesper finally arrived (this cuts me to even think about let alone admit too in writing) I thought that I had made a mistake. I felt like I hadn’t considered it properly and with it rapidly becoming clear how difficult parenting was going to be, that I’d prematurely robbed myself of my freedom at the age of 30.
There were three thoughts that would keep me up at night (other than a crying baby):
I am a property developer and the last time I got paid (or sold a house) was May 2017. Building houses is not conducive to making a fast buck. Throw a baby into the mix, living on a building site at home as well and you’ve got all the ingredients needed for one stressed out dad.
For 8 months I’d been living off borrowed money and prior to having Vesper, Olivia was the only one actually bringing any money into the household bank account. Olivia and I are both self employed and before having Vesper, Olivia was adamant that she’d be back part time after 4-6 weeks and that we would split childcare. I had no reason to doubt her ambition, but low and behold it became very clear that she wasn’t going to go back to work for a long time. This put a further unexpected pressure on things.
By all accounts at the time Vesper didn’t need me. Olivia had all of the ‘tools’ and I seemed so bad at calming Vesper, who could only be soothed by her mum. As a dad, that really fucking hurts. When your daughter screams as if she’s in pain when in your arms, and then you can hear the sigh of relief in her voice as she’s handed to her mum, it makes you feel really crap.
No 1 & 2 could have been easily solved had Olivia not buried our heads in the sand about the money subject and been a bit more realistic about what was achievable. A bit more careful planning and some frank conversations before probably would have saved me a whole world of pain.
Number 3 however was going to prove a bit more difficult to crack. I was trying to finish the house I was building so that I could sell it, claw some money back, pay off debts, keep the mortgage payments going and give us a bit of wiggle room. I’d borrowed over £1m to build this house and so it didn’t feel like I could take my foot off the gas. It was tearing me apart. I was torn between that and being there to support Olivia while also finding time to bond with my daughter. It felt like an impossible situation.
It came to a climax after a particularly shit day on site. I always tried to come home earlier than I had before having Vesper to help Olivia, which occasionally irked me as I was under pressure to get the build finished. Olivia had also had a bad day and asked me to take Vesper for an hour so she could have a bath and relax, as was often the case when I got back from work.
Vesper was really fractious and I just could not calm her. I tried tiger in the tree; put her on her back, on my knee, between my legs, on her own, swaddle, cuddle, bouncing. You name it, I tried it. The more stressed I got, the more stressed she got and the whole thing just compounded itself. After 20 minutes I lost my cool and screamed ‘what do you fucking want!?’
I was immediately appalled with myself for screaming at a baby. Then my phone vibrated and it was a text from Olivia asking me to bring Vesper to her. She had heard everything. Olivia was crying in the bath and I felt like a monster. It was my lowest point as a father.
It was the culmination of a tough couple of weeks, and although Olivia and I had spoken quite a bit about the fact that I was clearly struggling, neither of us were able to make any sense of the situation, or what we could do about it. My mental health was not in a good place and I needed some help.
I’ve struggled with my mental health before and so I’m very fortunate that I have no issue whatsoever in confiding in others, and neither should anyone reading this. Mental health can be a killer if left untreated, so there is not a single good reason to not talk to someone.
Our midwife was due over for one of her final check-ins a few days later and I told her everything. She put me in touch with an amazing man called Mark Harris. Mark is a male midwife and he also runs a program for dads called ‘Birthing For Blokes’. I took the dog for a walk on Cleeve Hill just behind our house and spoke to Mark on the phone for over an hour. Speaking to Mark was the catalyst for putting things right. Not only was he able to impart some insightful knowledge, but he also pushed me in the direction of some ‘self help’ which ultimately has given me a beautiful relationship with my daughter. One I was afraid I might never achieve.
Someone reading this might resonate 100% with what I’ve said. Others won’t but might feel that things just aren’t right and being a Dad isn’t quite what they had expected. Whatever the situation, below are a few of my takeaways from learning ‘on the job’ for any dads in need:
I had just assumed that I would love Vesper so deeply and unconditionally from day one. This is what I had been told was the norm. I thought that the sleepless nights, the crying, the burden it puts on your relationship with your partner, etc would all just fade into insignificance. Imagine my despair when I didn’t have the feeling of unconditional love that I had been promised.
What I can say with the benefit of hindsight is that I now know that it’s the struggle and the fight to have a relationship with your child that makes the love that much sweeter. It’s the struggle that makes the reward so worthwhile. Seeing your daughter smile, or hearing her giggle for the first time is so much sweeter when you’ve had to battle a few lows to get there.
Olivia would sometimes take Vesper when it all got too much for me and I would sit with them both and just be there for Olivia, which was actually a great help for her having spent all day alone.
I can’t tell you why that is, but what I can tell you 100% without exception that telling someone you’re having a shit time of things, will always help. Swallow you’re pride, tell your partner, tell a friend, see a councillor, tell that guy at work you’ve never said more than ‘alright’ to. For God’s sake, just tell someone.
The issues I had were far more complicated and wide reaching than I could ever hope to explain in a single blog post, which is why I have simplified them for this piece of writing. My biggest concern was that for a long while I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a journey and will require self learning, but hopefully something in this post will be the catalyst for someone in need to take that first step.
As with all good stories, this one had a happy ending. I finished building the house, renamed it and called it ‘Vespers’. The house then sold in 4 weeks. I have the most beautiful relationship with my daughter who I love unconditionally. What I had always wanted. While being dad is still at times the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, I feel so well equipped to handle it now that my mental state of mind is in check. I’m now able to understand Vespers needs, know how to make her smile and how to sooth her when she cries. As we wean her off breast milk, it’s now my job to settle her to sleep every night as it’s much easier to do it without the smell and temptation of Olivia’s milk. I look forward to bed time everyday as I get to sing to her, stare into her eyes and watch her drift off to sleep in my arms.
I know of other fathers who have experienced similar and allowed their frustrations to manifest as shouting at a baby. I also know that they have been too ashamed to talk to anyone, and their partners don’t want others to know about it either. It is not my place to approach them and to explain that I’ve had the same, and that it’s behind me. I want this biggest lesson from this to be that dads (and mums for that matter) must feel that they can approach anyone and tell them all is not well without fear of persecution.
At the end of the day, no one would dare deny that parenting is the most challenging experience one can go through, but also without doubt the most rewarding when you come out the other side smelling of roses.
For any dads in need, feel free to drop me a line. It might be best thing you ever did.