I Want to Be a Good Dad. That Means Showing Up for Myself, Too

The first time I went on a solo outing with our new baby, I came home with an oat milk latte for my partner and a panic attack for myself. I’ve lived in New York City for nearly 10 years, and I’d made that same walk to the coffee shop countless times. But now, as I walked there with our one-week-old daughter strapped to my chest, other people felt too close. The sidewalk seemed harder; the cars, much bigger and faster. The dire realization that the only thing standing between her and danger is us—her parents—came swiftly. 

I kept it together enough to get her home, back to safety, then completely broke down in my partner’s arms. The tears weren’t just about my anxieties on the errand—after all, we were fine. It’s just that…I’m a first-time father attempting to traverse the mental health challenges that come along with this new part of my identity. And given that I’m also actually parenting a baby with my partner, that’s a lot to handle.

I have dealt with anxiety even before I knew there was a term for it. And with depression, too. When, a few months before our child was born, my therapist warned me that fathers, too, are susceptible to postpartum depression, I took the message seriously. I’d never considered the idea or heard anyone talk about going through it themselves, but my therapist’s explanation of that concept—and other challenges that might arise now my daughter is here—made perfect sense. 

I had been thinking about how my life was going to change after I became a dad mainly in terms of the responsibilities I would have to take on (changing diapers, planning child care, etc.) and the time they’d require. My therapist, naturally, wanted me to also be prepared for new emotional terrain. For one thing: Babies are notoriously unpredictable. They eat and sleep when they want and demand long periods of walking and rocking that can be hell on a parent’s body—and they largely express these desires through wails that make you think they’ve broken a limb. For someone like me, who finds stability in at least a loose structure to my days, not knowing what will happen from moment to moment is rough on my mental health. Plus there’s this whole other layer of wanting to protect and care for this helpless person I love with all of myself. Someone has to be her bodyguard on those high-stakes walks to the coffee shop—it’s a lot of responsibility. 

So, yeah, I’ve been biting my nails a lot more. (I chalk this behavior up to an anxious mind seeking comfort—not unlike my baby sucking hard on her pacifier.) But I’m fortunate to have entered into parenthood with an understanding and supportive partner, and we’ve done a lot to help preserve each other’s mental health; we’ve divided up sleep/baby-watch schedules, provided each other afternoons for solo time to recharge, and communicated constantly about what our needs are. There’s no way to guarantee we avoid slipping into depression, but knowing we’re in it together helps as much as anything could. 

As boys, many men are taught, often by their own parents, to be “strong” and keep their feelings bottled up. As an article published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness lays out, the stakes of conforming to these societal ideals are apparent when it comes to dads’ emotional well-being: “Families with fathers who struggle with mental health issues, particularly during early childhood, tend to have children with more difficulties managing their emotions and behaviors.” My partner and I don’t want our own baggage to interfere with our daughter’s development, so we’ve decided that talking it out and taking care of ourselves is the only way through. 

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