Out of the cloudy haze of unconsciousness, a small voice whispers to me. "Are you going to change his diaper?"
Through my just-cracked eyelids, I notice my wife getting up to prepare to change my son's diaper, and I ask, feeling insulted, "Why are you asking me to do it if you already are?" I am shocked when she tells me she had been asking me repeatedly; I had been responding "Yeah, yeah!" but never moving toward actually getting up. I had no idea.
We often recall this and laugh. I am ever in awe at how physically challenging new parenthood is, and how taken for granted we parents are by society. We. I am now a part of "We". I felt this strongly when my lifelong buddy, Andrew, who already has three children, welcomed me into "The Fatherhood Club" the other day. I was taken aback at how nice it felt to be welcomed. Thank you, Andrew.
Night after night, I look up and realize it is 3AM, as I find myself sitting in the glider with my infant boy in my arms. I am half (OK, mostly) unconscious. My eyes shutting on me, despite my best efforts; my head bobbing uncontrollably. I am probably drooling. My wife's eyes are also half-shut (so, happily, she cannot confirm the drool) — she is sitting right next to me and pumping breast milk.
I am trying to keep a bottle in my son's mouth; he is spitting it out, coughing, drooling, spastically swatting it out, and simultaneously appearing starving... but refusing to suck. My boy is squirming, agitated, and apparently spinning out of control into a howling mess from which I'm sure we will never survive.
All of a sudden, my wife is telling me "Do this" and "Try that". I'm appalled. I am THE DAD, I think to myself, and I can figure this out on my own. No one needs to tell me what to do to help my son. He's MY SON. This detrimental attitude started one of the stupidest arguments my wife and I ever had; we both apologized to each other the next day.
Of course becoming THE DAD has meant significant change for me as I continue to establish myself as skilled at calming my boy out of his tailspins and coaxing him into sleep. My wife has noticed and now refers to me as "Mo Rivera", our family's closer. My wife now views me through a new and different lens as new stressors appear seemingly out of thin air, and I have had to come to terms with the fact that I must reassert my love for my wife in a new way: as the mother to my child who, along with me, is struggling with her new role.
I am also coming to terms with the fact that I am not nearly as perfect, important or central a figure as I once thought, now that we have a very little boy in our home. I have to assert myself as the gatekeeper to family, friends, and strangers.
Of course, I owe an immeasurable amount of gratitude to my mother-in-law for her domestic support and to my own mother for whom I now hold a new level of respect, for going through this for me. We are incredibly fortunate to have them in our lives, and for having kept us alive when we were newly born. I cannot imagine how much more difficult this would be without them. I tip my hat to all new parents who are doing so without such amazing help.
It feels good to stop pressuring myself to be THE DAD and just relax into my role as a father.
Alex Stadler, LCSW is a mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapist in private practice, and a mental health consultant to numerous NYC human services agencies. Visit his websites at effectivetherapynyc.com and therapynewyorkny.com.
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