Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Invisible Load of becoming a Dad

Sidelined.  Demoted.  Nonessential.  New dads aspire to be so much, but quickly realize when their baby is born that they are all of the above.  In the hospital, Wes had to ask for permission to hold the baby.  The nurses quickly obliged, realizing that they had forgotten to include him.  The extent of his labor and delivery duties was to hold my leg up in the air and do the honorary snip of the umbilical cord, which grossed him out until the very last minute.  After that, he looked on as Zoe was placed onto my chest for comfort, watched as nurses taught me to feed her from that place.  From the start, expectant fathers come to the uncomfortable realization that they are just not very important.

Society tells the dad to look out for his family, to wait on his wife, to be that loving hero to his daughter, to be the image of strength to his son, to be the one that everyone can and should depend on during such a fragile and volatile time.  It is assumed that the father has no emotional needsno guilt, no sadness, no fear.  There is undeniably more support for women postpartumcourses designed for mothers to relieve burnout, podcasts run by women painting a one-sided perspective of parenthood, social networks for new moms.  For dads, the available resources and outreach are few and far in between, but that is no indication of the level of stress that men shoulder as well.  Plus, many men are not disposed to advocating for themselves emotionally anyway, especially not when it's time to "man up."  I have to say that Wes has made it all look easy, but that does not mean that it was easy.  I just wanted to intentionally reflect on and write about the invisible load of modern fatherhood from his perspective.  Of course, like every mother's experience, every father's is unique.  This does not do justice to the beginning of every fatherly journey out there, but it's one in a million hidden stories that never get the spotlight.

The modern dad is expected to do it all and blur the line between gender roles gracefully, but Wes had no such role model from the generation before his own.  I've been reading books to Zoe, and since I'd like for her to learn at least some basic Mandarin, I've requested my mom to give me all of the children's books she saved from when I was a baby myself.  These books were all written in the 80's.  Simple pictures, wording to-the-point, descriptive content, nothing too exciting.  In the book, the father leaves first thing in the morning, comes home from work and helps the (clearly stay-at-home) mom with a few chores, has dinner (cooked by the mom) with the family, tucks the child into bed, and on weekends he takes them out on excursions.  The child asks her mother, "If we love Daddy so much, why does he have to go away for so much of the day?"  Mom replies, "Just as the bees make honey, Daddy needs to make money to support our household."  And then the story ends.  It's a de facto depiction of a typical nuclear  Baby Boomer family.  Now, barely forty years later, gender roles already look different.  Zoe's Daddy is the one who stays home, but he's making money at his desk in the room across from her nursery.  Zoe's Daddy is the one who cooks dinner every night, and he is also the one who will be asked the question, "Why can't Mommy be home with us all day?"  He is the financial safety net, the emotional reassurance, and also the one who takes on most of the domestic work that was relegated to women back when the book was written.  As Wes tells me, being the ideal "modern dad" is something that no one in the generation prior to ours really had to think about, at least in his family.  It can be said that things are easier now than they were for our parents, but with the advent of virtual workplaces, information at your fingertips, and mainstream media prototypes, being a millennial parent is a whole other beast of its own.

Wes's own father worked three labor-intensive jobs for as long as he can remember in order to pay off the expenses of feeding and putting a roof over the heads of three little ones and their mother.  He was almost never home, and when he did come home, he changed zero diapers.  He was tough on Wes while at the same time, bringing small inexpensive gifts from Big Lots and the Dollar Storewhatever he could find to put a smile on his children's faces, even if just briefly, to fill the void of being absent physically and emotionally.  When Wes got a little bit older, he knew his dad only through working with him in his soda delivery business.  Through heaving thousands of cans of soda into the back of a pickup truck in some unsavory Los Angeles alleyways and then delivering them through the doors of Chinese restaurants and banquet halls in the San Gabriel Valley every night after school, Wes learned how to hustle and how to be tough.  His dad took pride in what his hands could do for his family, given his low level of education and lack of his own father figure.  He enjoyed what he did for work and he wanted to see his kids happy, even if just for a few moments a day.  This, honestly, is what ordinary fatherhood looked like for the families that Wes grew up around.

Wes, like I, had fantasies and ideas about the kind of father figure he would play during the whole pregnancy.  As all parents do, we both reflected on generational cycles that we wanted to break and were eager to be better than what we had growing up.  For Wes, that meant being hands-on, emotionally available, and nurturing.  Not being able to jump in right away was disappointing.  He has told me before that the realization that the baby does not necessarily need him to survive can make him feel powerless and helpless, if he lets himself "go down that rabbit hole."  That is definitely not a comfortable place to be as a new parent.  Dads who want to be involved are challenged with figuring out where they fit in without the help of the biological drive afforded to the birthing parent via hormones, blood, sweat, and milk ducts.  And they also must never complain or cry about it.

Wes has told me before that he doesn't know if he's a good dad, but he knew at least that he was being a good husband.  He focused most of his energy on taking care of me, knowing that a healthy and happy mother makes for a healthy and happy baby.  He was my go-to person as I struggled with issues like breastfeeding, recovering from labor, and sleep deprivation, not to mention a straight-up identity crisis.  He had to take care of a million last-minute things while feeling the heaviness of not being directly able to support his baby.  It was a lot for him, I'm sure of it.  He took on the jobs that were meant for a village without skipping a beat.  And although it is rather difficult to bond with a fragile alien that pretty much only eats, sleeps, and poops all day and night, he did find his own way to care for Zoe through doing little things like burping her, swaddling her, dancing with her, filing her fingernails, and snotting her little nose.  I think that filling in the gaps is what a lot of new dads end up doing first, and it may not seem like much, but it is huge.  The problem is that they are not given recognition for it much, if at all.

It can be very tricky, though.  I've always pictured us as a very resilient couple who could weather anything, and I have credited Wes for being such a great husband who effortlessly does it all"a natural."  Sometimes though, having this mindset can sabotage things, making the expectations unrealistically high.  When Wes went back to work after two weeks off, I never stopped to really think about how difficult it can be for a guy to be in his position.  With working from home, he can be present throughout the day, which is both a privilege and a pitfall.  It's been an adjustment for him, figuring out where to draw the line between successful breadwinner and dependable head of household, and realizing that the line is drawn in different places and times from day to day.  It was tricky because I tried not to bother him while he was working, but I still expected him to step in at a moment's notice and blamed him for being unresponsive when he couldn't.  When things didn't go well with the baby, he was an easy target for my frustrations.  "Well, if you would have been available..."  I'm embarrassed to admit that blaming him put me in control and made me feel better, but it only made him feel even more "dad guilt" than he already had.  We've learned so much about forgiving each other, asking for help, being flexible, and having less shame about it.  We're constantly being reminded that perfection and fairness in parenting and love does not exist, even if we try and work as hard as we can to achieve what modern society blindly puts on a pedestal.  Maybe I thought that we were a resilient couple because we equally divided our responsibilities on a day-to-day basis and constantly were out-contributing one another.  But now I know that resiliency comes from a natural ebb and flow of one person doing more during a certain season of life and the other stepping up during the next, understanding that it's not always going to feel balanced and equal, but staying humble and providing recognition to each other for every action big and small.

New dads are not given enough leeway and credit for what they do behind the scenes, mentally and physically.  They struggle to find their footing, and they are given very little mercy for it.  They are the the expected safety net and the unexpected punching bag.  The postpartum world often forgets that men are human too, with their own share of past trauma and their own self-inflicted pressures with the coming of a child.  I was not mindful about supporting Wes in the first few months, but I hope to be better, and I hope to normalize the fact that new dads could use a share of the encouragement and empathy that new moms customarily receive, too.  Thank you for all that you do, fathers!  Your grit, motivation, and love are felt every day.

No comments:

Post a Comment