When The Struggle Is Real For Him, Too
by Jenny Radish
It hasn’t been easy writing this, because I’ve wanted to be sure that I make clear how loving and wonderful my husband is, while also disclosing the extent to which he struggled as a new dad. I realize the reason that I’m feeling this way is because few people talk about this topic — the focus is always on the mother — as it mostly should be, but dads go through a huge transition as well. And while it may be hard to believe by the end of my story, I still think my husband is a “catch”. My hope is that you might leave room for the fact that he is not a bad dad or husband — but a man who had some shit to figure out.
So I have to start with this story, first: When he met my dog for the first time, he said, “he’s precious.” I was smitten. And so was my finicky little rescue poodle. On our third date, he had me over for Valentine’s Day. He made me a vegetarian dinner and picked up organic dog treats for my dog.
My husband loves Christmas time, so he was really excited for our son’s due date on December 11th — thinking this might mean some kind of extended holiday for the two of us. Whenever he repeated how he couldn’t wait to have two weeks “off” right around the holidays, I would remind him that newborns are up all night. He didn’t hear me. As we all know, there is really no way to prepare anyone for the reality of a newborn.
My son’s birth was a medical trauma that took me quite a while to process. It involved a week of prodromal labor, dashed dreams of a water birth at our chosen birth center, and instead — an emergency cot ride into the cold New England air, followed by a day long labor at the hospital, and four and half hours of pushing. Our son was born one week before Christmas. He was immediately whisked to the special care nursery due to his oxygen saturation and meconium aspirations. My husband went with him while I recovered.
My son wasn’t in the special care nursery for very long, and within a few hours, he was brought back to me so that we could bond, and start our rocky nursing journey. My husband came back with the baby, and the nursery staff taught my husband how to be an expert swaddler. He became the Rockstar Dad while I recovered in the hospital; rocking, swaddling and calming our little guy when I simply couldn’t. He asked all the right questions, learned from the lactation consultant, how to help our son latch, and proudly showed off his new son to the constant parade of visitors that prevented us from actually bonding as a new family of three.
We came home to our cozy Christmas tree and sleepless nights. My husband was still kicking ass at this dad thing. He changed every diaper and dealt with that newborn belly button situation that still makes me queasy to even think about.
It was on Christmas Eve that things began to take a turn. We stayed in because there was no way that I was taking my brand new baby to our usual family gathering in the middle of flu season and a recent Ebola outbreak. My husband was depressed to be away from our usual family gathering at my grandmother’s house despite my efforts to make the evening fun, with take-out Chinese food and a movie night of “Love Actually”.
It was around this point that my husband started drinking. A lot. He began taking multiple nips every night. We had definitely enjoyed drinking beer or wine before I was pregnant, but this was a totally different level. When he was drinking, he had no patience with me, or the baby, and he was mean. He would snap at me and was overly critical of me, especially when it came to my “new mom” anxieties. He would also snap at the baby, and complain about the baby.
He went back to work, and the behavior continued. He’d send me messages from work about how he missed me and the baby, but how the baby’s crying triggered him. We’d have productive conversations about why the noise reminded him of his childhood, and what we could do to help him adjust. But then he would come home, drink, and ultimately snap at me or the baby.
I spent my days at home, alone, with our baby. It was the snowiest winter in our city’s history and the National Guard had to come to our city to help with the snow removal. I was literally trapped in the house with a new baby worrying about my husband and our marriage. I blamed myself for wanting a baby too soon into our marriage.
I stared at my son in his little Moses basket with linens sewn by my grandmother and wondered if we could put him up for adoption. Maybe we weren’t ready to be parents. I wondered if anyone had ever done that — put their baby up for adoption so late in the game, to save their marriage. I wondered what my family would think since this baby had been much anticipated. It haunts me to even remember that.
While my husband drank and raged, and my son cried and struggled to nurse, I was developing Postpartum Anxiety — and ignoring it because my husband was in crisis. Looking back, I am amazed at how strong I was, but I don’t know if it was strength or just an ability to push my own feelings down deep inside.
I booked us a night in a hotel in Boston in hopes that it would fix things. I remember calling my mother to see if she could babysit, and feeling more desperate than I ever had in my whole life. I had to fix this. I loved my husband. I had to make him happy again. I wanted “us” back.
When the Big Night Away came, my baby was only seven weeks old, and I was in no way ready to be away from him. (For perspective, my younger daughter is now just over two, and I have yet to spend the night away from her — but maybe that’s partly from the trauma of having left my firstborn when I wasn’t at all ready.) Our night was mostly fine, and we didn’t fight. My husband only got mildly angry when I spilled a bottle of breastmilk on his jacket. We had a drink at a bar, a nice dinner, and the sex that I was “cleared” for but certainly not ready for physically, or emotionally. I woke up the next morning engorged, and ready to get back to my babe.
Things at home stayed the same for another four weeks. The evenings were disharmonious to say the least, and during the day we would text, and he would tell me how being a father was bringing up so many things from his own childhood, and his father’s death. He would vow to be nicer to the baby.
I spent my days caring for the baby and fretting. I had everything that I had ever wanted but my life felt like it was falling apart. Before meeting my husband, I had walked away from a five year relationship because I knew it just wasn’t quite right. And my husband was what I had always called my “perfect person” — just right for me. I hadn’t married the first guy that had come around. I had been selective, and yet, somehow things had fallen apart. I was terrified.
Some weeks, when the snow wasn’t too bad, I was able to get out to the New Moms Group at our hospital. Everyone would go around and introduce themselves and their babies. I would think about asking: “Is anyone else’s husband really struggling?” But everyone else was asking about PACE feeding, and sleep training. When it was my turn to talk, I’d ask a less pressing question, because the possibility of no one responding to my real question was too scary.
I don’t remember what triggered it, and not that it even matters, but I think I asked him to do something or maybe to be quiet. But at some point in the middle of the night when my son was eleven weeks old, my husband called me a cunt. I was stunned. I told him to sleep on the couch, and I stayed up looking up divorce lawyers and custody laws.
He texted me from work the next day, kind of apologizing but also not fully understanding how far away he had crossed the line. After I explained how deeply betrayed I felt, something finally clicked. We texted back and forth that whole day. I was able to get out of the house and took the baby to the mall. I remember that I bought him little booties at the Gap and was constantly checking my phone for messages. He said he was sorry. He said he got it. He wanted to fix it.
He started being the man I had married again. He stopped drinking. He stopped snapping. And he bonded with our son who was starting to laugh and interact with the world.
I don’t know how he did it. Not many people can just stop those behaviors on their own, but he did. And his willpower and rededication to our relationship still amazes me.
I found an amazing therapist shortly after and worked through the trauma of my son’s birth, and the harrowing weeks that had followed. Eventually, we did a year of Emotionally Focused Therapy with her together. Maybe we should have done it sooner, but I think working on our communication once we had some distance from our attachment injury made the whole process more productive. We weren’t in crisis so we were able to safely look at our emotions and create a safer place for us to share our emotions with each other rather than just our reactions to our emotions. We talked about how scary our son’s birth had been for both of us. I learned more about his chaotic (and loud) childhood, and the trauma of his parents’ divorce, which helped me understand why he had been so triggered, at the beginning of our parenting journey.
My husband sent me a random text message one day, months later, and acknowledged how he had acted. Really acknowledged it. He was able to see his behavior in the context of what I must have been going through at the time as a struggling new mom also dealing with him. That is when I truly forgave him. Looking back now, I feel like we made it through such a challenging and heartbreaking situation and I am now confident that we are in this together, and that I have a true partner in life.