Three years ago, around about now, I was on the cusp of something. My wife was heavily pregnant with our first child, we were filled with excitement and anticipation and I was about to get the chance to do something I was sure I’d be ace at. I’d always been good at meeting new people. In this case I got to do so with a clean slate, convincing someone that I was well worth their lifelong respect and adoration.
What I didn’t realise was that the thing I was on the cusp of wasn’t fatherhood. It was a crisis in my mental health.
Rather than step straight into super-dad mode, the birth of our daughter plunged me into a pit of despair. Of not-good-enoughness. Of what-the-f*ck-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this-itis. Like a helpless voyeur in the car crash of my life, I stumbled from baby to wife to oven to fridge to washing basket to shop whilst biting back the tears. My poor wife, recovering from a birth that (to put it mildly) wasn’t really what we’d been expecting, found herself the Captain of the Good Ship Shit Together and the only person keeping it afloat.
My experience wasn’t unique, I later learned. According to research from NCT, more than 1 in 3 new fathers (38%) are concerned about their mental health. In my case I was lucky enough to have an amazingly strong wife and a good friend who listened and shared some sound advice from his own experience of fatherhood that got me on track. But I’ve never forgotten that feeling of despair and panic. It’s threatened to rear its head at times in the last three years, especially when illness, bereavement, estrangement or work worries have tag-teamed with it to test me. But I’d like to think I’m doing alright. My daughter seems to think I’m okay, which I’ve realised is a good enough start point, my wife has only called me the ‘c’ word a few times – with admitted justification – and our little family unit has, along with some priceless family and friends, established itself pretty nicely.
But that’s all about to change, with the arrival of baby number two in January. Another girl.
In the time it’s taken us to get round to filling another car seat a lot of our friends and family have blazed the way by adding to their brood. We’ve seen the good and the bad, mainly the good, and feel like we’ve got a decent enough idea of what’s in store. We’ve reminisced about the newborn days – well, Ruth has, I’ve repeatedly proved myself incapable of remembering any of it. We’ve done all the things you should be doing to prepare the first-born for a contender in the battle for Mama and Dada’s affections. We’ve brought everything down from the loft, argued about how likely it is that we’re going to recycle any of it (note to self – revisit this topic with proof in two years for the mother of all I-told-you-so’s) and put it all back up there ready for January. We’ve made improvements around the house, with more to come. We’ve told ourselves on repeated occasions that we’ve got this.
And I’m fairly sure we have.
But I can’t get away from wondering. What if I haven’t? There’s more at stake this time. Three people are going to be relying on me. I could balls up all the good work I’ve done over the past three years. I know that Ruth is worried about me, with good reason. You’re only as good as your last postnatal performance.
This time, though, I’m armed with the realisation that I’m not the perfect dad. And I won’t ever be. Sure, I’ll be trying my absolute best every day as I have done for the past three years. But I’m going to give myself a break. I have the basics covered. And for times when things seem tough I’ll remind myself what Florence & The Machine said: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Have you suffered from anxiety as a dad? How do you deal with it?