Ineffable: a word that means an experience too great or astounding for words. How ironic is that? It’s literally a word to help describe the indescribable. And yet, it’s the only word that comes close to describing the feeling of becoming a dad.
At the time of writing this, my wife is 36 weeks pregnant with our first baby and I’m elated. Deciding to have children was never just another bucket-list item to me. It gave me a connection to something deeply meaningful and powerful. So, when I felt a tiny foot kick my hand from my wife’s belly, I was overjoyed. I couldn’t be more excited to meet this little person and hold him for the first time.
But the ineffable quality of emotion does not begin and end with joy alone. I’m terrified. With nearly a month left to go (did I mention 36 weeks yet?), I’m no closer to figuring out how to be a dad than I was at Week One. I’ve taken childbirth classes, postpartum classes, diaper-changing classes – even classes on breast-feeding. I asked questions at the OBGYN appointments, and I read educational materials on what to expect. Still, I have this sense that I’m totally unprepared.
The fear of having a baby is not unique to just me. Most new parents – both moms and dads – are rightfully nervous. We’re tasked with the unprecedented responsibility of caring for a whole human being. But, I often wonder if I’m behind the curve compared to my wife. I mean, I don’t even know the right way to hold a baby!
My wife, on the other hand, seems to have the whole parenting thing built in. After all, for nine months, she’s the baby’s sole life support and the vessel for his growth. I am not. Immediately after he is born, he will be placed skin-to-skin on my wife’s chest because her heartbeat is the most soothing to the newborn. Mine is not. For the first six to 12 months of his life, he’ll depend entirely on my wife for eating. Not me.
I want to clarify something important: I do not envy my wife’s experience. She will endure nine months of pregnancy, hours of unimaginable labor, postpartum recovery, sleepless nights of feeding, and much more. These difficulties are beyond my comprehension and I’m grateful to my wife for her strength and endurance.
But I do wonder if it brings her closer to the baby. Will she have a stronger bond because of what they went through together? Will he connect with me the way he connects with her? Will he recognize or know me? What if he doesn’t love me? And, most important, will someone please show me how to hold a baby?!
Intellectually, I know these thoughts are a bit ridiculous. But if you’ve ever tried rationalizing with fear and worry, you know it doesn’t work very well. That’s why it would be nice to connect with other dads about these worries. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for men to avoid emotional connection, especially with other men.
Dads sit on a lonely island of our own making. It’s no wonder, then, that nearly one in 10 men report developing depression during the time between the first trimester and one year postpartum. Paternal postpartum depression has only recently become a blip on the radar of health professionals. And that only includes dads who are willing to report their symptoms of depression. It’s not necessarily that we don’t experience anxiety, helplessness, and loneliness. We just don’t talk about it.
So, how should dads deal with all of this worry and loneliness? One way is to take the courageous step of talking openly about how you feel, especially to your partner and other dads. You might be surprised at the types of responses you get back.
Another way of dealing with worry and loneliness is to turn toward them. If we spend too much time trying to escape or avoid these feelings, we might forget what it means to be a loving, caring dad. Take a moment to reflect on what the fear and loneliness you’re feeling reveal about what kind of dad you want to be. For me, my fear of not knowing how to hold a baby means I want to do everything I can to protect my child. My worry about whether my son will love me enough means I plan to spend the rest of my life making sure he knows my love.
It turns out, anxiety and loneliness push us toward being caring fathers. In fact, it would be hard for us to be loving, supportive, and caring if we weren’t often worried about whether we’re doing “good enough.” Imagine if we were able to decrease or eliminate fear and worry. What would push you to bring your child to the doctor when they appear sick, or respond to your little one when they cry? What mechanism is there to safeguard them from potential dangers?
Becoming loving and caring dads means embracing the loneliness and anxiety. Inside these painful emotions is the rich foundation of warmth, availability, empathy, and unconditional love. If getting rid of these unpleasant feelings meant I had to give up those crucial parental qualities, I’d take more anxiety and loneliness.
So, as we venture toward first-time fatherhood , it’s important to remember that our anxiety and loneliness is not only normal, it’s adaptive. And the very emotions we try so hard to run from stem from the qualities of parenthood we strive for. If you’re willing to make room for the full range of ineffable emotions that accompany fatherhood, you might discover a range of equally ineffable experiences.
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The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zachary Isoma, PsyD is a clinical psychologist and co-owner of Harbor Psychology, serving the Greater Tampa Bay area. He specializes in practicing acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with men who struggle with anxiety and have difficulties expressing their thoughts and feelings. He is the founder of the Tampa Bay ACT peer consultation group and provides trainings, workshops, and seminars on ACT to students and professionals.