I first met Becky when she was, oh, about ten seconds old. The midwife turned to give me a brief glimpse of this brand new person. Seeing my daughter at that moment was like having a hundred years of happiness beamed through my eyes and into my brain. Even if I had been blind it would still have been love at first sight. It was both a life affirming and life changing experience.
I’m really not sure what other fathers think about the birth of their children. We talk about what happened: “were you there at the birth?” and “did you try any of the gas and air” (yes I did – who wouldn’t!?) But not often about how the experience made us feel. Of course, a new dad’s first experiences with their child may not be positive. Many suffer from anxiety. Some have postnatal depression. Some even have post traumatic stress disorder. Growing up, we hear phrases like “big boys don’t cry” and “you’ve got to man up”. In other words: hide your emotions. If this has been hardwired into you then it’s no wonder that men struggle with their mental health when they become fathers.
We joined the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and went to their weekly events. At one meeting the men were asked to go into a separate room to share our (gulp!) feelings about becoming a father. We reluctantly shuffled off into the adjacent room where twenty seconds of embarrassing silence was broken by someone asking “did anyone see Alan Shearer’s goal last night?”. Hallelujah! We spent the next thirty minutes bonding over football. Newcastle United: 1 Father’s Feelings: 0. Not a great result but the ice was broken.
Over the course of the next few months that NCT class provided a ready made network of people going through the same experiences. We fathers-to-be formed a tight knit community of like minded brothers and began little by little to have conversations about more than just sport. Some of these were even about how we felt! As a result, I formed many strong and lasting friendships and I was better prepared for being a dad.
I now see a father has a demanding job description and the pressure for some dads to meet these expectations may be too much. Me? I think I did OK. At times, I do wonder how though: no one was teaching us. We needed a licence to own a television, but we could take our newborn baby home by just walking out the door and paying the hospital car park ticket.
Things weren’t always so good for me as a father. My partner and I separated when our daughter was two. Becky stayed with me frequently but I missed her terribly when I wasn’t seeing her. My mental health suffered and I felt guilty for letting everyone down, especially my daughter. I felt I wasn’t meeting all the duties in the father’s job description. How could I protect her if I wasn’t with her? Being separated from your child is hard, it’s normal to go through various emotional states. I went through a period of denying how much I was hurting inside and never spoke about it.
At some stages the guilt overpowered me. Hell, I even felt guilty for feeling guilty! I closed in on myself. My physical and mental health deteriorated. For a while I didn’t sleep well, eat well or look after myself. Despite all this, Becky and I had great times together and I got on with life.
We know that not all fathers can cope with the experience. They need understanding, support, and a hug even. A friend used to fly up to see her father every few months. He was a proud man, living on his own. The hug he received from her when she arrived was literally the only physical human contact he ever had. He never said so, but he needed it. She sometimes flew up just to give him that hug.
As a single parent, I came to accept the situation and even see the benefits. I began to realise that when Becky and I were together we were nearly always having a great time. I also saw that my daughter was more resilient than I first assumed.
And now Becky is forging her own life and there’s not a day that passes when I don’t think of her. We have a really strong relationship and I still strive to keep up with the things that a dad should be doing. But I no longer carry around those guilty feelings I had. Occasionally, when I think back over my time as a father, I realise those beams of happiness are still bouncing around my brain.