There’s an old saying that my Dad likes to trot out on occasion.
“Opinions are like arseholes. Everyone’s got one.”
Never has this more true than when it comes to parenting advice for new parents. It’s everywhere. Advice for mums. Advice for dads. Advice from family. Advice from colleagues. Advice from books and journals. Advice from complete f*cking strangers that don’t even have any children of their own. Some of it is useful. Most of it is not.
Despite the plethora of opinions and advice thrown my way as I eagerly anticipated becoming a dad for the first time, there was some really bloody important shit out there that all of the “experts” completely forgot to mention.
The “Shit I Wish They’d Told Me” trilogy is a three-part series of posts for new dads, filled with real truths that you will struggle to find in any parenting books. Truths that are based on my own experiences as I embarked on my own dadding journey.
Part 3 – Dad Grief
There is a growing awareness recently that dads are also prone to a form of post-natal depression in the aftermath of baby’s arrival. It’s a very real, and very serious predicament. At the time when men need to be at their strongest for the sake of their family, some of them are hurting and crumbling on the inside. Because of the expectation that men need to be the strong ones during this period, it makes it even harder for blokes who aren’t coping to speak out.
It’s taken me many years, as well as the writing of this piece for me to fully realise that I exhibited some classic symptoms of depression through this period. Feelings of inadequacy and helplessness. Resentment towards the little baby with the conehead and the mangled ears. Extreme tiredness. At times, almost overwhelming sadness. I felt all of these things, as I’m sure many new dads do. And like so many men in similar situations, I suffered in silence.
I now know that I went through a grieving process when the baby arrived. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that’s what it was. Grief. Mourning for the awesome pre-baby life I once had, and coming to terms with the fact that I’d probably never fully regain it.
I was a keen cyclist. A commuter and a weekend warrior. And not just for the excuse to sit in cafes in my sweaty lycra, with carbon fibre bike and shaved legs proudly on display. I was (and still am) an average athlete. I wasn’t going to win any races, but I loved the physical and mental challenge of cycling – whether it was conquering a particular hill climb, outsprinting your mates to the coffee shop, or sometimes just making it home in one piece without getting run down by an impatient tradie in his 4×4.
The other part that I loved was the camaraderie. I used to try and ride with other blokes whenever possible. I had a great group of mates that I used to head off into the hills with every weekend, all lycra-d up, mounted on our trusty carbon steeds, shaved legs glistening and tail lights blinking in the early morning sunrise. While most of the time our conversations took the form of good old fashioned banter / sledging, these long and often painful training sessions were also a place for us to talk about things that could never be discussed face to face. Things that sometimes involved feelings and stuff. Man Therapy in its purest form. Those guys weren’t just my cycling buddies. They were my support network. My squad. My wolf pack.
When my son was born, the riding stopped. Abruptly, and without ceremony. They just ended. One weekend I was there, the next I was gone. Cold turkey.
For a long time I mourned the loss of those long rides real bad. I suffered from #FOMO to the point that I allowed myself to become disconnected from my buddies, purely so that I didn’t have to hear about the latest epic hill ride that they’d been on without me. I felt like I would never reclaim those glory days again, and that hurt.
To be clear, my abstinence from cycling wasn’t because it was demanded of me. I didn’t have Mrs D-E-D insisting that I stay home rather than carry on business as usual. I didn’t have her barring the door in her dressing gown with baby on her hip, as I tried to sneakily wheel my bike out the door at 6am. It just seemed to be the right thing to do in the circumstances, and my conscience wouldn’t allow me to do otherwise.
In the meantime Mrs D-E-D was doing it so much tougher. Her own mental state wasn’t the best, and with good reason. She had sacrificed so much more than I had in every aspect. Not just her weekend exercise routine, but also her career, her body, her sleep. In fact, pretty much everything. Rather than appease my feelings, this knowledge made it worse. How dare I feel sad for the things I was missing out on when she was missing out on so much more? I felt like a selfish arsehole for even thinking about how miserable I was feeling, and this just made me feel more miserable. I now know that my wife’s struggles did not make my own any less valid, although I felt at the time that it would’ve been petty of me to have spoken up. So I didn’t.
As time went by I did go back to cycling – albeit in a condensed manner. But it was never the same. My conscience always ruined it for me and I always felt like I should be at home with my family, instead of strutting around in my lycra.
As well as skinny arms, weird tan lines and chafed balls, those long bike rides can give you amazing moments of clarity. It was in one of these moments that it occurred to me. It was no longer just a sense of duty that made me want to throw in the riding and stay at home instead. It was a sense of preference. I actually preferred to stay at home with my family rather than be out dodging traffic with my buddies. On that very same ride, I had a near miss with a 4×4 at a roundabout. Nothing that hadn’t happened a hundred times before, but dangerous nonetheless, and this time it rattled me to the core. I had a family to think about now, and I was damned if my son was going to grow up without his daddy because of a stupid cycling accident. These two separate moments were just what I needed to shake off the last of the grief. I rode home that day, hung my bike up in the garage, and barely touched it again for the next 4 years.
As the old saying goes, ‘when one door closes another one opens.’ In my case, that door was Crossfit. In my new role as a time-poor dad who was desperately keen to continue to avoid the dreaded dadbod, I was looking for some more compact and intense activity to replace the cycling. I stumbled across the cult of Crossfit and within weeks I was a true believer. I didn’t just sip the coolade, I dunked my head in the barrel and inhaled the entire lot. Years later, and I’ve never been fitter or healthier. My arms have filled out, my tan lines are more conventional, and I’ve met some truly amazing humans who’ve become my new wolf pack. And all thanks to the arrival of that little conehead.
Looking back, I wish someone had told me that it is perfectly normal and ok to grieve for the life that I used to have. I wish someone had told me that just because my partner has given up so much more than me does not make my own feelings any less valid or real. I wish someone had told me that while I would never fully reclaim the life that I was mourning, far greater rewards in fitness, family and life in general were waiting for me just around the corner.
Now this is some shit that I wish they’d told me…..
Postscript – Men’s mental health is serious business. If you, or someone you know is suffering, then there’s some great help and resources available. This article explains PND for dads in more detail and includes some useful resources / contacts for those that need help. Otherwise, Beyond Blue is an excellent service for advice and information associated with men’s mental health. Remember, real men speak up when they’re struggling. Bottling it up is not manly or cool mmmkay?