Toby Roberts, a long-time friend of the Peppy team, reflects on the ups and downs of his time as a primary carer struggling with postnatal depression.
A while ago, when my son Gabe turned one, I took time out to be the primary carer. The experience was harrowing and wonderful. I went from being a senior lawyer, with a busy professional and social life, to a stay-at-home dad.
Within a few months, joblessness, isolation and the strain of parenting took its toll on me, and I developed depression. But I also developed an unbreakable bond with my son. Here’s what I learned.
On the upside…
Watching the flower open
My favourite thing about being the primary carer was getting to watch a young mind open to the world. Each day brought new behaviours, new words or some new aspect of Gabe’s nature, which in turn triggered a fresh flood of emotion from me. It was as if my heart expanded along with his brain.
Gabe was a delight. Watching him absorb his new environment, squealing and tumbling around the house, reminded me of those seals that turn loops in the pool for the sheer joy of it. The rapid evolution of his vocab was thrilling. In no time it developed to the point where it could sustain a crude narrative (“Drink. Milk. Gone”). And it was fascinating to watch him process things like the dawning of a new day. He often frowned at the morning sky and said “night off”, with a small wave of his hand (usually reserved for the popping of a balloon). In this way he provided a constant jolt to revisit all the remarkable but ‘normal’ things to which we become deadened over time.
Strangers take you in
Having a child makes you more approachable. Girls wanted to play with Gabe, young mothers wanted to share tips, grandmothers wanted to cuddle, fathers wanted to compare, everyone wanted to smile at him, even dogs wanted to sniff him. These opportunities made me more confident to smile and engage with strangers after a while. As someone who had struggled to do that previously, it was a welcome change. Having Gabe in my life allowed me to reinvent myself as a more social animal.
Challenging gender roles is a good thing
My son had no concept of ‘boy choices’. He was just as happy in a plastic fireman’s helmet as he was in his mother’s high heels. He also took to calling me mum, which was funny but also quite revealing. A lot of men in my friendship circle are challenging traditional parenting roles. Some have taken time out to be primary carer, some are working part-time, and even those that have remained full time professionals are very involved in the lives of their children. This marks a significant departure from my father’s generation, who were largely absentee dads and often occupied an emotionally distant or even frightening position in the minds of their children.
I firmly believe this will produce a better generation of men. I expect Gabe will be as comfortable showing affection towards men as he will women, he will hopefully be less concerned about earning my approval because it’s something he has so often received, and he should see nothing strange in men performing nurturing jobs such as nursing and teaching.
And on the downside…
I’d like to say I’ve learned new and wonderful things about myself as a result of being a parent. Yes, I’ve become a more loving person, and marginally less self-absorbed. I’ve also discovered a deeper capacity for enduring discomfort than I would have guessed (though this feels no more heroic than the capacity for a weed to cling onto a brick wall long after it should have died). But the real lessons have mostly been on the downside.
The fear never goes away
I had no idea just how big a part fear would play in my life. I imagined Gabe dying in a thousand different ways – electrocution, choking, drowning, falling, poisoning, disease, or car accident. Each new skill he mastered brought a host of previously unconsidered dangers. I tried not to indulge the visions but they leaped up unbidden, and I know now from speaking to older parents that these visions never stop.
Childhood illness is constant
I suspect children are programmed to do unhygienic things as part of a drive to build up their immune systems. My son was obsessed with bins, the dirtier the better. He used to press his face to them affectionately. He also patted dogs and licked his hands to check the taste. But child care was the real motherlode of germs. I imagine if I could have shone a crime lab light on the central play room, the whole place would have glowed white from the thin patina of snot covering every surface.
Gabe’s health threw up a never ending series of challenges, like the fairground game of ‘whack a mole’. In one year alone, he caught at least 6 colds, one flu, and two brutal stomach bugs to go with his eczema and a dry persistent cough that was ultimately diagnosed as asthma. We slicked him up in moisturiser, dosed him on panadol, squirted nasanex up his nose, and strapped nebulisers to his head. He waddled about like a greasy medicated pig. I found each illness incredibly distressing, and couldn’t help forecasting the worst possible outcomes. Every unexplained bruise was surely Leukemia. Trying to pull myself out of these tailspins was even more stressful than managing his actual illnesses (most of which I caught too).
Forgetting who you are
Mothers often describe a kind of erosion of the self that can occur when you’re the primary carer – beyond surrendering certain dreams or putting some ambitions on hold, it can make you forget who you are. I can confirm this is a real. Parenting deprived me of the time and energy to maintain not only my health but also my music, writing, reading, sport, friendships – in fact everything that made me who I am.
A few months into the whirlwind of caring for Gabe, I ran into an old colleague who was shocked at my appearance. He noted in his patrician English drawl how much weight I’d lost – “Toby, you look quite diminished”. I’d been too absorbed with Gabe to notice the change. When I got home I pulled out the scales and found I was down 7kg. Even in rude good health I’ve always looked like I’m staging a hunger strike, so it was weight I couldn’t afford to lose.
The art of conversation is another casualty. When you’re sleep deprived and your only companion is a toddler, you will find yourself pointing out “Choo Choo Trains” to adults when you finally get the chance to speak to them.
Isolation is deadly
More than anything else, time away from friends and family was the killer. A number of things caused my connections with friends to fray. It was harder to arrange casual catch-ups, I was constantly tired on the few occasions when I did meet friends, and any interactions at home were always fractured because Gabe had an unerring instinct for sabotaging visits and telephone calls. After a time, friends with their own children and/or busy professional lives began to drift longer before replying to my texts or messages. And in my fragile state I attributed disproportionate significance to those delays. Unanswered calls took on the quality of a personal affront in the ‘isolation chamber’ of home.
Resentment is unfair
I know now that resentment towards your working partner is pretty common. I also know it gets you nowhere. But I don’t think either insight would have stopped me from behaving like a sulky brat at the time. Seeing my wife come home from a day working with grown-ups, where she was clearly valued and important, made me jealous. And I exorcised those feelings by behaving badly. Even at the time I felt ashamed of my behavior. I reminded myself that she wanted nothing more than to have time with Gabe, and I’d suggested the division of labour in the first place. But in some ways it was even harder to overcome the negative feelings, knowing there was no one else to blame.
I noticed a strange internal tension between feeling resentful towards Gabe for having removed so many fun things from my life and acknowledging that he was also the most powerful source of joy in my darkened existence. It was a version of Stockholm syndrome – I was in love with my captor.
Tormentor & Comforter
I had to discipline my son a lot, usually by placing him in the naughty corner. Sometimes he just took himself off to the corner before I could send him there. Other times he protested, cried and then needed a hug (despite still being angry at the injustice of it all). This made me realise that our relationships with our parents are so complex and bedeviling, in part because our tormentors are also our comforters.
Letting go is hard
When the time came for Gabe to go into child care, he howled at every drop-off. But he was able to shake it off in a few minutes, whereas I carried a hole in my chest for the rest of the day. In addition to worrying about him, I felt disturbed by the knowledge that he was now having whole days of experience that I could no longer see or influence.
Your child isn’t special
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your child is special. Naturally, your child is special to you but it’s a mistake to extrapolate that out to the world at large. Watching Gabe react with wonder to things of beauty, shower me with adoration when given a simple treat, retreat for comfort when frightened by the mildest things, all convinced me that he was remarkably sensitive and innately good. I now know most children are hardwired to react in these ways. I can only imagine how hard it must be for parents of children who grow up to commit unspeakable crimes after showing such early sweetness, trying to reconcile their memory of the child with the ugly truth.
Don’t expect grandparents to jump in
In some places and times, grandparents can be relied upon to do heavy lifting. But not here and not now. The grandparents have certainly come into their own now that my children are a bit older, but in the early phases, my wife and I were on our own. From speaking to my friends, this is a pretty common experience. There were infrequent catch ups from the grandparents, usually around times that suited them. It was hard to shake the feeling that we were expected to fit in around their busy social and travel schedules. I found myself wondering sullenly “At what age can you legitimately say Christmas is at my place this year, because I don’t want to travel with a baby?”
Being unemployed is scary
If you’re anything like me (ie neurotic and fearful), you will move quickly from thinking it’s fine to have time out from your career, to worrying that you might not get a role as good as your last one, to longing for any professional job, to convincing yourself that you will never work again. Not much of this downward spiral is rational, but downward spirals rarely are. I got a good job soon enough, and it wasn’t long before I wished I had more time with the kids.
Children’s stories are weird
Reading a lot of children’s story books and nursery rhymes has allowed me to consider their merits. There aren’t any. All the King’s horses couldn’t reconstruct a Humpty Dumpty because they don’t have opposable thumbs. It’s not clear how or why you make a weasel go pop. And the more I think about Santa, “You better watch out” is actually excellent advice – he is a creepy old dude with a beard who writes unsolicited letter to kids, spies on them and breaks into their house at midnight.
I also learnt things that can help. I hope this is useful to other parents.
Use the parent network
The NCT group or mothers/fathers group from hospital is very useful. It’s easy to be cynical about these groups, and they can sometimes be unhelpfully competitive (eg “My little Johnny never has any problems sleeping”), but they are an invaluable source of information. Beyond sharing tips on cots and carriers, they can be great for ‘level setting’. That is, it’s a relief to learn from other parents that their child is often disgusting and irritating too. These groups also evolve along with your children, so the topic of conversation shifts from ‘how to stop a toddler sticking his fork in the power point’ to ‘how to fake your way into a religious school’.
Get out of the bunker
Having a park nearby is a God send. Some days, by the time my wife came back from work, my emotional reserves were burned to ash. The last thing I felt like doing was exercise. But a walk or ride in the park always helped. Even when a handover was not possible, getting out the house was good for my son too. “Cabin fever” is particularly intense for hyperactive kids and they seem to breathe easier in the open air. Watching dogs crap in the park was one of my son’s favourite past times. And if you can possibly rejig your family arrangements once every 6 months to allow a weekend away with friends, it will restore your humanity.
Sort out your shit
If you have any unresolved issues from your childhood, they may well erupt under the pressure of parenting. In my case, a turbulent family home stained my perceptions of parenting, and I found myself essentially reliving those problems in the process of raising Gabe. The poet Philip Larkin warned “They f**k you up, your mum and dad” and we should therefore refrain from procreation. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Getting counselling was helpful, though I wish I’d done it in the lead up to fatherhood rather than wait until I was in real trouble. In retrospect, catching a flight back home one weekend and thinking it would be a good result if the plane ploughed into the ground, was probably a clue that things weren’t quite right.
Find the group that sustains you
We’re told that women are more willing to talk about their problems with friends and this is one of the protective factors that men are often missing. I’m happy to talk about my feelings, but only with a select group of people I trust. My wife, my sister, my mother and a core of old friends are all in that group. The real issue for me, and I imagine most other men, is trusting people enough to reveal vulnerability. I simply didn’t want most people knowing I was worried sick as a parent or struggling to cope. We think of young women as the worst culprits when it comes to presenting a misleadingly curated life, but I was just as guilty. Only in my case it was less about appearing glamorous and more about appearing capable and untroubled. My core support group gets the unvarnished truth.
Keep it simple
Looking after children is an unrelenting storm of worry, so the wise approach is to make everything else in your life as simple as possible. I got that badly wrong. A lot of other commitments in the first few years of Gabe’s life meant my wife and I were both swamped. I’m amazed we made it out alive, let alone married. I’ve seen many of my friends torch their marriages over the last few years, creating unnecessary stress beyond the core stress of raising children. And the divorce rate I’m seeing among my peers appears to be representative – statistics from family research bodies show couples have a spike in separation rates a few years after the birth of their children.
I’m often haunted by the things I’ve given up in raising Gabe. I know this is churlish and ignores the fact that he was conceived voluntarily but I still wonder what a life in music might have become, or if it’s too late to make the Olympic Bobsled team. Rather than see this as some inner calling that has been frustrated, lately I’ve been seeing this for what it really is – a tendency towards regret which would have found a way to second guess whatever path I’d chosen. I imagine if I’d sacrificed parenthood in pursuit of touring with a band, childlessness would be the great regret torturing me now. I am where I am.
Surrender control & perfection
I’ve had to lower my expectations for Gabe, recognising his limitations and mine. Survival into middle age without lithium or shock treatment now looks like a victory.
If my penchant for trying to control all the outcomes in his young life had been left unchecked, I would have worried myself into an early tomb. One of the hardest truths for me to absorb is the fact that Gabe will have some horrific experiences and maybe even a miserable life as an adult, but I have to separate his experiences from my own. Yes, it’s my job to prepare him as best I can, but to take on all his emotional states is a recipe for burnout, and trying to make him a Rhodes scholar will drive us both nuts.
This too shall pass
Hang in there. The ratio of fun to misery shifts in favour of fun as the kids get more independent. The say bigger kids just bring bigger problems but I find it hard to imagine a bigger problem than a child sticking a fork in a powerpoint. While I still struggle most days, it seems to be getting easier (and yes, I say that knowing how well hubris worked out for Icarus).