It is not exceptional for one of the parents to be better at this baby business than the other. Despite today’s fluid gender roles, it is normally the dad who goes back to work while the mum becomes the more confident and capable partner, not out of choice but necessity – being left alone all day, having to rely on your own wits and instincts, and doing the legwork of feeds, nappy changes and constant soothing, means you become better at it than the absent partner through familiarity alone.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. You both have different roles to play in bringing up your baby, two perspectives, two approaches, and this breadth of influence can only benefit the child. They know who to go to for comfort, who for play, who gives them food, who bathes them. The absent dad tends to do the fun stuff, but he’s also the disciplinarian; the present mum does the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day and has to say ‘no’ more often. It’s impossible to say which role is more important, provided you’re working together as a team with the best interests of your child at heart.
The trouble comes when the dad becomes the primary care giver even though the mum wants to be, but can’t because of problems outside her control. Like when she has autism, dyspraxia and postnatal depression.
I’ve touched on this issue before but it’s time to really flesh it out. When one partner struggles to cope with the crying, the sleeplessness, the changes to your routine, the practical aspects of childcare and the emotional toll of the responsibility, while the other seems to be doing fine, it can cause very real problems, particularly if the one struggling is the mother. It can damage the parents’ relationship, the mother’s mental health, the father’s resilience and the mother’s bond with the baby.
To be fair to Lizzie, it can’t be easy discovering you’re not all that good at the thing you’ve been looking forward to for years, or watching the person who was meant to be the secondary carer acting as both mother and father, and doing so with such apparent ease. She freely admits that it’s ten times harder than she thought it would be, so she sticks to the things she expected to be doing: dressing Izzie in pretty outfits, taking her to visit friends in the pushchair, having happy bathtimes. The day-to-day graft is predominantly on me.
At night, I take over sole care of Izzie from sometimes as early as half-eight right the way through to around eight in the morning. And as I’ve been putting in the effort as both mother and father, Izzie responds to me in ways that she doesn’t to Lizzie.
Friday night was a case in point. Lizzie took the baby to her dad’s. Izzie started crying, nay, screaming, and after twenty minutes of neither mother nor grandfather being able to stop it, they rang me in desperation. I went round and Izzie was instantly comforted. She just wanted her dad-mum. And it has driven Lizzie back several weeks.
She’s scared of Izzie, that much is clear. Scared of her screams, scared of her needs, scared of not being able to meet them. And of course, she resents me because I can, because the baby turns to me for comfort. So the better I get at being a dad, the more it upsets Lizzie and the worse her attitude towards me. She’s always angry at me for being what, at the moment, she is unable to be.
And it is putting a strain on our relationship. I know she doesn’t mean the things she says – that she no longer loves me, that she wants me gone, that she’ll get custody of the baby if it comes to it because she’s the mother and ‘the mother always does’ – because twenty minutes later she’s apologising and telling me she loves me, she needs me, and she can’t do it without me. But some of the things she says are so nasty, and they come so often, it becomes more difficult to simply shrug them off. I’m a ‘loser’ if I want a nap in the afternoon because I’ve been up since 4am; I’m ‘lazy’ if I don’t want to take the dog for a five mile walk with a 12-lb baby strapped to my chest; I’m a ‘teacher’s pet’ for answering the doctor’s questions while she sat in silence; and I’m ‘boring’ because I’d rather Izzie was in a sleepsuit to make it easier to check and change her rather than a dress-trouser-knickers-socks combo. We talk about helping mums cope with mood swings- we never talk about the effect this has on the dad.
This is the hidden side of postnatal depression. The dad is meant to shoulder it without complaint, bear the burden that the mother cannot, until she’s back on her feet. And I’m doing that. What I wasn’t prepared for was that every personal success for me knocks Lizzie’s confidence; every time I manage to sooth the baby when she can’t, she resents me more. And I don’t know the solution.
Have I made myself into a crutch that actually keeps her limping? Should I step back, force her to do more? Or would that make things worse if she’s truly not ready, or capable, of coping?
The problem with Lizzie is that she’s an expert at hiding her problems for fear of being seen as weak. It’s the reason she wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until her twenties. It’s the reason I wonder if she’s been honest with the doctor about how she’s feeling, or simply presenting the impression of someone that is coping. Of course, she wants to be seen as a good mother, and I don’t think for a moment it’s easy for any mother to admit they’re struggling because it goes against all our preconceived notions of motherhood – but until she faces it and accepts it, she can’t get better.
Luckily, the base of our relationship is very stable, and has been tempered in the fires of numerous crises. The surface might be full of holes at the moment, but the foundation is untouched. I love Lizzie to bits and it kills me that nothing I can do can make things better for her, and much of what I do to make things easier is actually resented.
So remember the next time you hear it mentioned that postnatal depression doesn’t only affect women – behind the scenes it puts added strain on the whole family. And if you see a dad out and about with his baby, please don’t congratulate him on ‘babysitting’ to give mum a rest – it may well be that he is the mum.