Midlife crisis or male postnatal depression?

Dear readers, I have something to admit: I am completely, utterly and irreparably miserable.

How miserable? I don’t remember the last time I felt at peace. There are too many hours between waking up and going to bed, hours where I swing from sadness to annoyance, from cynicism to hopelessness. Getting through each day is a real struggle. I have no energy, my brain won’t focus, and I can’t seem to motivate myself to do anything other than eat and sleep.

Which is pretty rubbish when you’re married with two kids.

I’ve felt this way – not waving but drowning, to quote my favourite poem – since a couple of months after my second daughter was born, so around a year-and-a-half now. True, looking after two children is exponentially more difficult than one, but instead of gradually getting used to it, my low mood has been getting worse over this period until I’m now in a very bleak place indeed.

It’s taking its toll on my life and relationships. I’m the fattest I’ve ever been, have lost interest in all my hobbies, and get snappy at everyone I know. As a result, my marriage is failing, I don’t have any friends, and even my eldest daughter, not yet four, has started asking if I’m okay because she knows, intuitively, that there’s something wrong with daddy.

I don’t want to go to the park; I don’t want to have fun and games; I just want to sit on the sofa, drink my coffee, and get to the end of the day without either breaking down in tears or shouting at someone. Battling endless irritation, despair and emptiness, with no light to alleviate the darkness, leaves you feeling like a terrible dad, terrible husband and terrible person, because you pretty much are just terrible all round.

My wife thinks my antidepressants have stopped working. I thought the same around ten years ago, so went to a psychiatrist, only to be told that of course I’m miserable – I’m intelligent enough to know all the things I’m missing out on thanks to my problems; feeling miserable is the normal reaction for a person like me, so get used to it, because you’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Inspirational. Should work for the Samaritans.

I’m bored, irritated, unfulfilled. I’m sick and tired, fed up, run down and worn out. Smiling fake smiles as I build yet another Lego tower, making out that I enjoy pushing a swing for the ten-thousandth time, pretending watching Peppa Pig isn’t eating my self-esteem and devouring my very soul.

I escape from the struggles of the present by dwelling on the past and dreaming of a different future. All I can think is: I hate this. I want to be more than this. I want to be something. I want to make a difference. I can’t live like this any longer.

I’ve lost my identity, my path, my sense of purpose. I’ve been reduced to a nanny. I know, parenting is meant to be the hardest, most important and ultimately rewarding and fulfilling job going, but let’s get real – nobody got knighted for being a dad. There are no awards for parenting, the prospects stink, you’re on call 24/7, you don’t even get a lunch break and you can forget all about remuneration. While it might be enough for some, it simply makes me feel like a massive loser and a giant failure.

I feel like the train passed me by a long time ago. I missed the parade. I had a chance to triumph, twenty years ago, but I walked the other way, and now I’m fat, and bald, and lost.

To put things in perspective, I used to be a big shot. At school I was hot shit. The best student of English they’d ever had, I was going to change the world and make it my bitch. London, Paris, New York – the sky was the limit. Everyone thought I was going to ascend to the stratosphere. Dean at Oxford, celebrity author, This Is Your Life. Should I be a barrister, astronaut, brain surgeon? I could have done anything I put my mind to.

Life worked out differently. I had the smarts, but I lacked understanding – common sense, intuition, the ability to relate to others. The depression, anxiety and mental illness didn’t help either, or the self-harm, the suicidal ideation.

At my quarter-life crisis I started training to be a nurse because I wanted to help people; switched to medicine when my ego caught up with my philanthropy; had a breakdown at 27 while halfway through the application process to join the police. Was diagnosed with autism at 28. Couldn’t function till I was 30.

Reassessing my life, I decided to become an academic. My teachers always told me I would be miserable anywhere in life outside of academia, and they were right. ‘You have a gift you need to share with the world,’ they said. So I got a Degree in History and then a Masters, intending to go on and get my PhD and bury myself in an abstract world of facts and figures, where my ability to talk at people instead of with them would be a help instead of a hindrance. My tutors thoroughly encouraged me in this; they told me I was made for it.

But instead, four years ago I became a full-time dad. It’s a sacrifice, I know that, but I feel like I’ve sacrificed so much there’s nothing left for me. The people who used to copy off me at school, the kids I used to babysit, they’re bankers now, lawyers, stock brokers, hedge-fund managers. The kid who was one day going to eclipse them all spends his days changing nappies, unblocking toilets, playing peekaboo and dying inside.

I wish just being a parent fulfilled me, but it doesn’t. I want a career. I want to make a difference. I want to be somebody, but I’m almost forty, haven’t properly worked for ten years, and have a history of depression, self-harm and nervous breakdowns, not to mention autism, crap Theory of Mind, and problems relating to people. I’m too old to join the navy; too unstable to become a paramedic; too autistic to join the police. I’ve considered nursing or teaching, but £9000 a year tuition fees are out of my reach, and I certainly can’t afford the time or money to continue my studies.

I’m bursting with desires. I want to spend my life in museums, art galleries, theatres; I want to go to poetry readings, jazz cafes, film festivals; lectures, seminars, performance, dance; I want to see dinosaurs and spaceships, architectural wonders and technological genius; I want to discuss politics with strangers, debate literature with friends, argue semantics in crowded halls; walk the same streets as the greats of history, the greats of now. In short, I want all the things a city can provide, but I live in a little village in the arse-end of nowhere, as far from the throbbing pulse as you can get, with a wife and kids and no job or capital to finance a move I know that they wouldn’t be willing to make.

I can understand now why people walk out on their families. I’ve always thought a guy who leaves his wife and kids for a bit of excitement is a scumbag, but for the first time I can see the appeal. When the choice is being miserable or taking a chance on happiness, can you really begrudge someone who makes that leap? How much easier, I keep thinking, how much easier just to pack my bags and disappear? At times I feel desperate.

But it’s no solution. The number of men who reach this age and start to feel old so buy a sports car or a motorbike and trade in the wife for a younger model – it always seems they gain a month of joy and a lifetime of pain, because there’s no going back. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.

And I know that the grass is always greener, too. If I left, I would bring myself with me, and my misery would come too. Because it’s not really my family stopping me from being happy or preventing me from fulfilling my destiny: it’s me. I am responsible for my failure to thrive. I am responsible for the decisions I made. The depression, the autism, the breakdowns, they didn’t make things any easier, but ultimately, where I am in life, or am not, is down to me.

But I’m miserable, and I don’t know how to fix it. Midlife crisis or male postnatal depression? Maybe it’s just the realisation that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, and if I’m not careful I’m going to choke on it.

Parents as Partners

Nope, this isn’t a post about Appalachian sexual practices. If that’s what you were looking for, then I’m sorry – for so many reasons.

For everyone else, it’s about attempting to balance the twin roles of parent and partner.

I’ve said before that the person who is everything you want in a partner can simultaneously be frustrating as hell to co-parent a child with. No matter how well you think you know someone, you can’t ever be sure what kind of a parent they’ll make until that kid pops out, and nor do you know how having kids will affect the dynamic between the two of you. You just have to have faith that whatever comes up, you’ll deal with it and get through it together, because that’s the commitment you made.

What I am discovering, as a father of a two-year-old and a seven-week-old, is that the gulf between words and reality is filled with sharp sticks and broken dreams – and a hefty dose of disillusionment.

You see, when you’re a couple, how one of you behaves as a parent inevitably affects how the other behaves. In an ideal world, each individual parent will have a mix of playfulness and responsibility, to differing levels, and you’ll share the load as best you can.

Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world.

In my household, my wife has abrogated all responsibility and so is situated right down the playful, irreverent, impulsive end of the parenting scale, alongside the fun uncle and your friend’s older brother who lets you drink beer. Trouble is, the only way to balance things is for me to go ever further towards the responsible, controlled side – I’m sitting with the school librarian and the ticket collector who won’t let you stand on the seats of the bus.

And I hate that.

While my wife dodges the surf with my toddler on a cold October day, I fret about the fact that they’re both now soaked up to the knees, the shoes will have to go in the washing machine to clean away the salt, and they’re going to freeze on the way home – not to mention we’re going to get sand in the car. While they carve their Halloween pumpkins, I hover around them on knife patrol, groaning as every drop of pumpkin juice splashes down onto the carpet, and trying to catch the seeds before the dog eats them. And while my wife is happy to say yes to just about anything, I’m the one who has to say no, and then deal with the nuclear fallout.

The trouble is, not only do your differing parental styles annoy the crap out of each other, they change how you see one another as partners as well. I’ve started seeing my wife as irresponsible instead of playful, argumentative instead of passionate, stubborn instead of determined and inconsiderate instead of simply absent-minded. For her part, she now sees me as boring, controlling, uptight and dogmatic instead of reliable, sensible, safety-conscious, and by-the-book. It’s all in how you define it.

Of course, matters aren’t helped by lack of sleep (mine), the spectre of postnatal depression (hers) and physical exhaustion (both of us). And to be fair, she has gone a long way down Nuts Street lately, with her moods up and down like a yo-yo, her OCD out of control, and the language she uses enough to make a sailor blush. So she blames her unreasonableness on hormones, I blame my irritability on tiredness, and neither of us really gets to be accountable for our behaviour, even though we’re driving one another up the walls and out the door quicker than a gas leak. I don’t remember the last time our wires were so completely crossed.

Actually, I do. It was a month or so after our first baby. Hmm, I’m spotting a pattern here.

On that occasion, things got better after I asked myself what it was I was doing that was unhelpful to the situation, and it turned out that I was being controlling and dogmatic, though for the right reasons – I was trying to help.

In similar fashion, I think I have located the root of our problems here, but they’ll be far more difficult to solve – it’s not what I am doing, but what I am not doing.

It was a throwaway comment in an argument that contained a thousand other throwaway comments, most of them spurious, many of them said simply to hurt me. It was that I’ve replaced her with the children, and on reflection, it’s a charge that I cannot deny. I have, over the past seven weeks, largely forgotten about my wife.

Well, that’s not true. As an autist – or maybe simply as a male – I thought that the fact I do all the nights and let her sleep, make most of the meals, sort out the dog, cat, chickens and fish, take the toddler to nursery and swimming and ballet, and do the lion’s share of the baby care so my wife doesn’t have to, showed the level of my respect and my regard for her. But it doesn’t.

I’ve been doing my damnedest since the baby arrived to make sure my toddler doesn’t feel left out, so what my wife sees is a man hugging his kids, telling them stories, making sure they’re okay, and then falling exhausted into bed – basically, giving them all the affection and attention he used to give her. And she feels left out, and resentful, and self-pitying. So she snaps at me, which makes me cross as I think, ‘Why isn’t she appreciating me?’ And then we argue, and the cycle repeats.

The solution? I have to show affection to my wife. I have to make time to give her hugs and cuddles, and tell her she’s special, and make sure she’s okay. Basically, I have to make her feel special.

Which is tough when I’m so busy and tired, and is tougher still when she says such awful things to me that I’d rather clip her round the ear than whisper sweet nothings into it. It’s like cuddling a rabid pitbull that hates you.

But it’s something I’m going to have to do. These are the sacrifices you have to make when you’re a parent as well as a partner.

The Hidden Side of Postnatal Depression

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.

Colic, Part 2

Colic is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with, and if I was twenty and not the thirty-five that I now am, I’m not sure I’d have the tools to cope with it. Although ‘coping’ is a relative term: as I said in my last post, all you can do is survive.

When you’re not experiencing it, colic is a very easy thing to dismiss. ‘It’s nothing to worry about, just a bit of colic,’ is what you hear from health professionals, while people whose kids are grown and gone reassure you that it passes, so don’t let it colour your perceptions of parenting.

Nobody should ever use the word ‘just’ alongside ‘colic’. It’s like saying falling down a flight of stairs is ‘just a little tumble’. And the fact that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel is no practical help when you’re standing at the coal face in the dark. This might sound melodramatic, and if I weren’t the one going through it, I might roll my eyes and say, ‘Oh get on with it, nobody ever said it’d be easy.’ But the unlikely truth is that an eleven pound baby that can’t verbalise, move, or consciously plan her behaviour can dish out punishment like a professional.

A colicky baby doesn’t cry. Crying is dainty, purposeful and reasonable. A colicky baby screams an angry, pain-filled shriek of accusation and exasperation. The volume, tone and pitch seem perfectly calculated to inflict pain, set your teeth on edge, and rattle your nerves. And the duration – hour after hour after hour – saps your strength and your ability to think clearly. You can’t eat, talk, go to the toilet, read, watch TV, listen to music, or in any way relax because you’re subjected to a continuous assault on the senses.

And assault is what it is. While Asperger’s Syndrome is often portrayed as a social condition, many of us are afflicted with sensory issues from extreme sensitivity to surprising insensitivity. Lizzie has no sense of smell, very little sense of taste, and while she is oversensitive to touch, she has an incredibly high tolerance of pain. But like me, she has hypersensitive hearing, able to hear whispered conversations from several rooms away. This means that when Izzie screams, it causes us physical pain and a rush of adrenalin that befuddles us even further.

Worse are the emotions it stirs up. People liken those of us with Asperger’s to Mr. Spock from Star Trek – logical, unemotional beings who live in our heads, not our hearts – and they’re right, but not in the way that they think. Because the Vulcans are not unemotional creatures, but are in fact so emotional that they’ve had to come up with a way to control and overcome their passions. I think that far from being unemotional, people with AS feel emotions too much, and so force them down and try to operate at the level of intellect. This means we don’t understand our emotions, don’t know how to control then, so do our best to keep them at bay.

Colic unlocks them.

Lizzie can cope with a crying baby for around three minutes before it becomes too much. She feels overwhelmed, afraid, guilty; she gets upset. Why is Izzie crying? Why can’t I stop it? I’m a bad mother; I can’t deal with this; I’m not good enough. Lizzie’s heart pounds, her body goes into defence mode, and she hands the baby back to me and leaves the room. It damages her ability to bond with the baby and her involvement in Izzie’s care. I catch her crying when she’s by herself. It means we’re floating around a diagnosis of something with the initials PND.

This isn’t exclusive to parents with Asperger’s, of course. Colic is well known to heighten stress and cause anxiety, postnatal depression, self-esteem issues and relationship difficulties. You feel helpless. You feel frustrated by your inability to do anything to help. But you know it’s not the baby’s fault, so you take it out on each other.

As a couple, during a bout of colic you communicate by shouted niggles and pointed digs, because you’re both stressed and tired and you can’t hear one another or have anything like a reasonable conversation. You start to think about how unfair it is that the other person is eating dinner while yours is getting cold, or that they’re having a nice relaxing bath while you’re gritting your teeth against a tornado. It’s no wonder it puts such a strain on relationships. By the time it’s finished, it’s so late that you collapse into bed and the last thing you want to be is an attentive partner. Cuddle? I just want to be left alone.

Given Lizzie can only cope for around three minutes, when Izzie cries for a solid eight hours, I bear the brunt for seven hours and fifty-seven consecutive minutes. Her screams make such an impact on my mind that I even hear phantom baby cries when she’s fast asleep. It’s lonely trying to console a colicky baby, a nightmarish fight for survival that breaks your heart in two.

But survive I must and survive I do, even if I despair sometimes, even if I’m driven to tears, because I’m a dad, and that’s what dads do. The true measure of a person is not how they cope when everything’s going well, but what they do when it’s all falling apart. I knew going in that I’d have to walk through hell for my daughter, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

One day it’ll be over and I can wear my scars with pride. Until then, I just have to keep fighting, and remember what it is I’m fighting for.

Yogi Bear

This. Always this.