The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Post-Personhood Parenting

Joel Schwartzberg is going to get letters. That was my first thought when I read his “My Turn” column in the latest Newsweek about the depression he experienced after becoming a dad for the first time. He’s already getting comments online.

Like the comments, I expect the overwhelming majority of them will excoriate him, and a tiny majority will express sympathy and even thank him. And for the same reason that the majority will have their flame-throwers at the ready. Schwartzberg violated some cardinal rules of parenting.

Well, to start with, he admitted experiencing something other than unqualified joy during every minute of his new fatherhood, even on those nights he drove his infant son around in the car to get him to sleep (and give his wife a break).

Driving, even with a (finally) sleeping child in the car, gives you time and space to think. And — if you’re a parent — to think thoughts you’re not supposed to have, even while sitting in your car snarfing donuts long after the kid has gone to sleep.

In the parking lot, I would pray my son would stay asleep and not set my already-frayed nerves on fire. I’d cram those doughnuts into my mouth as if they were the last delicious things on earth.

These were the tiny, fleeting pleasures I clung to after my son was born. They felt like all I had left. When a child was added to my life, it was as if something enormous and coveted was subtracted in return, and the transaction left me reeling, like someone who’d just gambled away his soul.

I fell into a well of depression so deep I wasn’t even aware of it. It was only years later, after I spoke to a psychotherapist, that I learned I was experiencing male postpartum depression. It seems ridiculous on its face: men don’t do the hard work of carrying a pregnancy for nine months. We don’t have to bear the pains of labor. We never had an umbilical connection to our children. We just have to hang on tight. But giving my emotions a name, and an explanation, helped me feel less alone and better able to cut myself some slack. Before then, even calling it depression felt like an excuse for weak, pathetic behavior.

Weak? Pathetic? Well, that probably depends on whom you ask. It’s clearly human behavior, but (like I said before) we live in a culture with a surprising degree of intolerance for the condition of being human.

Calling it “male postpartum depression” is unfortunate, because it’s automatically set up for the kind of responses Schwartzberg got. People will tend to roll their eyes and dismiss it with a wave of the hand and (most likely) an insult or two.

(There’s a certain irony in comments that accuse Schwartzberg of being “Me Oriented.” Because our current empathically impaired culture — which celebrates and makes a virtue of the inability and/or refusal to “feel concern and understanding for another’s situation or feelings” — is a direct extension of the “Me Generation” or the “Me Era.” The inability or unwillingness to empathize with another’s situation or feelings, after all, means the focus stays on us, especially a time when everyone is “an island,” completely contained and with no connection to anyone else. If what happens to you has nothing to do with me and doesn’t affect me, I not only don’t have to feel your pain, I can be entertained by it if I’m watching you get humiliated and voted off the reality show of the moment. And I can blame and even attack you for it if you’ve lost your home to foreclosure, been shot by the latest school shooter, or stranded in the aftermath of a hurricane. Your pain, then, is evidence that you don’t deserve empathy, mine or anyone else’s.)

The depression Schwartzberg felt is a reality, and it’s all about loss and change.

All change — even happy changes like falling in love, getting married, the birth of a child, or winning the lottery — comes with loss, even if it’s just loss of your previous life.

Unfortunately, none of this is anything anyone wants to hear from a parent, because once you’re a parent you kind of cease to be a person, in the sense that you’re not supposed to:

  1. have so much as a thought for yourself,
  2. want anything for yourself (beyond food, clothing, and shelter)
  3. have needs of your own (beyond food, clothing, shelter)

And along with above, you’re certainly not supposed to have regrets or misgivings. And if you do, you’re supposed to keep them to yourself, or face the flame-throwers.

But what Schwartzberg expressed wasn’t anything that a great many parents haven’t felt at some time or another. Not because they don’t love their children, and not because they regret having children, but because they were human beings before they became parents, and (believe it or not) remain frighteningly human after becoming parents.

And human beings make decisions without always knowing the full impact or extent of the consequences. Sometimes, we wish we’d known beforehand. Not that we’d have decided differently. (Because, whatever our current emotional state, we love our children and wouldn’t trade them for anything.) But at least we’d have known what to expect. Sometimes we don’t realize any of this until afterwards, and sometimes we need to talk about it.

I learned, or knew instinctively, never to talk about some things to people who aren’t parents, because I’d get responses like the ones Schartzberg got. I joke with my co-workers that — as the parent of a six-year-old and a toddler — I come to work for peace and quiet, to be able to sit down for more than five minutes, eat one uninterrupted mean (lunch), and at least have a decent shot at being able to finish a sentence. They all laugh, but those who have children will nod with recognition as they laugh.

But somehow all the stuff above, that’s simply part of being human, become “weak,” “pathetic,” “selfish,” “whiny,” “Me-Oriented,” sickening,” etc., and off limits the moment one becomes a parent.

Occasionally, I’m invited to speak to prospective parents; usually same-sex couples who are considering parenthood. I usually start out by saying that no advice I or anyone else gives them can fully prepare them for the day their child arrives in their lives.

Then I go on to offer advice anyway. Don’t, I tell them, wait until you are “ready” to have children, because you’ll never be fully ready. You’re always as ready as you’re going to be at any given moment.

But do think about a few things, I tell them. Think about the things in your life right now that are going to change when you become a parent. Are there things you do now that you’ll do less of or have to give up altogether? Do you go to the gym 5, 6, or 7 days a week? Chances are that’s going to stop. Do you go out for cocktails with coworkers a few night a week after work? At best, maybe you’ll do that once a month, but it’s likely that’s going to stop.

Are you in the habit of sleeping in until noon on the weekends? (This was one of mine.) That’s going to be over, or you’ll at least have to adjust your idea of “sleeping in” to something more like 8:30 a.m., at the latest. Are you enjoying spending a lot of time on a favorite activity, like writing? (Again, one of mine.) Well, if you’re parenting with a partner, you’ll probably have to negotiate some time to do that, but you’ll still do less of it.

Think about the things you’ve been wanting or planning to do or “get around to.” Are there any goals you wanted to reach for but haven’t yet? Do you want to advance in your career or change careers? Have you been thinking about going back to school? Well, these are things that can still happen, but they may have to wait until your child or children are older and you have more time to pursue your goals.

Are there things you wanted or needed to do before a certain age, if you’re going to do them at all? You might have to adjust those goals, or let go of some of them if they can’t wait, say, five or six years.

These are all changes that can and do happen when you become a parent. And there’s much more as well, depending on where you are in your life when you have children. And some of them, many of them, are changes that take time to fully adjust to. Even then, it’s a process. Some of them — whether it’s an activity that’s been meaningful and rewarding, or long held goals that will be harder to attain or that you’re unlikely to reach — will need to be mourned first. Especially anything that’s been a part of you’re identity for any length of time.

Bottom line: Your wants and desires (and you have them, because you’re human) are going to take a backseat to someone else’s wants and desires for quite a while, if you’re going to be a good parent. And it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to set aside your wants and desires without some feelings of regret, frustration, or sadness. There will be missed opportunities that won’t come again. There will be dreams that get postponed or set aside. You’ll feel all of that. Again, because you’re human and you have them (wants, desires, dreams, feelings, etc.).

(For the record, there will be moments of wonder, laughter and joy, you never expected; as well as a depth and intensity of love you couldn’t have imagined possible before.)

I’d always been a writer, but a frustrated one, with little success in getting anything published. I filled journals with writing that no one was or is ever likely to read. A year after Parker was born, I stumbled into blogging and from there into a new career path, but at point in my life when I didn’t have the time to pursue it the way I might have before becoming a dad. Just before Dylan was born, I thought I was at an opportune point to advance that career and move up to a new level. But a failed adoption took the wind out of those sails, and Dylan’s adoption meant more changes.

Instead of taking it to the next level, I had to make a lateral move instead. And in the meantime, I’m also doing less writing. And not just here, but anywhere at all. Between work and family, there’s little time. Most of the time, if I’m writing I probably supposed to be doing something else. (Right now included. There are two things I should be doing right now, instead of writing this. But if I don’t write this, I won’t have time until sometime next week, and it would be less relevant by then.)

Around the time I became parent and added that role to my identity, I also became an adult diagnosed with ADD. That means I finally had a frame to understand why I’d struggled for so long without understanding why some things were so hard. But it also meant that I had to come to terms with that “lost time,” when just keeping my head above was all I could do, even as I watched my peers advance in their career paths and in their educations. By the time was able do what I couldn’t before, I had responsibilities that I didn’t before, when I wasn’t able to do more than get by.

Basically, by the time I arrived at middle-age, two different phases of my life collided. I’m still sorting it all out.

But that’s just the context of my life as a person and a parent. Children arrive in the context of our lives, and then we rethink and re-imagine that context around both their needs and ours, trying to achieve a balance that’s happy and healthy for us all. (Because, believe it or not, children benefit from having parents who are happy and fulfilled in their own lives, too.)

That isn’t easy. Neither is doing so in silence, because to do otherwise is to risk attack.

Update: I realized that I published this post before I’d actually finished it. Like a typical working parent, I ran out of time and did it hurriedly as I dashed out the door to run an errand before heading home. This is what I wanted to close with.

What seems to be missed — or simply ignored — Schwartzberg’s column is that in the end he didn’t “Get over it” as so many commenters suggested, as if what he was experiencing or feeling was so un-real and imaginary that he could simply be rid of it with a snap of his fingers. Instead of “getting over it” he got through it, even though his marriage didn’t survive, and found his way to parenthood with his personhood intact.

Call it “male post-partum depression,” if you want, but Schwarzberg’s problems were probably rooted in a widespread and unrecognized, but ruthlessly enforced condition that I call “post-personhood parenting.”

7 Comments

  1. Terrence, I’m a single father of three, and I don’t have a problem in the world with what you’ve said or with what Joel had to say. Having kids *is* a huge, life-changing experience. Activities that used to be a regular part of my life – hanging out with friends, going to concerts with the grown-ups, and a dozen other things – are now reduced to a tiny, tiny fraction of what they used to be. They’ve gone from being defining elements of my life to being occasional, rare treats.

    And who wouldn’t be exasperated by the challenges of parenting? It’s tougher than anything else I’ve ever done by several orders of magnitude. It’s more difficult than I could have imagined anything could be. The day-in, day-out demands are exhausting – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

    It’s not a storybook scenario, in which the kids are so delightful that I’m constantly thrilled by how wonderful they are. My kids are MORE than old enough to know where dirty laundry goes, yet I’m still picking up a trail of stale laundry almost every day.

    Don’t get me wrong – my kids *are* delightful and wonderful. It’s just that they have to be nudged to do their homework more often than they thrill me with how much they’ve matured. I have to lead them, push them, and teach them more often than they just “get it right” all on their own. In the day-to-day sense, there is more work than reward. Not that it isn’t worth it. The rewards are amazing, beyond anything I could have imagined in my pre-parent days…. even at times when those same rewards seem few and far between.

    What worries me is the idea that parents are *expected* to be happy, patient, wise, fulfilled, strong, inexhaustible, and satisfied; and the idea that there is something “wrong” with parents if they fall short. In my first ten or so years of parenting, I know that *I* felt this kind of pressure all the time. I felt like friends, family, and the world at large were all looking at me, sizing me up, and judging me deficient if I wasn’t “feeling” like a great parent.

    Here’s the message I would want to pass along to new and prospective parents: don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Don’t expect yourself to be happy with your kids 100% of the time. Good parents make indescribable sacrifices for their children; you’d be crazy not to feel the loss of what you’re giving up. When your kids (‘cuz they’re kids) are tired, cranky, and mean, you’ll try be wise, patient, and loving enough for both of you. If that leaves you emotionally drained once in a while, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you; it means you’re reacting normally.

    One of the most dangerous things a parent can do is to try and hold themselves up to the ideals that they *think* other people have for them. Don’t fall in to that trap. Love your kids, do your best by them, and if anyone expects you to be little miss sunshine 24/7, smile sweetly and tell ‘em to bugger off.

  2. Thank you for your eloquent support. The story is actually as much about finding my inner Dad as it was about losing it, but so many fell prey to assumptions and denials about the inner sacrifices of parenthood.

    To be honest, I expected women who experienced PPD to be among the harshest critics; in reality, they were among the most sympathetic. It was eye-opening. Two things I would make abundantly clear: 1) I do not regret having my children; they are among the most wonderful people I know 2) I divorced not because of my parenting difficulty, but because of issues in the marriage. I hold my children blameless, and I’m actually a better father for the experience. They would tell you as much.

    This essay will appear in a larger form in a book being released this Father’s Day called “The 40-Year-Old Version”. You can learn more about that at http://www.divorceddadbook.com

    Best to you, Terrance.

    Joel

  3. What worries me is the idea that parents are *expected* to be happy, patient, wise, fulfilled, strong, inexhaustible, and satisfied; and the idea that there is something “wrong” with parents if they fall short. In my first ten or so years of parenting, I know that *I* felt this kind of pressure all the time. I felt like friends, family, and the world at large were all looking at me, sizing me up, and judging me deficient if I wasn’t “feeling” like a great parent.

    I realized that I published this post before I actually finished writing it.

    Your comment reminded me of something. Around the time that Alec Baldwin’s, um, “unfortunate” voicemail message to his daughter was made public, I made a statement while speaking to a group of prospective adoptive parents:

    Every parent or anyone who is raising or has raised children has had a least one moment as a parent/caregiver that they would not want broadcast to the entire world. Certainly not as the moment that defines them as a parent.

    We’re imperfect people doing our best to raise imperfect people to go out into an imperfect world and remain happy and healthy — and, hopefully, to leave it a little less imperfect than they found it.

    It’s a process, one we take on happily. But it’s not always pretty and, thus, not for the faint of heart…

  4. Thanks. I’m so glad you got a chance to read it! I realize now that I published the post before I’d quite finished it.

    I wanted to finish by adding that in the end you found your way to fatherhood and your “inner parent,” even if your marriage didn’t survive, and that you and your children are better for it. That’s something many people seem to have missed in their comments.

    That you didn’t let the end of your marriage keep you from being involved and engaged as a father, is another thing that was. I know many men for whom that hasn’t been the case, and their children suffer for it.

    Thanks for your column, and for your response!

  5. I learned, or knew instinctively, never to talk about some thing to people who aren’t parents, because I’d get responses like the ones Schartzberg got.

    Oh, that hurts. I’m so fed up with being told I just don’t understand because I’m not a parent. The way I see it, I can understand, and that’s why I’m not a parent.
    Being responsible for so much, for so long, isn’t for everybody.

  6. I detest the people who descend like vultures on anybody who admits they don’t absolutely love parenting, needs support as a parent, doesn’t want to be a parent, etc. We’re constantly told (especially by the RRRW) that our life’s goal is to grow up and have a family (only if we’re straight of course). After that our life is supposed to be centered around our children, whose needs always come first. A Newsweek article in July, 2008, found that childless couples were often happier than those with children. Having children can be a wonderful thing, but we shouldn’t feel compelled to, and no parent should feel (or be made to feel) like a failure if s/he doesn’t fully enjoy and/or needs support with what is one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

  7. I’ve had friends, coworkers, etc., who’ve told me they don’t want children, and my response is always the same. “I can respect that. It’s a lot better to know that before you have children,” rather than discovering it afterward. Too many people end up in that situation.

    If people decide having kids isn’t for them, I say more power to ‘em. Because I don’t think anyone ought to have children just because that what societal or cultural expectations tell them they should do and should want to do. People should become parents if they want to, because they want to.

    Being a parent is incredibly rewarding and filled with wonderful moments, but only if it’s what you want to do, because at times it’s also exhausting, exasperating, etc., and a lot of work — internally and externally, because if you’re truly engaged it forces you to learn and change and grow, and occasionally forces you to face things in yourself that you’d sometimes rather avoid.

    All that pales in comparison to those moments you’re so tired you literally don’t know what to do, so exasperated that you want to scream (but don’t), or so frustrated that you have to close your eyes and count to ten — but only if raising a child is what you want to do in the first place.

    Otherwise the other stuff will outweigh the rewards, etc., and turn into resentment. And believe me, a kid will know it even if he doesn’t have words for it. Yet.

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