Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. When we discuss postpartum depression or the baby blues, it's typically linked to the experiences of women and birthing parents who are managing both the physiological changes of pregnancy and childbirth, and the complicated familial, social, and emotional challenges of new parenting, but not all parents give birth to their children. Dads and heterosexual partnerships, adoptive families, dual moms, dual dads, single dads, intended parents and surrogacy. Listen, there are a lot of ways to make a family, but no matter the pathway to parenting, taking home a tiny new human can prove surprisingly stressful, emotionally, and physically.
Dads and other non-birthing parents can also feel exhausted, confused, anxious, and isolated in the early months of parenting. Somewhere, I imagine a brand new mom is trying to get her little one to nurse so that she can sit back and enjoy a few minutes of The Takeaway. Mama, I feel you. This is not necessarily a moment when you want to hear how hard it is for dear old dad, but wait, don't turn the dial.
Now, of course, if you're nursing, you probably can't even reach your radio, but don't tell your smart speaker to turn us off. Because even though there have been fewer studies of paternal mental health after the birth of a new baby, existing research does show that meaningful proportions of dads experience depression, anxiety, and stress in the early months of their parenting journey. Sad dads can struggle with bonding and attachment.
Aymann Ismail is a staff writer at Slate. I talked to him about an article he wrote about his own recent experience with his newborn baby. When Aymann first brought his son home, he thought he was prepared to be a father. He read all the baby books. He'd even printed out charts to help him keep track of how much his baby was eating, sleeping, and pooping. They're color-coded by the way. He thought he had it all figured out until that first night home from the hospital.
Aymann Ismail: The baby did not do any of that. It was surreal. The baby wasn't eating when he was supposed to be eating. He was supposed to be eating like 12 times on the first day. The baby only ate like four or five. I was thinking in my head, "Oh my God, this baby's starving. This baby must dying of thirst for milk." I told my wife. I was like, "Look, we got to be feeding him more." I wish I said it like that. Because at this point, I'd already been panicked and I was like, "The baby's dying. We have to feed him. Oh my God."
Meanwhile, my wife is much more in tune with life than I am. [chuckles] I'm like a nerdy journalist to spend all my time on the computer. She's more real. [chuckles] Meanwhile, while I'm freaking out, she's just trying to hold her baby, study it, learn from him what he wants, pick up on his cues.
I've got my charts. I've printed out these things. I don't have a stapler. This is papers all over the place and it was a disaster. I think I'd gotten in my own head. I told myself that in order to be a good dad, I needed to have done all of this extra labor. All this extra labor was in service of this kid, but not just in service of this kid was in service of me. I needed to present myself as an active and healthy and productive dad. I think that it just got to my head in a very terrible way. It all cumulated in this one moment where it was the first night. It'd only been like eight hours. My wife was sitting there, breastfeeding. The baby wouldn't latch, which is a very common thing.
At that time, I thought we were the only ones who had this problem. I was trying to force-feed the baby formula, which we had gotten from the hospital. My wife was very keen on figuring this out because it's so important that a mom and a baby connected this way. For people who don't know, there's so much biology that goes into this, like the baby's saliva tells the mom what kind of milk to produce. If she doesn't start feeding the baby right away, it could create problems down the line with how much production is going. There's so much in it that a dad will never be able to biologically understand. I thought I did because I read the books. [chuckles]
Anyways, I was trying to feed the baby formula because I just thought that he was hungry, and that he was crying because he was hungry and that I needed to feed him. I was very aggressive about it. I'd never been aggressive in my life over anything. She was panicked. I saw it in her eyes. She's very cool, very chilled person. I saw this look in her eye that told me, "Who are you? I don't recognize you. Are you going to be like this forever? Am I stuck with this monster of a husband who's going to be torturing me while I just try and feed my baby?"
That was the moment where it hit me like a punch in the chest where I was like I have to protect her and the baby from me. That was a very hard pill to swallow, but I decided that I needed to just remove my myself in the situation. It was the summertime. Baby was born in June. I went outside to go tend to my garden and water my plants and prune. I came back like a half-hour later and everything was fine. Nothing had fallen apart. The baby wasn't starving to death. It was fine.
I think seeing that changed my composition for what a good father is supposed to look like. I learned that I needed to play a much more supportive role to read the room better [chuckles], to not panic because my baby's not doing exactly what a book said that he would do. It was earth-shattering. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life to see my wife cry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After the first night of fear and anxiety, Aymann sought out support from friends who were fathers, but he didn't seem to get any solace in those conversations.
Aymann Ismail: I couldn't get any problems out of him. I've tried and I've tried, and I was like, "Look, there had to be something that was trouble. Did you, at any point, put your head in your hands, and say, this is tough. I can't do this. I need help." He was like, "No." I was like, "I don't believe you. I don't believe you. Having a kid is so hard."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Through his new journey into fatherhood, Aymann discovered that a lot of his anxiety stemmed from his own internalization of masculinity and what it means to be a good dad.
Aymann Ismail: The weirdest thing that I've noticed is that I've been in so many crazy situations and in so many crazy circumstances. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey in the '90s, which is very scary place to be in the '90s. I was never rattled. I'm a journalist now. I'm a Muslim journalist. I made up my job to talk to Trump supporters who think that I cheered on 9/11.
I was at the Capitol riot as a journalist, taking pictures. I followed the Trump supporters and wasn't rattled. I was in Egypt during the Arab Spring and covered the Muslim brotherhood while they were protesting and wasn't rattled. This baby was born, and all of a sudden, I have no composure. I totally lost my cool. I don't know what to do. I'm a deer stuck in the headlights. I think a part of it comes from the fact that we as men are role model list in this new generation where it was maybe more acceptable one generation ago to be only concerned with work and a little bit more removed where the idea of feeding and taking care of the baby was very much considered to be the woman's job.
That's something that I discovered in conversations that I've had with my dad and other people's dads is that they didn't really feel like they had to change diapers unless it was some extraordinary circumstance. My dad very candidly told me that he never once fed me a bottle. I was like, "Okay, cool, so my mom did all of that. Interesting." One of the things that surprised me about that was how alien and it felt to me, and I'm only one generation removed, and how different and fast the culture is moving.
The ideas that still permeate in our culture that men are negligent. They want to have their man cave. They don't really want to be part of the family. It's more of a burden for them. They say things like, "Well, don't forget who's putting a roof over your head." Crazy stuff like that. I don't want to be anything like that. In fact, I want to be the opposite. I think that might have played a huge role in why I felt so much pressure to be above and beyond, and so much so that it ended up backfiring and hurting me and hurting my family.
In that piece, The Good Dad that published in Slate where I talk about this, I interviewed a psychotherapist. His name is Justin Lioi. He specializes in treatment for men. He gets a lot of new fathers. One of the things that he shared with me was that a lot of these men when they're holding their baby, it's often the first baby they've ever held in their lives, and they don't have that same relationship to fatherhood as a mother does to motherhood. One of the things that he shared with me was that one of his patients resented his dad and told himself that he was going to be the opposite.
In fact, that was something that he heard a lot, that they wanted to be different from their dads. They often felt like they were trying to rechart and reinvent the idea for what a dad is. When you're starting from scratch, it makes sense that not everybody's version will play out perfectly. Maybe I felt that same way, too, like I did need to invent what a good dad was. Maybe that's why I felt like I needed to read all the baby books. When I was trying to reach out to other people, maybe they didn't know that I needed that support because they themselves are on their own path, and they're figuring out things for themselves.
That's why I'm also grateful for the subreddit Daddit because that was the first place I've ever seen dads be really vulnerable and ask questions like, I didn't cry when my baby was born, does that make me a bad father? Things like that, that really logically don't make sense into a mom. It's going to sound crazy, but for dads, it kind of takes us very visceral place in your chest where it just feels real and you can't shake it, and you might feel a little embarrassed. It festers and it grows, and then it turns into these performances of masculinity where you end up wanting to project yourself as being the overly great father who is going to be taking care of everything. Sometimes, in my case, at least, it could tremendously backfire.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Aymann Ismail, who is a staff writer at Slate.
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