It’s a question I’ve been asked more than once by new dads, and I’m always impressed when it comes up. Why? Because it’s not “socially acceptable” to admit that your baby knows how to push your buttons.
Dads will definitely own up to feeling worn out. Or overwhelmed. But frustration is a more sensitive topic. And anger… well, that’s almost taboo. But, I’m here to tell you it’s also normal.
Let me take you back to last Thursday afternoon, around 215pm. There you’d find me, still in my pajamas, exhausted after spending two hours trying to get my six-month-old to nap. I had done all the bouncing and the shushing and the singing. I’d given him a bottle. I’d changed his diaper. He was having absolutely none of it. Overtired and sick (chicken pox), he was instead was crying on-and-off and constantly struggling in my arms. Meanwhile, I hadn’t eaten since 630am, the house was a mess, and I had originally planned to write another blog post while he snoozed.
In that moment, he needed to sleep. But, I also needed him to sleep. I just wanted a few minutes rest, a few minutes to myself. I was willing him to sleep with my whole being.
Finally, he closed his eyes and nestled his head against my chest. ‘Yes!’ I thought. I tiptoed over to his crib, gently put him down and pulled up the covers. I paused. He looked peaceful. I took one step towards the kitchen…. and he started wailing again.
It was too much for me.
A cry of anger escaped from my mouth. I slammed my hand down on the kitchen table. Startled by the noise, he started crying even harder. I wheeled around and plucked him out of the crib. I started shushing again, loudly and sharply: “SHH! SHH! SHH!”
I was angry with my six-month-old. It was irrational, I know. He’s a baby, after all, and I’m a grown man. But sometimes, every parent reaches the breaking point. That moment was mine.
I paced around the room, tense, my crying son held tight in my arms. I kept thinking about how my whole daytime routine had fallen apart. How my plan for the day had collapsed. How I could still salvage the day, if only he would sleep…. The crying continued, my arms ached and my blood was boiling. I needed to step away.
I put him down in his bouncy chair, absolutely wailing. I walked to the kitchen and poured a glass of water. Questions started popping into my head: Isn’t this too hard? Wouldn’t it be easier to be at work? Why am I even here?
And then I caught myself.
‘Why AM I at home with my son?’ I wondered. Am I at home to clean the house, or answer emails? No. Is this time about me and my to-do list? Not really. I chose to stay home with my son because I wanted to be with him. And now I’m angry with him because he’s sick and is telling me – in the only language he has – that he needs me to look after him? To focus on him. To be there for him.
I took a breath and let that thought sink in. I started to relax, just a little.
After a moment, I grabbed a handful of nuts out of the cupboard, stuffed them in my mouth and walked back to my (still howling) little boy. I bent down and picked him up again. I held him close to me.
‘Papa is here. Papa is here,’ I said. Over and over, until I could say it calmly. Until I really meant it.
And here’s the thing: as I calmed down, so did my little boy. His cry softened to a wimper. He put his head against my chest and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed. And he fell asleep, safe in my arms.
I held him close to me for the next two hours while he slept. I couldn’t check my phone, or do the laundry, or prep dinner. But I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do.
Author’s Note: I’ve been debating whether to share this post or not, but this morning realised we can’t just talk about the amazing stuff that happens on parental leave. We need to talk about the hard stuff too. I don’t want any dad out there to feel like they’re doing parental leave ‘wrong’ if they feel upset or angry sometimes. It’s okay, and sometimes you end up better for it.
Fatherhood is an emotional experience. We want it to be filled with joy and awe and adoration. But it also comes with a healthy dose of negative emotions: anxiety (“can I do this?”); confusion (“how do I do this?”); even anger (“why am I doing this?”). There is nothing wrong with those feelings. They are natural and normal.
My strong belief is that running away from negative emotions – ignoring them, denying them, suppressing them – is counter-productive in the long run. You can bury them today, but they won’t disappear. They’ll just pop up again in unexpected places and unwanted moments and you’ll end up hurting someone you care about for no good reason.
I’m not a mental health professional so I won’t even pretend to know how to help other dads navigate their own personal moments of anger. All I can offer is two ideas that I hold onto during those hardest of hard times with baby:
- Be safe. I think it’s okay to be angry with my child(ren) from time to time, but I know that it is my absolute responsibility to be safe about it. Anger can never be an excuse to lash out. I don’t write this lightly, and you should take it seriously. Every day, thousands of children are abused – physically, psychologically or emotionally – by a parent. There is never an excuse. Ever. If you’re worried about your own self-control, please find the strength to talk about it with someone you trust or with one of the many amazing organisations out there that are working on men’s mental health.
- Take a breath. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to point the finger at someone else and say, “You made me feel like this!” The (much) harder thing to do is to point the finger at yourself and say, “Why am I feeling this way?” In my experience, that thought is only possible once I step back from the immediate trigger and giving myself a few moments to breath. Sometimes that means doing the hard thing and walking away from a crying child to regroup. I don’t think there’s any shame in that.