Terrance Heath

Post-Personhood Parenting

Filed By Terrance Heath | April 16, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: new dads, new fathers, parenting, raising a child, same-sex parents

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. Man-Holding-Crying-B.jpgHe'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 flamethrowers 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 targeted by the latest school shooter, or stranded in the aftermath of a hurricane.)

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 flamethrowers.

But what Schwartzberg was expressing 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 we really do love our kids, 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 weren'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 meal (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.

(On another occasion, when Alec Baldwin's unfortunate voicemail to his daughter was made public, I said -- not so much in his defense, but as a general statement -- that almost everyone who's a parent or raises children has had at least one moment of exasperation and/or frustration that they probably wouldn't want broadcast to the world, as the sole example of their parenting. I never had a parent disagree with  me on that.)

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

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

I then 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 about 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? (Another 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 do less of it. (I sarifice one nap of mine on the weekends, in order to have an hour of uninterrupted writing time at a nearby Starbucks instead.)

I ask them to think about the things they've been wanting or planning to do. Are there any goals you've planned to reach for but haven't yet? Do you have plans to advance your in 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 those goals.

Are there things you want  or need 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' much more as well, depending on where you are in your life when you have children. People-As-Clock-Hand.jpgAnd 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 (because you're human, and you have them) 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.).

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 at least two things I should be doing right now, 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 at school and at work 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 education. 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 our, 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 -- in 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," but Schwarzberg's problems were probably rooted in a widespread and unrecognized, but ruthlessly enforced condition that I call "post-personhood parenting."

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Thank you for the great insights, Terrance. I agree with you that it can be difficult to balance "personhood" and "parenthood," but I firmly believe we need to do so. If we show our kids that the only way to become parents is to give up our selves, they may never want to have kids themselves. (If they choose not to have kids for other reasons, that's fine, but I don't think this should be one of them.)

I would also add that with a little creativity, there are ways to incorporate one's pre-parenthood activities with parenthood, though this may be difficult for the first couple of years. Like to run? Buy a jogging stroller. Like to write? Carry a notebook to the playground. Try to get one's kids interested in one's interests (but never force this). Neither the running nor the writing may be of quite the same quality as before, but there will still be some connection, some sense that one hasn't given up every aspect of one's former life.