Tired fathers understand that tired mothers have it tough, too.
Tuesday, April 5, marked the end of my three week parental leave and my first full day back at work. I’m aware at how fortunate I am to have been able to get a long parental leave that didn’t require me to burn through all of my vacation time. Christine is fortunate to work for a company that allows her to take 13 weeks of time off.
Part of me didn’t want to go into work that morning. At 7:30 as I watched baby Alexander wriggle contentedly after being fed and having a diaper changed, I joked, “I think he looks uncomfortable. He can’t talk so how can we really be sure it’s happy wiggling he’s doing. Why don’t I put on my sweatpants and stay?”
“Go to work,” Christine said and smiled. “I’m all set and will be okay for the day.” I went off to work and as soon as I was home, I was back holding Alexander so that Christine could have dinner and do what she needed to do.
— Jose Feliciano (@lifeclearhazy) April 5, 2016
Christine ate, Alexander slept, lip sync battles from The Tonight Show were laughed to, and then I posted an article from NPR on tired fathers that had caught my interest.
I made the observation in reading the article and posting it that both men and women had it hard. By overestimating sleep and mood, the men and women in the study underestimated each other.
The responses were almost immediate. They were meant to be supportive comments as they were coming from folks I know and respect on my personal Facebook page and I apologize for making a study of their words ahead of time. This is not a direct criticism of their comments, but a reflection on language and a commentary on social norms. As I was reading, I found that some of the comments simultaneously spoke loudly to the gender biases that men and fathers face.
“Grow up! you are a big boy! Put a smile on your face.”
“Don’t forget the stress and hormonal changes a mom goes through postpartum… Although you may feel tired, her body just went through a huge traumatic experience”
While it was not the original intent the comments, there was still a solid cry of “Man up” with a reminder that Christine had been the one to give birth even though I was there, had supported, and witnessed the event and been present through the pregnancy from the start since, well, you know: biology.
Tired fathers understand that tired mothers have it tough, too. It’s why they worry, work late hours, or multiple jobs and spend time away from the very families they love and support as tired mothers too often do, sometimes alone. In families with the benefit two parents there are two people, it’s not either/or. It’s both. If both are responsible, mature adults, both sacrifice and both compromise. Parenting is a partnership and each set of partners finds what works for them and their circumstances.
I wasn’t saying that I have it easier than Christine. While some men ignore their privilege and lament that they have it harder than women all the time, that wasn’t the point that I attempted to make within the original post in indicating that things were difficult no matter how you cut it for first time parents. It’s no contest and from a purely physical standpoint women have it harder. Simply put, I don’t have a uterus. I didn’t carry Alexander for 40 weeks and 5 days. I don’t write my blog from Christine’s perspective because I’m not her. I can’t speak for her. I write things through the limited lens of my experience; one man’s experience.
The article and the study had its shortcomings. It didn’t also consider looking at how egalitarian the couples in the study were versus how strictly they adhered to “traditional” gender roles. Would more egalitarian couples fare better and experience less marital dissatisfaction than couples with more “traditional” gender roles? The article and the study couldn’t answer these questions.
The Facebook comments and the article made me think about what is lost when we speak out in public. What was unseen or unremembered by the commenters was the time and care that had been put in by the two of us over two weeks and earlier. A reflection on an article, a simple Facebook post, seemed to make a two-dimensional show of our deepening partnership. It didn’t reveal our appreciation for the family or parental leave we’d received from our jobs. The post didn’t tell the story of the Easter dinner that was a culmination of the familial support we have been fortunate to receive where grandmas, grandpas, great grandmas, uncle, aunt, sister, nephews, and cousins helped and made us feel unconditionally supported. It didn’t acknowledge phone calls to check in or drop-bys from friends to wash dishes those first few days back home.
As suggested, in part, by the comments, men are expected to “man up” and tough it out, but wasn’t every experience shared as I move along my journey of parenting part of my experience as a man? What did it mean to man up in the context of my partnership with Christine? The comments made me think about how often times when men, fathers, sons, reach out for support, they are told to man up and tough it out. Or we are guided to self-medication through casual flings, drinking, or displays of bravado. I am not arguing that we coddle men and boys. Instead, we should consider the messages we send when we ask men and boys to “man up” which often times involves suffering in silence.
Fathers and men need community and support in the same ways that mothers need and receive support after birth. Research by friendship scholar Geoffrey Greif, shows that men already have trouble in seeking support from others without having to receive more messages to “man up” when their contributions are needed most. While not all men buy into societal prescriptions for male behavior requiring the lack of intimacy and speaking about feelings, these expectations still affect men. Expressing emotions results in a potential loss for status or in the case of my Facebook post the reminder of my place to be a “man,” buckle down, not express myself. “Nut up or shut up,” as the saying goes.
This all serves to create an environment which is detrimental to men and ignores the challenges that men face as parents as well. Preliminary studies are showing that men and fathers experience prenatal and postpartum hormonal changes that can affect the brain. Prenatal and postpartum depression has been shown to be evident in about 10% of men as explored in the Journal of the American Medical Associations, May 2010 article, “Prenatal and Postpartum Depression in Fathers and Its Association With Maternal Depression: A Meta-Analysis.” Societal pressures and standards of masculinity and gender bias are in part responsible for men not seeking help when for mental health problems when needed. According to the National Institute for Mental Health’s public-information campaign, “Real Men. Real Depression.,” started in 2003, men may be unlikely to admit to depressive symptoms and seek help. As someone who has been treated for depression in the past, thus meaning there is a chance for recurrence, “manning up” wouldn’t necessarily be a simple or wise course of action in consideration of my family or myself if I were to begin feeling depressed. Yet, this is the advice that men are often given as they are instructed to perform a portrayal of masculinity that must be nurturing and yet still somehow remain emotionless.
How do you nurture without emotion? How do you ask for support without admitting need?
A simple Facebook post revealed that these contradictions are ones that slip through even when the original intent is good. The fault is not one linked to any individual. Our words reflect the norms embedded with the social constructs that frame our interactions. I think that for everyone, a time to pause and listen through all that is being communicated is important whether we’re talking tired fathers and mothers, responses to Facebook posts, or the gender biases that can harm the very men and fathers they are attempting to provide support for.