Family

The Good Dad

I was obsessed with doing things “right” with our new son. It nearly broke us the first night he came home.

Black-and-white Polaroid-style photo of a man lying down with his head next to a baby on a blanket
The author and his son. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Aymann Ismail.

I made my wife cry the day we brought home Musa, our newborn baby boy. I wanted to be a “good dad” so badly that I spent the final months of the pregnancy deep in baby strategy. Every night, I read from The Happiest Baby on the Block out loud so I could retain it better. I practiced its swaddling techniques on our couch pillows. I also studied Your Baby’s First Year, a new-parent almanac by the American Academy of Pediatrics for how a baby grows, poops, and sleeps. I downloaded simplified diagrams to help me keep track of how much and how often Musa would do those things during the early essential weeks.

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When my boy got home and he didn’t eat, poop, and sleep exactly as predicted in those books, I lost my cool. I fully panicked.

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I rushed back and forth around the house, going nowhere. I needed everyone to drop what they were doing and pay attention to my instructions. I screamed “He needs to eat!” at my wife. When I was very justifiably ignored, I chanted an Islamic prayer, Hasbi-Allah wa ni’mal wakeel—“Allah is enough, the greatest disposer of hardship,” a mantra associated with extreme grief.

I’d never once in my life ever experienced a panic attack. As a reporter, I kept cool when I was jumped by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, when my shoelaces untied during a climb to the top of the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City, and when I followed Donald Trump’s faithful into the Capitol earlier this year. As it turns out, my son rattled me more than any of those things.

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I studied my baby books and made my spreadsheets to learn how to be a father. I knew Musa would cry. I thought I learned everything I’d need to know to keep him happy and healthy, at least for the first year. But by convincing myself that I could keep control, it was already too late. Calamity was coming.

Musa was less than 1 week old, and he was hungry. And the hungrier he got, the harder he was to feed. I wanted to just feed him formula to calm him down. I needed him to stop crying more than he needed to eat. It was there I snapped. I yelled and demanded my wife let me feed him how I wanted to. She gave me a look like she didn’t even recognize me. The tears came. I knew I had gone too far, but I had no idea how to fix it.

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It’s reasonable that depression after a new child arrives is typically associated with moms. It seems to be more common among women; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 1 in 8 new mothers will experience at least some symptoms. The violent trauma my wife went through to give birth, along with the new demands on her body, hardly seemed comparable to what I was going through. But plenty of men do experience depression after children are born. One 2010 study suggested 4 percent of fathers show depression symptoms the first year their child arrives; others put the number higher.

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“For a lot of the guys that I work with, the first time they hold a baby is right after their child is born,” said Justin Lioi, a psychotherapist with a practice that focuses on men. Many of his clients are new fathers. “They’re starting at this different place, and they’re trying to kind of catch up. And they just have a lot of anxiety around that,” he said.

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I told Lioi what happened with my wife, and he wasn’t surprised. He said fear drives many of the worst outcomes for new fathers and their families. He sees it all the time.

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“They want to be dads differently than they were parented, than they saw their fathers doing, being more involved, being more present. And they didn’t have the model for that,” he said.

That hit me. My father did the best he could with the circumstances he was dealt: He worked 12-hour shifts as an immigrant driver in New York City. He was there for us as much as he could have been, but he was still a distant figure for much of my younger life. My hope to be more involved in Musa’s life is a privilege I don’t intend to waste, and that had only increased the immense pressure I felt.

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Still, I argued to Lioi that I wasn’t part of that 4 percent who experience “real” depression. I was mostly fine, just anxious. He wasn’t so sure. He said depression in new fathers doesn’t look like I would expect it to.

“It doesn’t look like what we see on TV for someone who is really sad and can’t get out of bed,” he said. “For a lot of men, it comes out as anger, comes out as real irritability, like high irritation or avoidance. That anger could be yelling. It could be banging tables.”

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A recent study on “paternal postpartum” in the American Journal of Men’s Health backs Lioi up. It said that in men, depression after a new child can be especially dangerous, because men with feelings of helplessness can turn aggressive. “The fathers’ sense of inadequacy and powerlessness sometimes turned into anger and frustrations,” it reported.

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I’ve never banged a table, but I got anxiety often, sometimes for no clear reason. That first night when I snapped, I left home for a while to calm myself down. When I got back, my wife didn’t want to talk about it, and neither did I. We moved on. But I soon noticed the anxiety creep back in. I started to cope by leaving, either to my garden or to a bakery I love down the street. I usually tell myself that my wife and Musa needed space, but after talking with Lioi, I wondered if I’d be wanting to walk away from difficult emotions of failure all the time. I felt unwanted or unnecessary. Regardless of how rational or true that is, the feeling was there, and it could be overwhelming.

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Lioi told me the first thing for men who start to feel distress after their kid is born is to try to find an outlet for the anxiety and helplessness they feel, even if it is just a trusted friend. I tried, tentatively. But when I asked my friends who were new dads about this, most expressed sympathy but not recognition. Everything, they told me, was great at home. They weren’t experiencing what I was.

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I didn’t have any reason to doubt them. But Lioi said that while not everyone has serious symptoms, men who erase the difficulties of new parenthood altogether worry him.

“I get very nervous with people who say that ‘it’s all really great,’ ” he told me, “ ‘it’s all wonderful and roses and everything.’ That sounds like a big denial, because I think we all know that raising a child is not that at all.”

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I didn’t want to force my friends to open up to me. But I do think Lioi might be onto something. When I mentioned the issues I was having on Mom and Dad Are Fighting, Slate’s parenting podcast, I had a much different experience. I explained how not always being able to help Musa when he was crying chipped away at my confidence. I was honest about feeling inadequate as a father and husband, even as a co-worker.

It felt amazing to vent, and what came after felt telling to me. I got flooded with emails and DMs from both moms and dads who related. They all said that feeling like a bad parent is ordinary, as cruel as it can seem. They told me their stories, some heartbreaking and some affirmative, and gave me tips. (One told me short escapes are totally legitimate, and by the way, no one is at art museums on Tuesday mornings.) Several repeated the same thing to me: You’re not alone.

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I don’t know why these strangers felt more ready to open to me than men I know. Maybe they really are just people who have faced the same problems more directly. Maybe it was something else.

Either way, even with this flood of support, I still wasn’t sure: Was I the kind of guy who would end up in front of Lioi? Where did I fit into the spectrum of struggles new dads face?

“There are specific criteria for depression, for anxiety, for postpartum,” Lioi said. But “how I work is less based on Are we going to get this right diagnosis because you need help? so much as Are there things in your life that a bulk of the time are just causing you overstress or pain and getting in the way of enjoying being a dad, enjoying work, doing other things?

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“Whether we’re going to ever label that depression or not, we’re going to look at patterns in your life. We’re going to figure out the ones that are working and keep those. And the ones that aren’t, we find some new ones. So I suggest seeking support earlier on than when it gets to a dangerous point.”

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One day, I finally did it.

My anxiety episodes never got worse, but they also didn’t get much better. When I sought therapy, the solutions seemed obvious enough that I felt silly for not realizing them in the first place: Almost immediately, the therapist helped me draw a connection between wanting to be a good partner and learning to lighten the load in other ways, not just directly helping with the baby. When I started to think of laboring on the other stuff—clearing tables, emptying the dishwasher, doing the baby’s poopy laundry—I felt better right away. We found other ways to redirect my anxiety. I didn’t need more than a few sessions to stop the anxiety attacks. (Another thing I’m not sure most men realize: Therapy can be short-term and effective. As Lioi put it, “Part of our hoping to break down mental health stigma, especially for guys, is that just going somewhere and talking about some stuff is not meaning I’m sick, doesn’t mean I’m mentally ill. It just means I could use some better coping skills at the moment.”)

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[Read my full interview with Justin Lioi on new dads, anxiety, and what to watch out for.]

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It’s somehow been five months since Musa came home. My wife and I are in a much better place now. Musa can sit up on his own, his cheeks and thighs are enormous, and it’s starting to feel like we’re actually doing a good job taking care of this kid. In those baby books that I now curse and scoff at, I remember reading about how important a schedule can be for our baby’s development. Setting a consistent time for feeding and napping helps babies make sense of their worlds. Five months in, I’m ready to admit that I needed that same help too. Making time for other things, even as obvious as watching sports with friends or weekly date nights on the block with my wife, is embarrassingly important to me now.

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I do still often feel like I can be doing more. Every time I get excited about a new activity or milestone for Musa, I still get anxious. I still can’t help but compare him with what I’ve read to be “normal” for babies: He should have learned to roll over by now. Is it that I’m not giving him enough tummy time? When I schedule time for it and something else comes up, I get frustrated.

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Crucially, though, I’ve decided to never make that my wife’s problem again. She notices when I’m doing other things, and says thank you and pats me on the shoulder. I cherish that now as much as I do a smile from my kid. At times, I still feel like I’m hanging by a thread, but that thread is growing stronger now that I’m spending more time alone with my son. I now have him several days a week because my wife returned to her office job. I can’t leave him with his mother and walk away anymore. It’s teaching me to stay in the moment, pick up on the subtle cues, and recognize him as an individual who needs his dad just as much as I need him. Already, Musa has taught me more about being a father than the baby books ever did.

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