When the wheels come off
I am sure it happens to all of us at some stage. It just hadn’t happened to me yet.
I come from a childhood of stability and privilege (not wealth). In my book, this means parents who loved me and raised me well; a good education; not having to worry about anything; and a “you can do anything you want and be anyone you want” mantra. Self-confidence was in abundance.
I have learned that this is marvellous, almost too marvellous; the biggest worry becomes which iPhone to get next, where to go on holidays and, gee, that coffee wasn’t as good as the last.
Melissa and I met in Melbourne 2006 and were married in 2010. In 2011, Isabella was born and I swapped jobs for career advancement and more money, allowing Melissa to stay at home with our daughter – the perfect picture continues. I put my back into work and my little family and collected promotions; we were heaven on earth.
Two years later Melissa fell pregnant with number two and the shakiness began. In month six, my wife began to go downhill. This coincided with a choppy ride at work; frequent overseas visits and national travel that the role demanded. The stress ramped up but I was coping well; one week I balanced six flights, four hospital visits and childcare for Issy. The self-nominated Super Dad was always on call!
Little did I know the wheel bolts were loosening, if not full detaching from the vehicle.
Ben was born to our great relief, a little early but full of health, and it also seemed as if Melissa was past the worst and would be fine in no time at all. The midwives and doctors are always full of positivity and with good reason: trouble pregnancies usually end with a healthy mum and baby.
Two days after Ben was born, Melissa suffered sudden heart failure as a result of the pregnancy and was transferred to another hospital unit. I was handed Ben in a considerable hurry as doctors attended to my wife who, although conscious, was unresponsive and ghostly pale. I had never seen a group of unflappable medics flapping.
The point of this article is not to review Melissa’s condition (PPCM followed by multiple organ failure, for those who want to know) or the excellent care that she received, but to focus on me, for the sake of dads. My observation is that blokes are essentially ignored through the parenting process and – to some extent – rightly so; the mother goes through significant physical and mental strain but this is reasonably well understood and there is considerable assistance either publicly or privately. Mothers’ groups, family and friends tend to provide the ongoing community requirements. The mother-to-be is also expected to maximise their exposure to these facilities. Dads move to the background and this can be emotionally challenging. I know we aren’t supposed to talk about ‘emotionally challenging’, but this is our downfall and it needs addressing.
How on earth did I go from the highest of highs to a psychologist office in six months?
The worry ramps up at an alarming rate for most of us: bills, home security, schools, prams, car seats and that question: “will I be good enough?” It can hit in one moment or build over time until breaking point. Joyful it ain’t. I have known many fathers who drink more (way more in some instances) in the months before and after the birth, or move on to drugs to numb their feelings. At times this has been predicted by the family; other times it comes right out of the blue. The dad then suffers shame and guilt which only compounds the issues.
Thankfully I didn’t turn to drink; I turned to work and yet more worry!
It was only when Melissa started to recover some months later that my adrenaline dropped and the energy that I needed to carry us through ran out. I visited my doctors for a stomach ailment; I had physical symptoms linked to stress which included acid reflux. I was asked some questions about my own mental health, and our doctor, who had obviously been aware of Melissa’s chronic illness, connected the dots.
She determined fairly quickly that I was suffering from some form of depression. I found this to be a ridiculous suggestion initially until I agreed to meet with a psychologist. How on earth did I go from the highest of highs to a psychologist office in six months?
Over six weeks I underwent one-hour sessions that developed my understanding of the situation and what we’d been through as a family. She delved into my own values, concerns and hopes for the future. We spoke about work, what irritated me, what made me happy. It was my space to reflect on the past whilst building a stronger, more resilient base. The stress of not being able to control Melissa’s health whilst having to care for the home had been too much. Both sets of parents were in the UK and despite the heroic efforts from our friends in Melbourne, our support network was poor.
Somehow I have since become the unofficial go-to for more than a dozen new dads – both friends and work colleagues who are feeling overwhelmed and don’t want to talk about it, or want to talk to me knowing that I am open about men’s mental health. The western, ‘Alpha Male Syndrome’ is crippling and does nothing to foster happiness or good relationships at home or work; it leads to other issues and has a massive impact on society and the economy. Following our experience at home, I can only suggest that talking to a professional can, and often does, have a dramatically positive effect on your outlook and your overall well-being.
My unqualified advice is to take the first step by admitting something might be up and speaking to your GP or your family and friends. While Melissa, Ben and Issy are all doing really well, I love knowing that if it all gets too much again I can talk it through.