I walked up the stairs of our holiday cabin to find Joel holding our son in his arms. Billy was asleep, finally, and I looked at Joel with relief. That’s when I noticed his eyes. Before I could ask what was wrong, he said softly, “I’ve just been telling him how much fun we’re going to have together.” I stayed quiet, sensing the size of the moment I’d just walked into. “I’ve been telling him how glad I am he’s in my life.” He broke eye contact so I couldn’t see his tears, and I could tell he was embarrassed by his vulnerability. But as I watched him look at our son, all I could really take notice of was deep, mad love. And the honest truth is that it was the first time I’d seen it.
So much emphasis is placed on a woman after she’s had a child. How are you going? How are you feeling? How are you coping? They are question I’ve asked, and been asked, more times than I can count. Even the standard birth announcement — Sarah Louise, born at 6:32am on Feb 10th, weighing a healthy 7.5 pounds. Mum and bub doing well — is a classic portrayal of the disregard with which fathers are considered. And I get it. The woman has just birthed this baby out of her own body. The woman is undergoing rapid physical change and recovery. The woman is doing her darndest to navigate the ins and outs of breastfeeding. The woman is flung upon the hormonal roller coaster of the post-birth steam train, where she is hit square in the face, turned upside down and rolled over a few times. Hell, if people were paying more attention to the welfare of my partner and how he was adjusting, I’d likely have slapped them square in the face with my over-tired hands and asked them to show some respect.
And yet, we carry on as though a woman is the only one this is happening to. We all harbour an instinctual reflex to be concerned for a mother after a child has been born, and this only represents the unspoken notion that having a baby is largely – if not solely – the business of a woman and her child.
I can’t speak for Joel’s experiences. I don’t claim to know how it feels for a father. But I can say that issues of exclusion and uselessness, for us, were abundant and we’ve had our fair share of conversations about them. But more than both those things, what really caught us off guard was the power struggle which then ensued: The wedge which forms when one player calls most – if not all – the shots and the other is expected to step to the side.
It’s difficult, I imagine, to succumb to the mother-emphasis having a new baby is fraught with and become a side-player. One who doesn’t really – if ever – have much footing on how things are running, looking, or operating. New fathers are made passive, in a way. Compliant. Mothers know best and fathers don’t. Mothers make the rules and fathers oblige. I know that if I suddenly found myself with little power, control or attention placed on me in an experience which I had half the entitlement rights to, I would find that pill pretty hard to swallow.
The greatest challenge, I believe, lies in the fact that fathers are not only expected to blindly support, but to do so without anyone supporting them.
Inclusion, usefulness and power are basic needs we all share. To deny a father these rights is a little bit the natural order of things, but also a little bit in the hands of a mother who – through all her wild lionessing over her brand new cub – has the capacity to push to the side anything which might meddle with her most prized possession. The one she is ferociously protecting. The one she instinctively reads as though they are simply an extension of herself, which of course, is how they feel.
And so we are faced, as parents, with the difficult task of joining forces, of making roles clear, of knowing how much to lean in and how much to let go, of making space for both parties to love, protect and raise.
Which is just how our holiday felt.
We returned, of course, worse than when we left. Disrupted routines, overstimulated kids, and the comforts of home abandoned meant we expended more of our reserves in keeping afloat. We are exhausted, yes, and feel as though we need a holiday to recover. And yet, our holiday was good, not for the relaxation it provided – or lack there-of – but for the way Joel finally fit with us. The way he finally had a chance to spend time getting to know his baby. The way he finally learned the two-kid juggling act. The way he finally left behind all the things which pulled him away from us. The way we finally had the time to all fall into each other, both the trenches of our days and the highlights of them. The way we finally had a spare minute to talk about what was working and what was, perhaps not.
I have never for a second since Billy was born doubted that Joel loved him. He loved him, of course, in that instinctive way a child who is yours is loved. But I had not yet seen the fall. The moment it hits you – that desperate, engulfing love. The stuff which tears are made of. The love which, perhaps, takes a little longer for a father to experience.
I saw it, and I understood. Both the way he felt, and also how important it was to acknowledge. Because fathers are half the picture. Your children are also theirs. And for all the wild protection a mother embarks upon, what must be remembered underneath it all, is that little cubs may need protecting, but never from a loving father. One who is also navigating his way, learning his role and falling wildly in love.
A few more pictures from our holiday and some favourite Instagram posts:
It’s Clean Slate Day today. Toasting to a happy week ahead.