The forgotten narrative of a new dad
Being a new mum isn’t easy but albeit differently, neither is being a new dad
When my son was born, I had two weeks of paternity leave before I had to return to work. That’s it. Two weeks. In contrast to some countries, that might be quite generous but in comparison with up to a year of statutory maternity leave in the UK for women, it’s incredibly meagre. More significantly, it denies new fathers a reasonable amount of time to bond with their newborn child, not to mention being able to support their partners with the challenge of parenthood before returning to work.
During our pregnancy, society’s lack of regard for me as a dad-to-be (in contrast to that of my wife) was distinctly apparent. And when my son was born, that continued. As a new dad, my narrative as a parent is one that is unfairly relegated, further diminishing the role of fathers in society.
My return to work after paternity leave was complete with getting up early and returning home late, just as I had done before fatherhood. Although, long working days, and the pressures and workload of my role, were now accompanied by a new layer of responsibility in being a dad; a responsibility that trumps the former without exception.
That responsibility is often exclusively associated with mums as fathers continue to struggle in shaking the stereotype of fathers of yesteryear, some of whom exercised their paternal role at arm’s length and left it to mums. Whereas today, most dads are involved and supportive of their children and their partners.
Just as I was unable to fully empathise with my wife in her experience of being pregnant, I can’t fully relate with what it’s been like in becoming a new mum and everything that comes with it. Nevertheless, I have enormous respect for her and I acknowledge the efforts she makes as a mum that probably exceeds what I would be capable of managing in her position. While I’m arguably biased, she’s a brilliant mum with a natural maternal instinct that never fails to meet what’s best for our son.
We’re fortunate that her parents and extended family are very supportive and they’ll eagerly welcome any opportunity to help when she might need some respite. However, I also recognise how my return to work brought an opportunity for the onset of loneliness.
Being a mum at home during maternity leave or otherwise isn’t easy and it can place a strain on the emotional well-being of new mums. It can undoubtedly represent an emotional and lonely journey (that can manifest itself as postnatal depression) exacerbated by varying support that not everyone is afforded. Yet with those challenges come the reward and fulfilment of being able to enjoy witnessing the development of your child. The smiles, cackles and the many ‘firsts’ mums get to see all make it worthwhile.
For all the dealing with poonamis, when you could really do with someone to tag team with on the clean up and changing operation, or frustratingly spending the bulk of your day with your child on your breast, unable to get even the most minor task completed, the reward of being a mum is so much greater. Much of that reward is what as dads we sadly miss out on sharing.
There’s a distinct lack of empathy for dads. Our return to work is viewed as respite from parenthood. Complete with adult company and structure to our day that isn’t at the whim of breastfeeding on demand or similar, our role is considered a walk in the park. What do we have to complain about when we’re actually afforded time to ourselves without a baby in tow regardless of what we do? Sadly, that’s how the narrative of a dad is routinely, erroneously and unfairly perceived.
During the week, I feel almost like an absent father. I usually do a nappy change just before I leave for work and I’m home for bathtime and bedtime. But I’m knackered in the evening and any quality time with my son and indeed my wife is compromised by my fatigue, though that doesn’t mean I shirk my role and responsibilities as a dad. It becomes increasingly apparent that I miss out on much. I might see my son do something new and I’ll rush to share it with my wife; only to find out it’s not so new after all. I was just at work when he first did it.
I’ve never attended any parent and baby classes with my son (notably more commonly known as mother and baby classes) while my wife has. Even doctor’s appointments preclude me from attending because they’re scheduled throughout the working day. Weekends are too short as it is and they’re punctuated by life admin and work.
A few weekends ago, I took my son for a walk to see the geese and ducks near the local lake. It was an effort to give my wife some respite while being an opportunity to spend time with my son. However, when I messaged my wife to let her know where we had gone, she was slightly annoyed that I hadn’t waited for her to make it a walk we could have gone on as a family.
Innocently, she was unable to empathise that I craved spending time with my son, and wanted to give her a break, hence us going for a walk where she wasn’t accompanying us. Even with an involved dad for a partner, addressing the lack of time I get to spend with my son wasn’t a driver for her rationale in understanding my decision.
The lack of understanding of what a dad experiences in missing out on time with their child is far reaching and worrying but a shift in thinking doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. My hour to the lake with my son was insignificant compared to the entire week my wife spends with him; for many, that’s not a perspective that’s even considered when thinking of the emotional challenges for new dads.
Personally, there’s a further frustration with the forgotten experience of dads and that’s as a black dad. Negative and racist stereotypes have left many seeing a black, involved dad as somewhat paradoxical. Being out with my son, I’ll sometimes receive odd glances while pushing his pushchair as if it’s a mirage to see a black dad, let alone a dad period, behind the handlebar. Black dads exist and we’re involved.
Elliott Rae, founder of Music Football Fatherhood, wrote of his experience that I, and many other black dads, share. Consider how dads are already perceived as the lesser of two parents. That’s compounded for black dads who are subject to the unfair stereotype of being occasional fathers that are only involved on an ad hoc and unreliable basis.
While my wife is exclusively breastfeeding and on demand, that remains a role I can’t fulfil. But as far as everything else goes, I’m on deck. If I hear my son crying at night while my wife is asleep, I’ll dash to the nursery to soothe him back to sleep before she wakes up. I do everything associated with being a parent and to support my wife in what society acknowledges can be a tough role in being a mum. We just need to acknowledge that albeit differently, being a dad isn’t easy either and our experience deserves to be included in the narrative of being a parent.