I Think I Know Why Men Don’t Talk About Parental Leave

The past months of activists working to get paid leave for parents into President Joe Biden's agenda have produced a lot of essays from mothers about the experience of having a baby. Blood-on-the-page testimonials are what this is writing from. Where are the fathers? There are misogynists who don't see newborn care as their labor. There has been silence from fathers who participate fully in the postpartum experience, who understand its beauty and difficulty, yet who still can't find the language to tell that story. It's not a tradition to attempt it when you're in a Hetero marriage, and it feels like a trophy for work that should be normal. It's safer to be the silent ally. With paid family leave one of the first policy items on the chopping block, allyship is useless. All parents need relief because our government is failing them. There is one attempt here.

My daughter didn't like breastfeeding. It was very difficult for my wife for the first month. We didn't know how common this was, but the classes offered by our hospital and our doula emphasized the natural wonder of breastfeeding, focused on counteracting decades of medicine decentralizing its value. The inborn magic, the promised bonding, just didn't happen, despite the fact that our doula was great and the classes were really helpful. In the hospital, my wife squeezed every drop of colostrum out of blisters on her nipples, while I fed our daughter with a 1-milliliter syringe, holding my pinkie in her mouth. None of us slept. We were in a daze when our stay ended.

I would feed our daughter and then wake my wife so I could use the supply in the bottle. Over and over, our burdens are separated, but shared and communicated in brief moments of passing a hand on a shoulder, a nod. I'm not comfortable with the idea of burden being applied to my role, the way it should be to my wife. I don't think of my mental space in those weeks as postpartum depression, or even moving in waves where one of us would feel the call to be the positive voice for a week or so, afraid, I think. We both said things about regretting our daughter that we still carry shame over. I can't imagine the shame if we weren't physically there.

My wife and I were fortunate to have paid leave at the same time because of the unique hardship of our experience, but I don't want to emphasize it. She was able to stretch hers past three months with a Rhode Island state program that covers 60 percent of her salary. Six years of banked sick time was used to cover my teaching days, but I ignored the fact that I had to stay on the clock for my publishing responsibilities. I was able to stay at home for a few more months when my wife returned to work, which felt like a big deal, even though it was the bare minimum in every other developed nation.

The most important months of my life were these. I have never been more exhausted. When my daughter wasn't in motion, she preferred to walk strapped to me in the carrier, which would sometimes work to keep her asleep, as long as she didn't feel me stop. As I tried to get her to sleep in her crib, she screamed until I thought she was suffocating. I would give up and leave again. I had a sciatic nerve that blew out one night. I couldn't lift anything and my wife had to take two days off work. We were worried that her boss would take it as a sign that she couldn't stay away from the kid. Keeping our daughter alive, keeping my wife's job, and the harder-to-quantify pressure of societal expectations were all challenges for both of us. I wonder if I was programmed to fail at primary care. Was my wife destined to lose her career?

My response was to emphasize the pathetic dadness of the situation. Holding a baby all day can break anyone when they rush back to their normal life. My situation wasn't the same as my wife pumping herself to exhaustion at work, then battling arthritic wrist pain while cluster-breastfeeding at night, but it was an experience that was proof that the weight of caring is still there. I tried to stretch my back as fast as I could outside her room after I injured myself. She would explode into tears after a few seconds of silence, a sound so familiar that I began to imagine it when it wasn't happening.

My daughter was a dream in public. I sought out those moments for myself. When a dad caring for an infant in public gets cartoonish overpraise, it brings me back to trying to express the isolation and pain of infant care. I don't think I've ever had a stranger bless me on the street, but out with the baby, this happened at least three times in as many months. I was in a panic in the waiting room. As I held my daughter on the table in the examination room, the doctor said, "You've got such a perfect dad, look right now."

The double-bind of the tone extended to a caregivers father was built in, and it was just a brief observation. Infant caregiving is something that your father wouldn't have thought to do, that many jobs don't offer enough space to support a man, and therefore a temporary kindness, as opposed to a matter of your kid's survival and your life-changing responsibility. I felt scared a lot. And alone. I was angry at my own failure and wondered what was wrong with me. Why did it take so long for a fever to break? When she looked up at me, she mouth open in a wail around the rubber nipple, "Why couldn't I get the simplest thing right?" At 3 a.m., as my wife and I whispered about whether to soothe her or let her suffer, how could I feel such resentment? The experience was supposed to get easier. These were the thoughts I never had.

I can't empathise with the physical toll of birth or early motherhood, or with the judgement thrown at mothers around whether they return to work or not, or how long they take off. The first six months of my daughter's life have irrevocably changed me. I hold onto a sense that my daughter deserved better because I failed to appreciate all the joy I didn't. It was much harder to return to work after that stretch, like walking into your childhood home and realizing that everything is the same except you, and therefore nothing makes sense. I couldn't focus on anything other than the time I was speaking to students. I felt like an exposed nerve, we were still sleeping and I wasn't taking care of myself. Every day I would call to check in and hear her screaming from across the room, because she wouldn't nap at day care. Picking her up was a mixture of wanting to hold her as soon as possible and wanting nothing more than an extra minute without her. Dropping a child off later than opening time is more luxurious. Babies smaller than her would already be down for a nap when I dropped her off. All of this is common, of course; that doesn't make it any less intolerable, nor does any parent abdicate their responsibility to scream that fact.

I've read this essay many times and still have questions about whether it's a worthy or productive story to tell. I think it's simple. The act of giving voice to the experience should not be limited to mothers.