In the 21st century, at least in some cohorts, men are more and more involved in raising their children, not just kicking a ball around but also changing diapers, handling 3 a.m. feedings: the mundane, demanding aspects of raising babies. Whether or not it takes a village to raise a child, it’s undeniable that two (or more) people are better at managing the needs of an infant than one person can be.
Writing in Roxane Gay’s Gay Mag, Aubrey Hirsch says “My husband’s struggle with post-partum depression was my struggle, too.”
Most mornings, D drags himself into the living room on all fours. He lies face-down on the interlocking foam floor tiles, his upturned arms at his sides. The baby crawls over him, tugging his hair, drooling on his t-shirts. He doesn’t move. …
D’s depression is the weather in our house, except there’s no forecast. Some days we wake to sunny skies, gentle breezes. We talk and laugh. We eat and nap. We watch the baby the way one watches a campfire, not for any particular reason, but because it is there and strangely fascinating in its combination of predictability and surprise.
Other days there are storms, rough winds, hailstones big enough to take chunks of flesh off the bone. D stomps angrily around the house. Or he stays in bed and cries. He rages, he weeps. He sleeps, or he doesn’t.
Okay, you say. He’s a man with clinical depression. Or maybe he’s just a big baby, jealous of the new attention-grabber in the house, wanting more of his wife’s time just for him, the way it used to be. And maybe you’re right. Hirsch felt the same way:
Here is my postpartum confession: I hated him.
I hated D so much I could barely look at him. This sniveling, mushy annelid. Didn’t he see me? Look what I was doing. I, too, was parenting a fussy newborn. I, too, was working a stressful job. I, too, was pushing aside exhaustion to care for our baby. Only I was doing it more! I was up all night. I was using what precious energy I had to convert calories into breast milk. The baby wouldn’t drink from a bottle, or a syringe, or a spoon, or the fancy supplemental nursing system the lactation consultants swore would work, so I was doing Every. Single. Feeding. I was doing it amongst wildly fluctuating hormones and thyroid numbers that, three months after the baby’s birth, still weren’t balanced correctly. I was doing it with fresh stitches, with aching breasts, while actively bleeding. But I was doing it!
And what was he doing? Crying, kicking things, slamming doors, punching walls. To me, he seemed like a soap-opera housewife, in the grip of some inflated tragedy, flopping around the house.
This is the crux of the essay. It’s impossible to blame Hirsch for hating her husband — and yet, the very image of the “soap-opera housewife” is the canonical picture of someone who isn’t believed because of who she is. We frame the soap-opera housewife is spoiled, or lazy, or overdramatic, or self-centered–and then we don’t have to take her seriously. Similarly, the moment we frame the clearly miserable father of a new infant as a spoiled man-baby, we don’t have to take him seriously either. And he’s not the only one who suffers: the child and the mother both pay for the binary framing.
The essay goes on to describe the birth of their second child, after which D. was correctly diagnosed.
Now we treat it with antidepressants and therapy and support, support, support. After D starts treatment, everything in our house changes. Not only is he better equipped to cope, and to help, but I’m not mad at him anymore. Or, maybe I am, but not in the same way. I have a new enemy now, postpartum depression, and D and I are finally on the same team.
Hirsch’s essay focuses a lot on the importance of naming the issue, talking about what’s happening. That’s why she went public with her story. I appreciate that, because the concept was entirely new to me: of course, naming is an essential first step.
I can’t help focusing on three things that are completely missing from this well-told story:
1) why did they decide to have a second child after the intensely difficult first experience (I can think of plenty of reasons; I’d like to know theirs)?
2) Except for a passing acknowledgment that the term for this depression in cis men is “postnatal” rather than “postpartum,” Hirsch says nothing about the role of privilege in their story. Small clues indicate that they are white, reasonably affluent, educated, and have access to health insurance–and yet she never says how much harder their path would have been if any of those identities didn’t apply.
3) While she describes the problem I’m calling binary framing, she doesn’t name that. She doesn’t wrestle with how the fact that she hated him was part of the obstacle to finding out what was going on. She doesn’t talk about what it would have meant to believe D’s reactions, or how things might have been different. Okay, the doctors never asked D about postnatal depression, but what did he and she tell the doctors? Again, she was struggling with a new infant, an intolerable sleep schedule, and a miserable partner–no one expects her to be perfect. In a retrospective essay, however, more hindsight into what might have helped would be enormously useful to people who might be going through this now.