I’ve been a father for twenty-three nights. I count by nights because it’s when I feel most fatherly: the late night feedings, the desperate burpings, the pick-him-up-and-back-to-bed-and-get-out-of-bed-and-rock-rock-rocks. This is the image of parenthood when it comes to a newborn, the moments that earn the unkempt hair, the toothpaste dried in the beard, the appointment forgotten and forgiven.
My wife and I share the responsibility exactly halfway. I wake up and feed our son, put him to sleep, then I’m on soothing duty until the next feeding. The time after our partner’s feeding turn is our own time, time to sleep with the piece of mind that our son is being taken care of. We trade off, aiming for alternating spouse wake-up duties and feedings. It’s our best effort to prevent one of us from burning out or becoming overburdened with child care. It’s our idea of feminism, in that it demands the same from me as it does from my wife. It’s the mindset we want ingrained in our son, that while mothers and fathers might individually have different skills—in parenting and otherwise—we must equally share time and responsibility. But more than a political choice, it’s simply the one that makes the most sense to us. Neither of us wants to be the primary caretaker, neither of us wants to be jealous of our son’s favorite, neither of us wants to become his favorite. We want parity, in tasks and our son’s love.
The best advice I ever received from my father will tell you everything you need to know about my father, my fatherhood role models, and why I’m waking up in the middle of the night thinking that I have lost my son in so many ways. I was ten, and preparing for the Pinewood Derby. I spent 30 minutes before dinner every night rubbing liquid graphite on the car’s axels, trying to ease the friction between the black plastic wheels and the shiny metal pins that held them to the car. The garage door opening would startle me each night near the midpoint of my work, prompting me to switch axels. After my father pulled his car into the garage, he would check up on me. One night, I put something—a wheel? a package of graphite string?—in my mouth to free my hands for switching axels in the vice grip. My father looked at me and said, “Don’t put things in your mouth. Communists don’t have soap.” For a long time, that’s the only way my dad knew how to talk to me: in jokes, and in jokes that only he thought was funny. He was trying, trying his hardest to connect with me. But, in trying to provide me with the fun father he never had, we struggled to have any depth to our relationship.
The sleep, as it is so often, is not as advertised. We thought we were doing our best to buy each other one five or six hour block of time per night, at least attempting to give both of us a period in which we can enter into deep, restful sleep. But whenever I hit the dream stage of sleep, I would become anxious instead of restful. In half-sleep, or sometimes even in my sleep, I would sit up in bed and begin searching for my son. Once—I don’t remember this, but my wife did the next morning and told me about it—I grabbed the extra blanket I use at night and formed a baby-size lump out of it, swaddling it with our comforter. I was rocking and shushing the blanket baby when my wife woke up.
“I was dreaming she was lost in the sheets,” Dominique Petit recalled. “Or that I had rolled on top of her and was squishing her. I would go through the movements of looking through the bedding to see where she was.” Petit is married to sleep researcher Tore Nielsen at the University of Montreal, and her anxiety dreams prompted Nielsen’s 2007 study, “Dream-associated Behaviors Affecting Pregnant and Postpartum Women.” Nielsen notes in the introduction to his study that much has been made of the dreams of pregnant women, but relatively little research prior to his study is focused on the quality of sleep—or lack thereof—of postpartum women. This lack of research is astounding, especially since Nielsen reports that three-fourths of women report anxiety dreams post-partum and nearly three-fourths of women reported dreams of “infants in peril.”
For as much as we try to keep equity in our marriage, the unique characteristics my wife and I bring to our family prompt us to choose different tasks around the house and roles in making decisions. My wife is usually the worrier, though she does so because she’s a planner. I am not a planner: I am forever begging that we wing days on vacation, exploring until we find the day’s activity. Sometimes, this results in a tearful dinner at the Budapest Burger King because we can’t find the authentic Hungarian restaurant I dreamed of eating in instead of finding and planning to visit before our trip. But sometimes, it works beautifully and results in a hidden vista for a treasured photograph that moves beyond the typical tourist’s memento. I’m not telling you something she wouldn’t tell you herself, here: she was not good at being a mother to a newborn. It wasn’t that she wasn’t nurturing, or in love with our son, and it wasn’t that our son wasn’t totally in love with her. She was and is the most soothing presence in his life, and her cuddles can stop the worst tantrum in minutes. It was when he was asleep, or otherwise satisfied and preoccupied, when her desire to plan created anxiety. “Do you think we should…” give him an extra ounce in his next bottle? … let him sleep this long? … try to make him sleep more? … take his temperature? … take the temperature of his room? She wasn’t enjoying the overall experience, I could tell. Sure, the moments of a smile or eye contact were precious to her, but she will not remember the first weeks fondly. And why would she? The anxiety, coupled with the hormones and physical trauma of delivery, would be stressful for anyone, potentially damaging for a perfectionist like her. But me? The stakes are low for me. If I changed a diaper in front of guests, I was labeled Superdad. I wanted to do more, be able to care for him on my own, and for the most part, I achieved that. I’ve never been able to have the soothing touch of my wife, but I’m comfortable as an independent caregiver to our son. Part of what makes me comfortable, though, part of what makes me fear my comfort, is the low expectations placed on me.
I’m supposed to be the hapless dad who fails miserably and adorably, with no adverse effects to his child or his relationship with that child.
Nielsen’s conclusion? The prevalent occurrence of pregnancy and postpartum infant dreams and associated behaviors may reflect the pervasive emotional influence of maternal concerns or changes instigated by severe sleep disruption, rapid eye movement sleep deprivation, and altered hormone levels.
We watched a lot of television during my son’s first weeks. Or, I should say, the television was on often, as background noise, as something to lose ourselves in when we needed to think about anything other than feeding schedules, naps, diapers, and whether or not that red spot is a rash and whether or not the temperature of our baby’s bedroom in the unusually warm central Pennsylvanian summer might cause the dreaded SIDS. I noticed, as you do when experiencing a big change in your life, a lot of content on television that spoke to the idea of parenthood. Babies are all over television during the middle of the day: touching moments promoting baby shampoo, home burglary alarm systems, life insurance, and vacations. The only time I saw a father interacting with a baby was a mobile phone commercial in which a father watches Miami Heat highlights while “attempting” to sooth his baby back to sleep. I’m supposed to be the hapless dad who fails miserably and adorably, with no adverse effects to his child or his relationship with that child.I’m not supposed to be searching for answers on how to best provide for my child, unless the definition of providing is a breadwinner’s definition, my car pulling into the garage and weighing in on a woodworking project.
My wife had, long before our son was born, imagined that we would formula feed. My wife and I were both formula-fed in the 1980s, and neither of us had any adverse health effects from it (presumably because our mothers were able to figure out how to mix formula correctly and had access to clean water). She didn’t mandate that we would bottle-feed, rather, encouraged both of us to research breast and bottle-feeding during her pregnancy and then share our findings in order to come to the best conclusion for us. At first, I cherished the idea of breastfeeding: a time that built a strong bond between mother and child. I had been briefly exposed to the breastfeeding mantra of “breast is best” and in its pith, I found a simplistic answer. I worried, as all parents must, about my future child’s health. The beginning of the end of my breastfeeding hopes came from another future father in the (ridiculously unhelpful) child care course we took when my wife was five months pregnant. We live in a college town, so most parents choose to breastfeed. Some choose to be adamant about breastfeeding. As the class facilitator was discussing potential problems with breastfeeding that affected the mother—infection, mastitis, etc.—and when to decide to take the mother to the emergency room for these problems, the superdad next to me piped up. “But, even if she has this infection, she can still breastfeed, right? Like, we wouldn’t have to resort to formula for a day or two?” While on paper, this seems like a pertinent question, this father’s nonverbal attitude throughout the child care class—hands behind his head, leaning back and propping up his feet on an extra chair—told the real story. He didn’t want to imagine a world in which he’d be asked to perform a nighttime feeding, and the use of formula might call for that sacrifice on his part. I realize that this is not why most fathers champion breastfeeding—as I said, I was for it and I still wonder if that would have been the right choice for our kid—this dad wanted to make sure he could stay focused on providing the shelter part of Maslow’s Hierarchy by focusing on his career. He excused himself to take a work call on his phone, and the other fathers waited for the answer, his version of “I’ll hang up and take the answer off line.” The other dads nodded in relief when the instructor assured the class that the mother could continue breastfeeding through the pain of infection, and even should in order to keep her milk supply consistent.
My wife, in our son’s first year, was entering into her most important year of work, in which she’d undergo a major project that required her consistent attention. I knew I needed to do more—or at least half—and so we chose Similac. This is not a popular decision, and it’s one that doesn’t come with the cavalcade of mommy blogs and support groups at the local coffee shop. We’re often scared to correct our friends when they assume my wife breastfeeds because, well, our people don’t choose to bottle feed.
At times, Nielsen explains, she may even touch or take hold of her bed partner while attempting to find the lost infant. When fully awake, she realizes that her infant is not in the bed but she may nevertheless feel compelled to arise and confirm that the infant is sleeping safely. Such behaviors may reflect a mother’s state of maternal vigilance. Her partner’s vigilance could happen anywhere: in bed with the mother, on the couch watching LeBron James dunk, in darkest Borneo.
I do the grocery shopping for our family. I love it, and it reminds me of my mother sitting at the kitchen table, a box full of coupons carefully filed away in envelopes marked “Health/Beauty,” “Food,” “Beverages,” and “Household.” The grocery store is a collection of possibilities: the gourmet brand of jarred artichokes might complement the homemade pizza, but the canned store brand might do the same work. I love the thrill of couponing, the final tally of the money saved, the possibility of tucking away twenty more dollars into savings that month. We’re brand loyal on our baby items.
The $5 rebate checks for Similac we receive from Abbott on a monthly basis read: “Moms, use this as a coupon.” We get these coupons because I enrolled in Similac StrongMoms. We’re a Pampers family when it comes to diapers, because we like the pee indicator line on the Pampers Swaddlers and we’ve imagined or realized—the difference is negligible—that Huggies has a weird, musky scent. I love the Pampers Rewards—a code on every package!—and have already started squirreling away points for a tricycle called “The PlasmaCar.” Of course, this signs me up for e-mails—all of the e-mails, it can sometimes seem—with advice and solutions, which usually necessitate more products from Proctor & Gamble. They try to build a community online where parents can trade stories and find answers. Have Parenting Questions? Get Help From Moms Like You! I am the bearded lady, the father who is supposed to either have all of the answers or none of the questions.
Parasomnia is what Nielsen calls it: sleep behaviors out of the ordinary, like I experienced. His idea is that these parasomnias are caused by the idea that parents are so worried about doing everything perfectly, that they practice and perform in their sleep. This is also what wakes older infants: when experiencing a development, babies often become restless trying to perform activities like rolling over or verbal communication in their sleep.
In my parasomnia, I am constantly trying to find my son. I dig, I pat, I lift a blanket and reach. I am trying to do everything perfectly, an anomaly for me, since I do prefer to experiment rather than hone and revise in other areas of my life. I am trying to do everything that I’m not sure I’m supposed to be doing perfectly. I’m trying to do things by intuition, when I’m not sure I’m supposed to have intuition as a father. I’m trying to perform the physical roles I’ve adopted—I call myself the swaddlemaster after a particularly tight blanket origami—because I know how to do this thing to help my son, it helps him feel good, and that makes me feel good, too. I am trying to parent by the book when I am not the audience for the book, the formula coupon, the internet forum brought to you by a diaper brand. The parasomnia is me: trying to find myself as I try to find my son.
My wife and I have heard over and over that the first baby looks especially like the father so that the father won’t abandon the family. It’s a scientific argument, given to us by people who mean well. They say it with a laugh: it’s so the father knows it’s actually his. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen the word “cuckold.” My son fits this apocryphal science. He has my deeper blue eyes rather than my wife’s lighter gray, my extreme ears that connect quickly to the neck where most have a lobe, the turned down mouth whose contented smile looks like confusion and unabated happiness looks like gas. He has my widow’s peak, small dark hairs detailing his forehead. We playfully called him Eddie Munster. There are no blogs for us. Each baby is unique, but we’re finding our parenting arrangement to be a goddamn snowflake. My wife worries on the way home from a lunch with friends that people will think she’s a bad mother, since I’m often the one feeding or holding him, in public or otherwise. We both registered for diaper bags, but it’s mine (a gray and lime Columbia number) we use most often.
In a response to Nielsen’s study, Dr. Sheldon Roth, a psychoanalyst focused on sleep, said that these anxiety dreams are simply a result of uncertainty. During pregnancy, we know right where our child is, and that’s calming. Postpartum, even though we remember placing the child in the crib or bassinet or, on fussier nights, the car seat, the child could be anywhere. It’s a human, it has free will. Even though a newborn doesn’t have the physical wherewithal to travel on its own, we can imagine that it could. Having a child is similar to exploring a new country: there could be an oasis of peaceful sleep through the forest, or the fire ants of colic could be right underfoot.
In times of uncertainty, we fall back on what we know. What I know is not sports highlights on my phone; it’s the idea that my hands are the perfect size to cradle my son during his first—and subsequent—baths. What I know is how to stick out my tongue so my son smiles, then tries to mimic. What I know is that I must do my part to create a model of fatherhood, so my son’s mimicry takes him to a love he never considered but should never do without.
By: Bill Riley
Previously published on STAND Magazine