Nearly every night of the first few weeks of my son's life, I'd click him into the back seat of our minivan and drive him around until he fell asleep. Like so many babies lulled by the humming of tires on pavement, the kid conked out in 10 minutes, but I'd continue on to the closest Dunkin' Donuts with an all-night drive-thru window, nearly an hour away.
My wife and I made this arrangement to allow her some precious sleep, but as I volunteered for chauffeur duty again and again—each time coming home later and later—we both knew there was more going on than her exhaustion and my craving for doughnuts.
In the parking lot, I would pray my son would stay asleep and not set my already-frayed nerves on fire. I'd cram those doughnuts into my mouth as if they were the last delicious things on earth.
These were the tiny, fleeting pleasures I clung to after my son was born. They felt like all I had left. When a child was added to my life, it was as if something enormous and coveted was subtracted in return, and the transaction left me reeling, like someone who'd just gambled away his soul.
I fell into a well of depression so deep I wasn't even aware of it. It was only years later, after I spoke to a psychotherapist, that I learned I was experiencing male postpartum depression. It seems ridiculous on its face: men don't do the hard work of carrying a pregnancy for nine months. We don't have to bear the pains of labor. We never had an umbilical connection to our children. We just have to hang on tight. But giving my emotions a name, and an explanation, helped me feel less alone and better able to cut myself some slack. Before then, even calling it depression felt like an excuse for weak, pathetic behavior.
This was not what I expected from fatherhood. I was 31 and thought I'd slide into it easily. "What's a little sleep deprivation?" parents-to-be tell themselves. We got through college, after all. But not 48 hours after we returned home with our boy, a truth dawned on me with shocking force: my life was gone. Movies, sleeping, long showers—all gone. We became slaves to this tiny new thing living in our home, and there was no going back.
I ceded nearly complete authority to my wife, then blamed both her and my son for my feelings of loss and insignificance. I took on every parental responsibility with sucked-up reluctance on the outside and contempt on the inside. My wife seemed to consider me selfish and irresponsible. She was tired, she'd say, of parenting both of us. Even when the bickering ended, the wounds never healed. Our marriage took a fatal hit.
I couldn't mask my sadness when my work colleagues asked excitedly about fatherhood. "It's good … well, it's OK," I said. "Actually, it's very, very hard." By then, I was close to tears. We were all happy when the conversation ended. Later on, they told me I'd scared the crap out of them. I'm sure at least a few went back on contraception.
One day, I sat on the hardwood floor next to my son, both of us exhausted. My son started crying. Then I did, too. Actually, we bawled. I don't know why he was crying, but I was mourning the loss of my life as I knew it. As messy as it was, that shared sob was our first moment of bonding, and it helped steer me toward responsibility.
Eventually, my wife and I divorced, but our split actually enhanced my relationship with my kids. (We had twin girls after my son.) It forced me to locate my inner parent, the one who tells me when it's OK to let my son stay up late, when it's appropriate to be interrupted on the phone by a whining daughter and whether a tense situation calls for stern rules or just an all-out, friendly family wrestling match.
Nine years later, I look back at an old photo of my son and me asleep together on a sunlit bed when he was a newborn. Our faces are peaceful and our arms stretched upward, as if we're doing a stadium wave. I view the picture as incontrovertible evidence that he was a part of me—a time-sucking, sleep-stealing, delicious part of me. And what's more, he needed me. I just had to step outside of myself to see it. I was no less a dad all along, just a lost one.