To state the obvious, being an expectant dad is terrifying. I know it was for me. I felt helpless watching my wife struggle through her pregnancy. I was so excited that once my son was born I could actually do something to help instead of offering the obligatory pillow or back rub. I couldn’t wait to meet him. But I never imagined that before he even entered the world, I’d be told that I’d never connect with my son like my wife could.
Four short years ago, my wife and I sat in a drab, flouro-lit room in the bowels of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney’s inner west. She was 30-odd weeks pregnant with my oldest son and feeling the effects of a cocktail of medication designed to keep her blood pressure down and ward off the slide toward pre-eclampsia. We were there for a Childbirth and Parenting Weekend Workshop.
As complete rookies definitely not prepared to be parents, we had mixed feelings about these classes. Don’t get me wrong, they are an invaluable resource, but does anyone really want to give up two Saturdays in a row when you’re about to lose them forever? This is a safe space, right? Full disclosure – I didn’t.
Nevertheless, we hopped on the bus early that Saturday and went on our merry way. The morning passed uneventfully enough. A few introductions, a couple of group activities and some frank advice from the midwife running the class. Honestly, my most vivid memory from that morning was the pain in my back from the stiff public hospital plastic chair that I’d been sitting on for the last four hours. (As if I’d say anything in a room full of heavily pregnant women. But back pain isn’t mutually exclusive, right? Still, keep your mouth shut mate).
As the first Saturday wound down, our midwife told us we’d be watching a video to finish off. Bean bags were distributed, mothers attempted to make themselves comfortable and the play button was pressed.
It was your standard fare – a few interviews with new mothers, fathers and experienced midwives – with the presumed aim of putting us rookies at ease. Towards the end of the video, a retired midwife appeared on screen and took great delight in championing the connection between mother and baby. Fair enough.
But this woman’s closing statement took my breath away. It made my blood boil. And just weeks away from meeting my son, it made me feel profoundly sad.
“Men can’t understand it, they just can’t have the same connection.”
There I sat, in that aforementioned plastic chair, absolutely dumbstruck. I confess, I have no idea what happened in the rest of the video. Maybe it wasn’t her intention but that one sentence re-enforced my fear, dread and doubt. Am I cut out to be a dad? Let alone a good one? And it was really fucking unfair.
Of course the bond between mother and baby is special. And it should be celebrated. I’ve watched my wife raise our two sons with such aplomb that if she didn’t have a special connection I’m not sure where we’d be. It’s hard work that never, ever stops.
But what am I? Spare parts? I don’t have a uterus so I can’t carry a baby. That wasn’t my choice. Does that make me less capable of loving my children?
I’ll admit that when my oldest son was young, he was obsessed with his mother. He was happy to be around me if Mum was there, but if it was just me tasked with calming him down from a tantrum, I didn’t have much hope of success. But I stuck at it. I was persistent. I told him every chance I could how much I loved him, how much he meant to me and that I would always be there for him. Even when his screams drowned out my voice.
Over time, he began to trust me. Our bond grew. Sure, it’s different from his connection with his mother but that doesn’t mean that hers is stronger, more important or more beneficial to our son. When it really comes down to it, kids need to be surrounded by love and our little boy didn’t lack. My wife and I shared our love for him equally.
Maybe this woman on the screen came from a generation where dads spent the birth at the pub, never changed a nappy and came home from work with the mindset that they were the only one doing any real work all day. We all know this attitude is bullshit but maybe these were the types of fathers that she knew.
But I’m not that father. And neither are hundreds of thousands of dads across Australia and untold millions more across the world. To tell all of these men, who are no doubt terrified like I was, that they can’t possibly hope to form as strong a connection with their kids as their partners is not only unfair – it’s just plain wrong.
I believe that my bond with my children is just as special, just as strong and equal in all ways with my wife’s. I didn’t say the same – equal. And I earned it in a different way. I spent many nights in that first year telling my son to go back to sleep, pacing our apartment with him in my arms, singing my own version of Ants Go Marching over and over and over until I could feel his little body go floppy. (Contact me for the lyrics if you’re in need. Heads up: a lot of it revolves around poo, pee and bums).
And I’m absolutely certain I’m not alone. There are hundreds of magazines, blogs and websites that champion the mother and how special they are. And mothers are special, without doubt or question. But you know what helps a mum? A good dad by their side, ready to step up and ready to love the shit out of that kid just like its mum. We’re not some back-up, ring-in or part-timer who swans in whenever they feel like it. We’re partners – co-captains of the parenting team.
So no, lady from the video, I don’t agree. In fact, I resent the implication. And if you’re a new dad reading this, don’t let anyone tell you this kind of crap – ever. Love your children, tell them you love them, show them you love them and never, ever waver. That’s the connection a dad has with their kids.
Different? Sure. But lesser? No fucking way.