I'm a Dad With Depression But I'm Doing All I Can So It Won't Affect My Parenting
My depression hit me badly one night while I was feeding my newborn daughter. That moment I realized how much I need to take care of my mental health in order to be a better dad.
I was first diagnosed with depression by my therapist in 2016 after having spent my young adulthood and my 20s feeling the weight of depression's symptoms without knowing why. Feeling sad, and being enervated by my sadness, never offered enough of a clue to my sadness' source. I assumed that my internal gloom had external influences, and that I was sad because the world made me sad. The idea that my melancholy might be constitutional didn't occur to me. If I had depression, after all, I would know that I had depression. Right?
A diagnosis isn't a solution. Psychological analysis in and of itself can't make problems go away. Neither can fatherhood. Instead, fatherhood prioritizes the need for solutions, because when you graduate from Dude to Dad, it's imperative that you figure out how to cope with your personal shortcomings and behavioral health struggles. Being a parent is hard enough without having extra hurdles on the track, especially when those hurdles can, and will, ultimately affect your child. Look at it this way: If a diagnosis won't solve your problems, having a baby definitely won't solve your problems. Rather, fatherhood will simply throw them into sharp relief and exacerbate them.
I knew this well before my daughter B's birth, and of course, I remained keenly aware of it after she came along and brightened up my life. Depression functions the same way as pollutants seeping into groundwater; if handled irresponsibly, it will contaminate your bond with your kid, whether you realize it or not, and all that brightness you enjoyed at the start will grow dimmer and dimmer.
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This sober epiphany hit me hard late one night in the middle of the dream feed, one of my absolute favorite times of the day. Resting in the crook of my arm, peaceful and still, B takes a late evening snack without hardly even fluttering her eyes. I'll admit it: When I watch B take her bottle mid-snooze, I usually feel jealous. I want to be gently fed while I take my beauty rest. What a sweet deal. But on this particular night, I looked at her and felt a rush of grief, because in that moment, all I could think about was my inadequacy, and that try as I might, the best that I will ever be for her is a man for whom happiness takes measurable effort plus daily medication to counteract my chemical imbalances.
Depression's causes are much more complicated than a mere imbalance. Depression occurs when the brain drops the ball on mood regulation, when someone has a bad draw in the genetic lottery, or when everyday stress builds up like hair clogging up the drain and gets to be too much. The time I experienced this somber revelation, I wasn't really thinking about the precise scientific causes of depression. I was too preoccupied feeling I'd let B down, not by consequence of something I'd done but by virtue of being me.
Depression plays dirty, sneaking up on people who live with it and ambushing them for maximum dispiriting impact. It's an underhanded tactic. It works, too. I knew, sitting in the dark of our bedroom with B, that my sense of lacking was just my depression talking, and that I'm a good dad in spite of the forever-war I wage on my Acheronian tendencies. But depression doesn't pick convenient times to talk. It usually picks the absolute worst moments, in fact, because otherwise, it just wouldn't be depressing.
I know I'm not alone. More than 6 million men in the United States struggle with depression each year. Acknowledging that some percentage of those men will become dads, that's a lot of sad dads. For me, three years' worth of therapy and a firmly regimented medication schedule—two pills in the morning, preferably with food but typically with coffee instead—has been an enormous help growing into my role as a dad in general, and as a stay-at-home dad specifically.
Those nighttime flashes of mopey doubt are rare, and when I have them, I'm better equipped to handle them. Imagining what life would be like raising B without the tools I've gotten over the last few years is terrifying; before I had official, written confirmation of my depression, I didn't have any techniques for managing it. It's one thing to have depression and also to be a dad. It's another thing entirely to be the latter without knowing you have the former.
One thing I know for certain: B should not, cannot, be part of my coping strategy. That's too much pressure to put on her. She can't even articulate her own emotions, much less help me face mine. But B is one of the best reasons I have for learning how to master my feelings. So I take my medication. I go to therapy. I attend a parents group, which isn't quite therapy but also isn't not therapy in its own way. I work out: I run, I lift, I box, I do yoga. Most of all, I watch B grow. I remember that happiness is an active process, too, so I let her be part of my happiness process within reason. B makes me happy. Of course she does. But she isn't my path to happiness. She's simply one of the people I'm working on being happy for.