When our second baby arrived, I wasn’t prepared for my husband’s postnatal breakdown. I’ve since learned that many fathers have identity crises; some even experience full-fledged postpartum depression (PPD).
My theory is this: the presence of one child is novel, like a living, cooing football that can be paraded at parties and passed between both parents in alternating fun. A chillier reality sets in with the second child’s arrival: the undeniable existence of a capital “F” family. There is no escape.
At least not in the West. Here, my Chinese husband has his mother to pass the kids off to, which is why I couldn’t understand what he was going on about. She is our primary caregiver (besides me, as their mother who chooses that role) and his escape hatch, forever willing and generous with both her time and energy.
“It’s the Chinese way,” she says with a dismissive nod in my husband’s direction. “Besides, men don’t know how to care for children.”
This view of paternal ineptitude is not just Chinese; it’s a global perception. It’s also an opportunistic wormhole through which a postpartum, shell-shocked father of “not just one, but now two” kids can wiggle out of his familial responsibility.
His complaints about a loss of freedom and autonomy were quaintly framed by his sudden, mysterious inability to remember how to change a diaper or heat up a bottle of breast milk. Then came a habit of being the first one out the door in the morning and the last one home at night. “’Too busy with work’ is a choice,” I asserted to the back of his head.
I found all of this heartbreaking. Throughout my recovery from childbirth and my reframing of identity as a mother of two children, our fighting got us nowhere. My mother-in-law began to interfere in typical Chinese style. She repeatedly assured me she was willing to step up where my husband was falling short.
“It has to come from him,” I told her, deflated.
“You’ve already got a good situation here,” she clucked. “How many of your foreign friends have a free built-in caregiver like me?” That’s when exasperation set in. She was missing my point.
Then one day, my husband and I found ourselves alone in traffic together. For the first time since our son was born, I did not complain about his absence; I focused on his presence.
“What kind of a father do you want to be?” I asked. “Do you want them to know you? Do you want them to see you as capable? Do you want them to know that you love them enough to be willing to care for them? Only you can decide.”
Since then, I’ve seen some shifts – more play with his 2-year old daughter, more curiosity about his infant son, and a few unbidden efforts to feed or clothe one or the other child. As a glimpse of how things should be all the time, I give these actions no congratulatory cheering. To my MIL, it’s a victory she is shocked to be witnessing.
I’ve learned a few things. First, you can’t force a player onto the field if he doesn’t want to play. Second, postpartum recovery is a capital “F” family affair. Even the (frustrated feminist) team captain has to learn to be patient.
Illustration by Sun Zheng