Headache Versus Heartache
For all its joys, parenting can be painful. After the birth of my two sons, who are three and a half years apart, I went through very different kinds of pain. The pain that accompanied my first son was very physical, whereas the experience of my second son has been much more emotionally challenging. Even now, after a few months of being a family of four, I’m still struck by the dynamic between these two types of pain.
A few months after my first son was born I had to go to the doctor because I had a pain in my neck so acute that I was having a hard time sitting all day at work. I couldn’t turn my head, couldn’t lift anything, and typing left me sore and exhausted.
The doctor asked me if I had been lifting anything out of the ordinary. At first I drew a blank. I hadn’t been moving big boxes or lifting furniture – the normal things that leap to mind. But then I realized – the baby. Not only was I carrying a baby all the time, I was holding him in strange positions, carrying the weight cradled in my arms or slung over my shoulder, in strange carriers and slings.
That, the doctor informed me, would do it. He prescribed muscle relaxants and told me not to lift anything for two weeks. While that injury was perhaps the most painful, the first year of my son’s life was full of wounds like that.
That first year was an emotional roller-coaster too, but it is the physical aches and pains that stick out: The lack of sleep, the sore back from bouncing on the yoga ball, the aching in my shins and knees from endlessly rocking back and forth, fingers pinched in folding strollers and car seat clips, and tennis elbow from carrying the coarsest slung in my arms. Individually, these were minor ailments, hardly worth noting, especially when viewed through the lens of all the joy being a father brings. But taken together they were a reminder that my body, like the whole of my life, was now bound up with my son.
When my second son was born I braced myself for more sore limbs and tired days. However, the pain I felt came in a much different form. The first time around so much of the stress of parenting is related to being new on the job, with little or no training. But for me, the second child brought a different kind of stress. I felt fairly confident about how to care for our new arrival but much less sure how to help our first son adjust to having a brother.
After being through it once, all the physical things that plagued me with the first child were manageable and avoidable. I knew plenty of tricks for carrying and wearing the baby, I could operate our various baby tools and equipment blindfolded, and even the lack of sleep felt easier to adapt to.
Based some stories I have heard, our first son handled the changes in our family as well as can be expected, but even with that said, there were some heartbreaking moments. Being three and a half meant that he was old enough to understand that something fundamental was changing, but not old enough to fully make sense of his emotions. In the midst of all his complicated feelings, he latched onto the idea of love as a vehicle to give voice to how he was feeling.
When he was happy he was effusive with his love, showering it on all of us, his toys, even the dog. But when he was feeling frustrated, sad, lonely, or left out he responded by saying “I don’t love you guys anymore” or “Do you guys still love me?” In those early weeks my wife was recovering from her c-section and nursing constantly, both of which put an added distance between her and our first son. He responded by pushing her even further away, and latching on to me for everything from feeding, to bed time, and reading books. Even when the baby was asleep and my wife was eager to engage and be apart of things he refused her. We both really struggled with this shift, even knowing it was just part of his transition. My heart ached for him and for my wife.
This passed in time, but it was really hard to figure out how to help my son, and our entire family navigate those early weeks. If the first time around I felt hyper-aware of my body and its ailments, this second time I felt consumed by my heart and the emotional challenges we faced as a family. Now, three months later, my oldest son is doing great and we’ve really settled into life as a family of four.
It’s easy to forget how hard these transitions are, to downplay the pain of parenting, because there is so much that is sweet about it. But, for me, that sweetness is made more deep and lasting when I’m honest about the hard work it takes to get there.