We began our campaign #MummysStarMen a fortnight ago because as Movember comes around and we begin to talk more about men's mental health, it struck me, not for the first time, that our men don't talk.
It's been a source of great frustration for me over the last couple of years in trying to think of a way to engage with the partners of our Mummy's Star women. What can we do to get them talking? Is there something different to try? How do we strike a chord that makes them think "Yes I need some help"
And let's be very honest. This is not limited to our families. This is an issue facing families everywhere. If a person is being treated for any illness, whether there is a new born in the family or older children. Who does the guy turn to?
Well let's get this out first. We are crap at talking! We think in most cases that we, as men, need to stick to that macho image in times of crisis and when the shit hits the fan we need to look after our families. Well, yes we do need to look after our families, just in the same way as if the roles were reversed. If the man is ill, the woman would do everything she could to look after her family.
Sadly though guys don't seek support, or we see doing so as a sign of weakness. The only way I can think they might seek support is if they see enough illustration of their own experiences that something resonates and they think "God, thats me. I need support"
So here's my experience:
When Mair was diagnosed, our world turned absolutely upside down as I have previously written about. We were uncertain about what would happen to our unborn son and her health. We did however settle into something of a routine though with her three weekly chemo, relatives and me making sure Martha was looked after and, as was our thing, involved in what was going on.
The three of us managed a holiday away, squeezed in a romantic break for the weekend, and everything bar the horrible cancer was normal. Our family life of sorts continued.
That final chemo before induction day passed and there we were excitedly looking forward to his birth, which duly came and he arrived safely on 24 September.
This was where life changed.
Let me make something very clear. I love my son and daughter more than the world itself.
At this moment in time though the dynamic had tipped. This was now a new version of family life. A version where both parents are not happily clucking around their new born. Mair was in bed exhausted having maybe one good week in three, and while we had amazing support from family and friends I began to struggle.
I wanted to plough every bit of energy into my wife, aid her recovery, be there for her, but I felt I couldn't because I was at the beck and call of this cute little bundle of magic.
I struggled to bond with my son!
I know not bonding isn't the same as not loving, but at the time it felt the same.
There I said it! Instead of seeing him as this beacon of light in the midst of the shittest situation we could have been dealt, I saw him as something that needed to be looked after. Who I needed to fit Mair in around. All I wanted to do was literally lie by her side, with Martha who was old enough to understand Mummy needed rest, and hold her hand.
But the little guy didn't know this. He didn't understand Mummy was ill. All he knew was the rapidly unfolding world that his newborn eyes would take in.
I felt like a crap dad because Martha was missing out on playtime with me, drawing, building daft things out of bricks etc. I tried to fit it in around his naps but even then my attention turned to Mair, going up and checking in on her.
I was crumbling inside. I hate this image above. While there is a kind of smile on my face, my eyes have nothing. No feeling, no love, no anything
Now bear in mind, as a person I have sought support when required in the past. I have never hidden my emotions. I have never been afraid to cry, I have never seen counselling or any other form or support as a sign of weakness. In fact I think each and every one of us could benefit from a few hours counselling even if we don't think we need it.
So, the idea of seeking support when I most needed it should have been a given for me... but I didn't. I didn't say a word. I didn't want to worry family, I didn't want to seem weak to friends and I most certainly didn't want to show it to Mair. Surely it was the last thing she needed?
It was a relief to her. One night while I had Merlin propped up on my knees with Mair sat beside me on the couch, I stared as his little face sleeping and tears started running down my face. How could I begrudge this little guy, our baby sunshine, my love and attention. Tears turned to sobbing and before long I was crying my eyes out in Mair's arms. I broke down.
"How are you supposed to look after them and me, if you don't look after yourself?" she asked.
I remember uttering something along the lines of "I can't, I've not got time" to which I think she responded with something along the lines of "Bloody hell I'm not that sick that I can't have them for 2 hours!" with a smile on her face then gave me another massive hug.
And that was it. The next day I rang a local day hospice that Mair had also been going to and I made an appointment with Jacqui and at that appointment I balled by eyes out again.
And you know what. It didn't take the situation away. It didn't remove the cancer from our lives, It didn't magically create some home help... but it got it out of me that. Yes, I struggled and it felt good. It was like opening a valve and letting some air out. The difference between a slow puncture or a complete blow out on the motorway doing 80!
Puncture in the sense that there is, like I said no way of removing that crappest of situations, but how we deal with it can be very different.
And the impact on Mair, and on many women I would dare say, in knowing that their partners sometimes struggle? Relief!
From that day on, I found myself mentally being able to share myself equally between Mair, Martha and Merlin. We had our ups and our tragic, life changing lows when we lost Mair a few months later, but I would arguably say that my bond with him now is even stronger because of that lack of bond with him at the beginning. He can drive me mad at times, just like any parent, but we've made a great little team over these last few years, and I know with confidence that Mair understood why I had felt how I did.
Better to know that you struggle to do it all, than them worry if you're okay and you say nothing. I have heard this from so many of our mums. They can see their man struggling, 'holding the family together' but he's just too proud to say.
My message. Don't ever be afraid to say "I'm struggling"
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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