“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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My wife and I are new parents to a beautiful baby girl we’ve recently adopted. We’ve dreamed of this moment for so long and encountered so many obstacles along the way, including miscarriages and homophobia from my bio family and medical professionals. It feels like a miracle to have our child in the family, and I love her more than anything.
But—I feel awful even thinking this—I don’t think I love actually taking care of a baby. This is a huge cliché, and everyone just says some variation of “everyone feels that way!” when I bring it up. But the truth is, raising an infant sucks. Like a lot. No one in our family is sleeping through the night right now, which I know is normal. What I didn’t expect was how resentful and done with everything I feel. I didn’t expect to be so terrible at doing everything—most of the time, my partner can get our baby to calm down and go to sleep right away, but I spend hours rocking and singing to her and she just keeps screaming. I didn’t expect my partner and I to be frustrated with each other all the time because we’re both so exhausted and strung out. I didn’t expect to feel so crazy! I mean, I wanted this baby. We went through so much to bring this little person into our family. So why aren’t I happy?
I feel like I have no right to complain and no one to talk to. If I ever mention anything about struggling with things to my partner, she either shuts down or blows up and we have a fight. All my queer friends (so, all my friends) think we’re so lucky we were able to adopt, and a lot of them are struggling to have kids themselves. I’m afraid I’ll seem ungrateful or make them feel bad if I talk about how I’m feeling.
I finally have the family I’ve always wanted, and I’m miserable. I’m a terrible parent. How can I do this better? How can I feel as happy as I’m supposed to be?
— Guilty Queer Parent
In the 1950s, famed psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and his (often uncredited) social worker wife, Claire, developed the notion of the “good enough parent”—the parent who is ordinary, fallible and disappointing at times, yet still loving and caring overall. The Winnicotts theorized that it is this ordinary and imperfect love that forms the essence of good parenting because it allows children to grow up knowing they are cared for, while also developing the strength and independence necessary to thrive in an ambiguous, imperfect world. Winnicott also argued that the “good enough parent” is too often denigrated and shamed by mental health professionals, who try to force them to fit into the impossible mold of the “ideal” or “perfect” parent.
GQP, you do not have to be the perfect parent. You do not have to be endlessly patient and nurturing, nor do you have to be naturally talented at calming your baby down when they are screaming in the wee hours of the night. You do not have to love (or even like) changing diapers, never sleeping and having your social life restricted. As a non-parent, I have to tell you, all of those things sound terrible and I don’t really see how anyone could be happy about them. I suspect that parents who say they love these aspects of raising a new baby (yes, I have met a few) are all either lying or suffering from severe cognitive dissonance.
None of this makes you a terrible parent, GQP. In my (humble, non-parent) opinion, this makes you human. Parents are not really allowed to be human in this society, and queer parents in particular are expected to be superhuman.
In many societies, before the depredations of capitalism and European colonization, raising a child from infancy to adolescence would have been the job of multiple generations, the extended family and the wider community. In my own ancestral Chinese culture, whole extended families once lived together in large village houses, and every adult played a role in nurturing, protecting and educating children. In North America, many Indigenous communities continue the practice of communal child-rearing, despite the ongoing attempts of colonial governments to interrupt this practice.Today, parents are expected to do it all by themselves while holding down jobs at the same time. Queer parents are expected do it perfectly and with a smile because, for generations, we have been told by society and the law that we are unfit to be parents.
Indeed, same-sex couples were not legally allowed to adopt children in Canada until 1995, and even then that was only in B.C. Other provinces legalized gay adoption much later—Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland took until 2002. Meanwhile, in vitro fertilization treatments remain enormously high, out-of-pocket expenses for those wishing to conceive biologically. In general, queer-identified people in Canada are less likely to access primary care, including family planning.
Even now, in 2019, there is great prejudice and discrimination aimed at queer parents—groups like Focus on the Family still promote the idea that children are harmed by being raised in LGBTQ2 families. These claims are sometimes backed up by pseudo-science, despite the fact that research shows children of queer parents are as well off or better compared to other children in terms of quality of life, health and academic outcomes.
All this to say that being a queer parent is enormously hard, and it makes all the sense in the world for you to feel the way you do. As queer people, we are expected by mainstream society to “represent” our communities in all things, and that includes being a parent. Any deviation from so-called ideal parenting—even if that deviation is only in the way we feel—is an opportunity for someone to tell us that the stereotype is true.
How could anyone live up to such a standard? It’s impossible.
You love your child, GQP, and from the sounds of it, you’re doing all of the work that a new parent needs to do to care for that child. That you are tired, stressed and exhausted is a part of that miracle you mentioned—the miracle of bringing a new person into your family. There is a difference between feeling happy in every single moment (which is pretty hard to do in the early stages of raising an infant) and appreciating the incredible journey that you, your wife and your child have just begun. And I suspect that once the pressure to do the former is lifted, it may be easier to do the latter.
However, it is important to note that while all parents do struggle with the stresses of raising children, the intensity and severity of that struggle varies. Just as some birth mothers experience postpartum depression, research shows that an equal or higher proportion of adoptive mothers also experience depression in the weeks and months after bringing an adopted baby home.
If you are finding that your unhappy feelings are preventing you from completing the tasks of daily living (like waking up, eating and other life necessities), if they are causing you to have self-harmful thoughts or if you simply think seeing a professional might be useful, I would suggest going to see a psychotherapist or psychologist with a specialty in depression for a professional assessment. Checking-in with your primary care practitioner also couldn’t hurt.
You may also wish to invite your wife to come with you to the appointment (or to follow-ups) so that they can hear about what you are experiencing in a more neutral setting than your home, with a third party to help facilitate. It may very well be that your wife is experiencing something similar to you, but doesn’t know how to express it. Normalizing emotional struggles, overwhelming feelings and moments of unhappiness has the potential to make both of you feel safer and more comfortable working together as a couple to solve these problems.
When it comes to the other people in your life that you trust, such as your queer friends, I think that you have the right to talk about what you are going through. This is an important part of your life experience, and breaking free of the mistaken social belief that you ought to be grateful—and therefore constantly happy—is something you need in order to be authentic with the people in your life.
Of course, in the case of friends who are struggling with having children of their own, it may be best to have a check-in conversation first where you ask them if it’s okay to share some struggles you are having and how that might feel to them. You might be surprised at the positive impact this has on their ability to hear what you are going through, and it may also open up some space for them to share their own difficulties with you. You may also have to be prepared to hear and accept their boundaries about not wanting to talk about parenting with you.
When you first set out to become a parent, GQP, you and your wife took a leap of faith: Faith in your relationship; faith in your ability to take on the challenges and stresses that inevitably come with seeking and raising a child; faith that everything would work out, somehow, in time. It may be time to start rediscovering that faith now—which means allowing yourself to accept that not everything is as you expected it to be, that things are really hard right now and that you still love your child nonetheless. More than anything in this world. This is exactly what makes you good enough.