Daddy’s not invincible: coping with trauma

A baby's hand is pressed against a bigger father's hand.

Her screams cut me deeper than she meant them to, but the facts were clear: I was deficient, and this helplessness was a new layer to my trauma.

To her I’m a constant; one of two people she knows to rescue her from the hunger she can’t yet understand, and the fear of loneliness she knows only by instinct.

But in this state —without use of my arms after a vehicle crash— I could feel the vulnerability of not fully acting as the big, strong daddy my 7-month-old needs me to be; the one who can lift her the highest, and embrace her the tightest.

Or the one who comforts her when she cries.

I maneuvered my fractured left wrist to her one side, and my separated shoulder and damaged right arm to the other, as I bent into her bassinet as deeply as I could.

With every ounce of my strength and coordination, I pulled her small, emotionally-exhausted frame to my chest in a kind of desperate bear hug.

By the time my wife returned to the room my daughter had calmed.

But I had not.

Post-trauma

As a journalist, most often I had heard PTSD mentioned in the context of war, or perhaps in the residual and still serious challenges of a survivor of violence or abuse.

But in the days and months after a car slammed into me, I began to realize that the physical consequences of the collision were only part of my injuries.

As my family drove me to doctor visits I’d have to close my eyes when going through intersections, as my irrational, damaged self worried that another crash was imminent.

Even months later, after a long process of physical therapy and the purchase of a car I felt safe in, I would flinch if another car sped too fast or too close to me.

A study on PTSD after vehicle crashes said many symptoms don’t surface until the return to normal activities, and anxiety in cars is one of those symptoms.

 

“Although complete driving avoidance is rare, most motor vehicle accident victims subsequently experience distress when driving or riding as passengers. Patients may report self-imposed limitations on their driving (e.g., only in daylight, only on city streets) or general uneasiness when in a vehicle.”

 

PTSD is pervasive and pernicious because it can surface in many ways, in many parts of your still-healing life.

From re-experiencing the traumatic event during the day or while sleeping, to anxiety, or sleep problems, or heightened emotion, or an absence of emotion, studies show the possible effects of PTSD to be wide-ranging.

This, compounded with whatever other physical challenges are left by the trauma, is an immense strain by itself.

But babies don’t understand that.

Still dad

Through the tears of a baby’s loneliness, or hunger, or instinctive fear the wolves are coming, it’s hard to explain the complexities of injury.

Babies often work on a reactive level: when hungry, cry; when scared, cry; when tired, cry; if diaper is uncomfortable, cry; and so on.

Parents learn to decode these cries, and respond appropriately.

And picking up the child is often a given, and the most basic of aid.

As a dad, I feel the immense joy and responsibility of holding the tiniest family member in my much larger arms. I’m the strongest, the protector; the one who can open pickle jars; the one who bounces, rocks, and sings the youngest to sleep.

Until I’m not.

At times in this recovery process I could feel the temptation of admitting the trauma stripped me of my fatherly identity.

Because I can’t lift the child, or unlock the pickles, I must not be performing my role as protector and provider.

Even through the mist of psychological healing, I’ve come to reinforce in myself the antidote to that temptation: the true strength in fathering is in being present and aware.

Experts advise PTSD sufferers to focus on the things in your control, and still being attentive if not fully able is something I can control.

My wife and I are a team in parenting and in life, and adapting my activities to help the team in a different way is something I can control.

I’m still very much dealing with the trauma of my car crash, even nine months later, but I have indeed improved: I can lift my children, and play guitar and sing silly songs for them, and drive a car, and use a fork — it’s a normalcy that seemed so foreign just months ago.

Being aware of the changes you’re experiencing, and the lasting effects of a trauma, are not always easy to admit or identify, but it’s an important step on the road to recovery.

Self care and attention to mental health are acts of strength, and service to the family.

And it’s something — even if you need help to get there — that you can begin to control.

Why I hesitated becoming a Minivan Dad (it’s not why you think)

Even mentioning my plans to look at minivans earned the kind of under-the-breath-but-actually-directly-at-you reactions you might expect.

“Well, well, well, a minivan, huh?! Going to be a van dad, huh?! Deciding to give up being cool, huh?!” 

Even as jokes, the point seemed to be that entertaining the minivan — no matter the circumstance — constituted some failure on my part.

Let me say one thing from the outset: I place very little value on out-dated definitions of masculinity, strength, coolness, etc.

Any apprehension I had adopting the minivan did not hinge on any arbitrary definition of what constitutes a ‘manly’ or ‘cool’ automobile or not. My personal credo is not inherently linked to any product or campaign. (Gillette or otherwise.)

My real issues with a minivan rested in my realization that I’m entering a very different phase of life, and that my definition of ‘utility vehicle’ must change.

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The Zoo and the Parenting Game

It comes over you immediately after disembarking the subway–the pressure to maintain your cool as the Parenting Game begins.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to play.  It doesn’t even matter if you don’t know there is a game going on. 

But as the groups of families and friends rush faster and faster toward the exit, hoping to be first to pay 9 Euros to enter the zoo, you realize there is something odd here.  People stare you up and down, judging you with their eyes.  They look at your baby stroller and then look at their own…they must have spent 1 or 200 Euros more on their stroller and smirk with superiority.

Visiting the zoo is supposed to be a time to relax and observe animals in their natural (man-made) habitats…but our visit today turned more into a sad study into the human condition.

Our trip to the zoo was prompted by a few things, the most important and relevant being our young man’s newly-found interest in animals, and communicating with them.  See a bird, and want to say something? “Caw, caw” he’ll answer.  See a lion? “Rawr.”  And perhaps you see a dog, or any other animal? “Bow wow” is the default, universal language for all things animal.

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The Baby Waiting Game

Thanks for noticing me...

Editor’s note: As the troupe finds itself waiting again for a new member, a re-featuring of this post seems appropriate.

It’s like popcorn popping: you hear the last kernels turning into something wonderful, but you can’t be sure it’s time yet to take that goodness and partake.  The baby’s not popping, but it does squirm, and as my wife’s stomach still holds our addition-to-be we sit waiting, wondering, and preparing for a little person with a lot of people ready to help.

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