My dad came home with sweat gushing out of his forehead, sat down, and died. He was 41. I was ten.
That’s why I know how important fathers are.
That’s why I didn’t want to be an absent father.
That’s why I panicked when I felt the pain clutching at my chest.
I’ll start at the beginning:
I am afraid to become like my parents – and I don’t mean afraid of dressing in sixties’ clothes, living in the suburbs and liking the Beatles; I am afraid that my new family will end up like my old one; my mother was widowed at 33 with three small kids – I was the oldest one.
My brain knows that since I don’t smoke, exercise regularly, and eat healthy food, I should be able to postpone the time of my death.
But my heart trusts the only role model I’ve lived with, my father; my heart tells me fathers die young.
That’s why I wanted to be with my newborn child. No way I’d be sitting in my office fantasizing about playing tennis with my thirteen year-old in some distant future. No way I’d be talking about quality time while my wife were at home playing with our child.
I didn’t care about money or my job – I wanted to be with my child as much as possible.
I thought equality was built into the Swedish system. I thought equality was obvious.
I thought that it would be a piece of cake to be able to spend time with my child on the same terms as my wife.
I was a fool.
I never dreamed that active fatherhood would be such a struggle against prejudice.
Fighting the woman
I’ve had a kidney stone and that was painful beyond belief. Some people think that a gun in your pocket brings respect. They’re wrong. Kidney stones bring respect.
They say that the pain of kidney stones is comparable to giving birth.
One woman who was giving birth at the same time as us told me that the doctor had asked her what kind of pain reliever she wanted.
“Euthanasia”, she had answered. I’m sure she meant it.
Not everybody experiences that degree of pain: a friend of mine gave birth without any painkillers and had an orgasm when the child came out – that’s how good it felt, she told me with shining eyes. The world is unfair.
When the people at the antenatal clinic tried to prepare my wife for the pains of labour I could think of my kidney stone and share my experience of the pain. For me it hurt more when I didn’t know what it was, and less when I found out it was not dangerous – fear increases pain.
What could I do to help my wife avoid being afraid during the birth, and thus avoid unnecessary pain?
Some people disapproved of me trying to share my wife’s experience.
“I’m pregnant,” I told my friends.
That statement was provocative. You’re not pregnant – your wife is.
Sure I was pregnant. I was going to have a baby. My wife and I were pregnant together. She was going to carry it for nine months, but after that we would be carrying it together for the rest of our lives. From that perspective, nine months is a short time.
I had some common pregnancy symptoms: I had nausea, got a rash and a strange urge for banana fudge.
Some people thought I was stealing my wife’s thunder. Women in particular did not like me labelling myself pregnant.
Several women were also provoked by the fact that I read a lot of books on pregnancy, labour and parenthood. I thought it was a good way of handling my insecurity and my fears.
Mothers around me told me that knowledge messes up your head and that “it says different things in different books”. They said “I read nothing and I was fine anyway”.
They were particularly angry when I protested when they tried to tell us that woman have a monopoly on motherhood.
Some said I had to understand that my wife would become stupid when she was breastfeeding – it’s the hormones, they said.
I answered that I’d put my money on lack of sleep being the culprit for that– hormones is no biggie in comparison. Anyone who doesn’t believe me is welcome to put the alarm clock on wake-up every third hour for a year and find out how sharp your brain is after that.
I got condescending smiles: “You could never understand”.
That made me sad. Why was it so important for some woman that men couldn’t share the experience of becoming a parent?
We found prejudice at the antenatal clinic as well – women dominated that workplace. Besides strictly medical questions, my wife was also asked questions such as what do you do for a living, what do you think of becoming a mother and so on. As for me, I got asked only two questions: Did I live in the same apartment as my wife and did I know of any genetic disorders that ran in my family.
All the written material we got as parents-to-be described how important it was that the father was part of everything and did not abandon his woman. But when the antenatal nurse treated me like air for the third time, my wife and I asked for someone else.
The new antenatal clinic nurse was wise and gruff and took things one at a time. She spoke to my wife about giving birth and when she had finished she turned to me and said: “So, how do you feel?”
I got tears in my eyes – it hurt to be finally seen. I’d felt pushed aside before, but not until I got the same treatment as my wife did I realize how much it had meant.
Most of my friends believe in equality between men and women, but in spite of this most conversations during pregnancy was about my wife.
Maybe it’s easier to talk about physical change, but it’s not just a body that is growing.
Three people are born: a child, a father and a mother.
One autumn morning at ten o’clock, three weeks ahead of the estimated time of birth, my wife, who was on sick leave, called and told me that her waters had broken.
I came home and we laughed that she’d soaked the morning paper with the amniotic fluid.
At the hospital they checked the amniotic fluid – and it had white flakes, as I had read it should.
I said: “It has a stale smell and whitish flakes in it.”
The female nurse replied: “That’s not something for a father thing to say.”
“What do the usually say?”
Fighting the system
They say that a heart attack is painful. The pain I had in my chest was less than the pain from my kidney stone. The pain in my chest was not terrible. But it was clearly defined and located to the left side of my ribcage.
It was hot inside my chest, as if a sharp, heated knife had pierced me there. I tried to breathe and think. But I couldn’t, because my brain, which all my life have tried to convince me that I will live longer than my father, had surrendered to the pain.
I was at home and I lay down on the floor next to my little boy, who was playing with wooden blocks. My thoughts raced. What would happen to him now? Should I put him in his crib while I went to the hospital? Would he be abandoned by his father just as I had been by mine?
My wife would be coming home any moment now. Would she make it in time?
They say that the first hour of a heart attack is crucial – never mind millions of dollars worth of equipment and the best surgeons – their efforts are nothing compared to understanding that you are having a heart attack and getting to the hospital in time.
Suddenly the pain faded away. I was breathing heavily and felt as sweaty on my forehead as my father had looked twenty-five years ago.
False alarm, I thought. It wasn’t a heart attack, I’m being a hypochondriac, it’s tension in my body, it’s thirties crisis… or maybe this was only the first wave.
I remained on the floor and tried to breathe deeply. But I could not get the air in far enough down – it fluttered like a butterfly in my throat.
Carefully I rose. Fear pulsated through my body in hot waves. I have read about people feeling a heart attack as slight nausea. Or pressure in the chest – they take two analgesics and never wake up.
Then the pain returned and I became even more frightened. I did not want to die. I did not want my boy to lose what I once lost.
I would fight – the same way I had fought to spend this year with my boy.
I had read that the first year of a child’s life is the most important. I had understood that the child’s first year is when the marriage suffers the most. I had understood that during that year, many firsts occur: the first smile, the first crawling, the first steps – something an absent parent will never see.
That’s why I wanted to be at home with my child as much as possible during his first year.
When I explained that to people I met they said “You can’t afford that”.
But that is not entirely true.
I called three of Sweden’s biggest banks to find out if they would lend us money to spend more time with our child.
I talked to two women and one man. One of the women laughed out loud at me down the phone. Had I called trying to borrow money for a home cinema, a car or a trip around the world she wouldn’t have laughed. But she laughed at me and went to great lengths to explain to me that I had to have a job if I was going to borrow money, and if I was home with my child I obviously wouldn’t be working, would I? Ergo, I couldn’t borrow any money.
The second woman told me it wasn’t necessary for me to want to spend more than six months at home, because she and her husband and spent six months each at home and that was more than enough.
The only positive response I got was from a man at Handelsbanken, renowned as an conservative bank in Sweden. He told me that this was indeed the first time he had ever received such a request, but he treated it like any other loan application. He looked at our economy and said that the picture he got from it – two hard working adults with regular incomes and no record of non-payment of debt – made him think that he probably would give us the loan.
After doing the maths; including paid annual leave, parental allowance, our savings, advances and living as cheaply as possible; we worked out that it would be possible to stay home for nine months together.
I wrote scripts and articles and my wife went to a conference, some meetings and took some job calls, but we were both at home for most of the time.
More than anything I felt that it was an absolute necessity during the first three months. Everything was new to both of us; we could support each other; my wife was still recovering from the delivery; we were both tired and could sleep in shifts.
I couldn’t breastfeed him, but I changed all the nappies. I couldn’t breastfeed him, but I looked after our child every morning after he’d woken up so that my wife could sleep longer.
The antenatal centre continued to be a place foreign to fathers. It was hard to be treated like an equal. They either looked at me and were unnaturally nice, as if to show me that they really appreciated that a father had tagged along, or they ignored me probably thinking that I should get no praise for doing what every father should. I would have enjoyed just being a person.
Fighting the men
When the second wave of pain hit me, I was prepared: I relaxed my body. My brain got it together and started calculating. If I was having a heart attack, the pain should be persistent. If it was a heart attack, the pain should travel along my left arm – it didn’t. If it was a heart attack, I wouldn’t be lying here thinking about calling an ambulance. I would do it.
The pain increased and my boy; my lovely little boy, who could not speak more than a couple of words; called for me. He wanted me to help him with his blocks. I couldn’t.
“Daddy,” he said and wobbled towards me in his baggy pants in a way that looked like dancing. Grown-ups walk like they talk – stiffly and in staccato. Children walk as if they are singing. He tried to drag me towards his blocks.
“Hello, little one,” I said, “you’ll have to wait a while.”
I patted him on the head and tried to sound normal.
I did not want to show him my fear. I believe in showing kids your true feelings: joy, sadness and anger; but revealing the magnitude of my fear wasn’t anything I wanted anyone to ever see.
“I’ll be over soon,” I said.
He returned to his blocks without any objections.
To think while in pain is difficult; my thoughts were slow as I lay on the floor of my apartment with sweat running down my spine; a red, hot knife in my chest and no breath.
I thought about the fact that I had spent as much time with my child as I could.
Many men have told me that it is pointless to spend time at home when your child is small. The child will do nothing but eat and sleep, they told me. I disagree.
During the first months of my child’s life, I carried him around as much as possible. I thought, better for him to be crying to be put in his crib, than crying from his crib for wanting to be in his father’s arms.
In Sweden, men who don’t want to spend time at home recently got support from health officials saying that children should be breastfed for at least six months for medical reasons. Few parents will sacrifice their child’s health over an equality issue. And what is going to happen in families where the mother wants to breastfeed longer?
I wonder if the difference between breast milk and artificial breast milk is so big that it is worth all the tired mothers, all the absent fathers and all the broken marriages.
Some men that I talked to used breast feeding as the sole argument for not staying at home with their babies.
I don’t believe them. Breastfeeding in the seventies was not popular in Sweden. Most women did not breastfeed as long as they do today. Did men spend more time with their kids then? No.
A lot of women cannot breastfeed. If breastfeeding was a real reason for men not staying at home with their kids, then families where the woman cannot breastfeed would have more present fathers. Is that the case? No.
When my wife and I pushed the pram along the snowy streets of Stockholm, we met some comments showing that absent fathers are the norm:
“When are you going back to work?” they asked me. They always asked me.
“Well, my wife is going back before me,” I answered.
At parenting class, a kind of support group at the antenatal centre, I was the only man among the parents. At the baby dance class, there was no other man in sight, but at the baby swimming and the baby singing classes there were men and it made a difference.
It was more relaxed when both sexes were represented. One also has to remember that I live in a part of Stockholm where, compared to the rest of the country, more men take their parental allowance. Some people call my neighbourhood a writer’s ghetto and I guess they have a point. A lot of journalists and people with similar work live here.
Some men use finances to explain why they cannot spend time with their children.
I don’t think they did their maths right. There are studies in Sweden which show that what a household thinks it can afford is the main factor for many families when deciding whether the man should use his parental allowance to spend time with the kids or not. Not what they actually can afford.
Sweden has a generous system for parents. You get thirteen months of parental allowance at about 80 percent of your salary paid by the social security system, unless you make more than a certain amount. But that break point is set so high that half the population are covered by the 80 percent rule.
Sometime in their second year, most Swedish children start going to a child care centre. The first year is the only opportunity for most parents to spend time with their kids.
So if it was true that money was the issue, then men with salaries below that break point would use their parental allowance significantly more often than men who make more money. That is not the case.
Also men who make more money than the break point would not have a very difficult time putting away some money ahead of time. The illusion of money being the issue is very strong. Every year there is a new study where banks or some other institution actually calculate how much it would cost various families to split the first year with their child in half. Six months with the mother, six months with the father. The result is always the same. The average family would lose about what it costs to drink take-away latte twice a day. And even if you lose more money, it’s six months we’re talking about – not ten years. Of course some people cannot afford to lose any money at all, but nobody is going to make me believe that goes for all the 80 percent of Swedish fathers not taking out their parental leave.
Everyone is free to do what they want – I don’t even believe that a child needs a father. I’m sure mother, granny or aunty would do fine. But I don’t understand why some men have children if they’re not going to spend time with them.
I don’t want to have to ask my wife where to find the nappies. Or the socks. Or the children’s food. I don’t want to have to ask her to find out why the baby is crying. Not a lot of men call their wives to find out why their boss is angry or what it means that the fuel gauge in the car is pointing at the red area. If these men can get to know their bosses and their cars, is it too much to ask them to get to know their kids?
Other fathers have told me that it is all in the genes.
“That’s why I can’t hear my kids crying at night,” they say, “because my genes tell me to ignore it.”
And they sleep all through the night while mothers comfort their babies after a nightmare.
If that is the case, my genes are defective, because I hear my child crying in his sleep. I know what that sounds mean: it means that I might have to get up and help my boy through the night.
I think the issue here is attitudes – not genetics.
Everyone having children should think about the following facts – these are the naked facts about Swedish relationships:
A lot of people that get married get divorced. A lot of people who divorce do so in the first year after their first child is born.
And I understand how that can be. When I was tired and afraid and everything was new, and I wanted to be the perfect father and the ideal husband, I became grumpy and stupid and argued with my wife who argued back.
And if we hadn’t had a good relationship to start with, and shared things equally, maybe we wouldn’t have made it through.
The second wave of pain ebbed away and I tried to figure out what it could be if it wasn’t a heart attack. Maybe it was something in my muscles, or my stomach. It could be kidney stones coming back again – I have read that they can cause pain in other parts of the body.
I started to feel my chest, one muscle at a time. If there was pain anywhere there, I’d find it.
I did not want to die, especially not then, because my boy and I had had a rough month. I had been at home with my child almost a year. My wife had gone back to work three months ago and I had become as worn out as many women become while at home.
I had arrived at the darkness – that black place no parents want to talk about.
It was November when I reached the point where many women had gone before me.
When one’s partner has gone to work, the baby has woken up three times in the night not wanting to go back to sleep, there are dirty bibs lying around the kitchen sink along with the dishes from breakfast – yesterday’s breakfast and all the meals since then; we were out of nappies, all the wash cloths were wet because I dropped them in the toilet, I hadn’t showered or shaved for days and I was unable to do anything but take my child to the couch and turn on the telly at eight o’clock in the morning thinking: “Just seven hours to go before we get company.”
I was at that dark place where every scream from my child made me angry, where every piece of food thrown at the wall felt like a whiplash and I no longer had the energy to be patient and explain. No energy to find out what my little boy really wanted.
Before that point, we had some beautiful months together – days when he woke up at night, but who cares; we did not have time for breakfast, but we had a banana on the way; we got on a bus to a museum where we mixed with Japanese tourists; my boy looked at aeroplanes with delight and laughing his sweet, sweet laughter.
When that darkness overtook me though I regretted becoming a father. Where did my freedom go, where did my time go? And I felt ashamed at the same time, because not once had my wife complained or argued when I said I wanted to spend time alone. I was the one who had failed to take time away as often as I should.
Maybe men aren’t made to take care of kids, I thought. People are right, men are biologically programmed to sit in the forest watching a mammoth trap. That’s the stuff we’re made of, we’re not made to cry because the child won’t take a nap. We’re made to cry because our leg just got bitten off by a tiger.
And it is a nice feeling, and I know that if I had really believed that I could have called my wife: “Enough! Your new career is by the stove – let’s have some more kids to keep you busy.”
I could have returned to my job where I was successful, appreciated and nobody threw food in my face. I wanted my old life back.
I had tried for so long – I would be the final proof that men are not made to be at home, because I didn’t make it.
I hear from people going on parental leave that they have plans, they’re going to renovate the bathroom or read “Remembrance of Things Past”. I had decided to do the opposite: my child was the main event; time for anything else would be a bonus.
And the days that I had a hard time were those days when I tried to do something else and fit in what my child needed in between.
But now I could not think about anything. I was tired of being a father.
Fighting for life
Soon after the darkness struck, it all changed. My wife started to work less, and I could go back to work.
It took a month and then the darkness lifted – being around adults, being appreciated, having time for myself got me back into the sun.
And what a sun.
The light illuminated all the trust and fellowship that my little boy and I had cultivated during our year together. It was a love greater than I believed existed.
I found the painful muscle eventually. It was located under my armpit and the doctor told me that I had pulled a ligament, which caused the muscles around it to become inflamed. I was not going to die. My fear of death had been playing tricks on me.
I helped my little boy with his blocks – he had been playing by himself while waiting for me. There was no reason why we couldn’t play now.
And, who knows, some day I might start believing that fathers can live long enough to play tennis with their teenagers.
This is a translation from the Swedish anthology ”Mission: Fatherhood”
Augustin Erba is an award-winning Swedish author and playwright. You can find more on him here.