I built some shelves over the bank holiday and the process brought me close to breaking point.
Sylvie - our 8 week old - was going through a ‘leap’, so was fussing more than usual and waking up all the time. My wife Ellie was doing an incredible job but I could tell Sylvie’s utter dependence on her was taking its toll.
As any new dad will tell you, you spend a lot of your time during the first few months of your baby’s life feeling pretty useless. There are obviously loads of things you can do to help, but no matter how many nappies you change, cups of tea you make, or how much washing up you do, that feeling that you're just not doing enough is hard to shake.
This can be really tough for anyone with a hero complex; particularly someone like me who generates a lot of their self-worth from meeting the needs of others.
So the bank holiday weekend rolls around and I decide I'm going to be useful. It's time I tackle the shelves in our bedroom. Our clothes had been lying in a heap on the floor of our wardrobes since we moved in last November, but I’d been putting off the job for months. Partly because other aspects of the house took priority, and partly because anything involving cutting, measuring and getting things level scares the life out of me.
To cut a long story short, I built the shelves. They're fine; they'll do the job. I'll be honest, I'd be disappointed if I'd paid someone else to do them, but given it was my first attempt at anything like this, I was actually quite impressed and proud of myself. More importantly to me, Ellie was happy and genuinely grateful for my effort, and that felt good.
But despite the completed shelves, I was still left with this overwhelming feeling that I'd failed - and worse - I was failing.
To be honest, the shelves took me way longer than they should have. I was exhausted before I even started, and I made the job way harder than it needed to be. I didn't plan properly, but kind of just figured it out as I went, which meant that it became an all weekend battle when it should have been a solid morning's work.
You might think I'm being too hard on myself but the thing is, my dad was a carpenter, and although he died when I was young, I've always felt this chip on my shoulder (no pun intended), that I should be better at this stuff than I am. I know how irrational that sounds, but I've never been able to shake it off, and DIY always leaves me feeling insecure.
It's Bank Holiday Monday evening, and Ellie's just put Sylvie down to sleep. 10 minutes later, she's wide awake, crying. "I'll go", I say. So I climb the stairs, exhausted, to be the hero of the moment. But after trying every trick in the book ('shh'ing, white noise, rocking, finger in the mouth etc.) I admit defeat. Sylvie needs feeding. I'm going to have to call Ellie back upstairs. And as I realise this, I begin to cry.
Ellie comes in and takes Sylvie, and I say through tears, "I'm sorry. I couldn't get her down. I think she needs feeding". I go back downstairs to take over dinner duty. Now I'm sobbing while I stir the pasta and I just want to collapse on a heap on the floor. All this negative emotion threatens to overtake me; shame, insecurity and feelings of worthlessness, uselessness, not to mention sheer exhaustion.
Eventually, Ellie comes back down and to my embarrassment - after feeding and settling our baby - she's now comforting me, while I explain what's going on; what I think I'm feeling, and how sorry I am for feeling it.
I'm not going to share my own psychoanalysis any further, but I can safely say this much; this was not about the shelves; the shelves were fine! This was not just tiredness. This was about much more than that. But for the purpose of this story, it doesn't matter what it's all 'really' about for me.
What mattered was the small action I took that evening, which was to message my brothers on Whatsapp to explain briefly where I was at. Just that small step, that feels painful and needy and burdensome at the time, but is actually the opposite of all of those things; healing, completely normal, appropriate and an actual relief.
So if you're feeling exhausted, under pressure, overwhelmed, depressed, insecure, anything at all; tell someone. And if you're a new dad feeling useless: you're not alone. Keep doing what you can, hang in there, and make sure you communicate with your other half and with those around you. Your efforts are appreciated, even if your partner's too tired at times to acknowledge them. It gets easier, or so I'm told... (or maybe we get stronger, who knows).
This Mental Health Awareness Week, don't forget to check on your family, friends and colleagues. Even the strong ones, the happy ones, the busy ones. The ones who always "have it together." Remember too that if you don't feel that you have anyone to turn to, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123.