Struggles with 'Imposter Dad' Syndrome
I’m Michael and I’m married to Wes. We met by complete chance in June 2012 at Birmingham Pride no less, both single and not looking for a relationship, and pretty much from our first meeting I knew I’d met someone that was going to take my life in a direction that I’d been waiting for. Four months later we were engaged and in August 2014 we married in front of all our friends and family.
We’re Dads to our two children; Talulah is 5, and Duke is 2. Wes also has a 17-year-old daughter named Katie, she also lives with us in our noisy, bustling sanctuary we call home. Being a parent isn’t without its challenges, we all know that, but being a same-sex family adds another dimension, added pressure.
Society was already preaching to us what family should look like. We realised that ‘those poor children need a mother’, would be something we’d hear regularly. There was a vulnerability with our family, and one that others would scrutinise.
So, we had to get this right. Not let the LGBTQ+ parenting side down. More pressure. Great!
We’re a little different from most families, but something we have in common was the desire to create a family, the love we hold for our children and the dreams we strive to make happen for them. We’d do anything for them, just like any other parent would do for theirs.
I came out when I was 22, in the early 00’s. I had a failed heterosexual marriage behind me, and a new, authentic life ahead of me.
I’ve always wanted a family. From an early age, I imagined what it would be like, to parent — to produce a mini-me. Knowing that I was gay would make this almost impossible, or so I thought. There were no role models to aspire to when I was younger, the gay men on TV were ridiculed by the media, always the punch line, forever the joke. It’s why I married my ex-wife, back in 1999. It would make the ‘gay go away’, and I could then create a family, make my parents happy and complete my dreams. Terribly selfish on reflection.
Thankfully it never worked out like that, and my ex-wife and I parted amicably. Without a doubt, my coming out saved my life, but I knew the path wasn’t going to be easy — the treatment of gay men in our society was still a fractious place — but this was my time now. Ten years later I’d meet Wes, and our route to parenthood would finally begin its journey.
I’m genetically linked to our daughter, and Wes is genetically linked to our son. We always wanted two children and deciding who would provide their gametes (an organism’s reproductive cells) first was an easy decision to make. There was no resentment, we’d discussed this from the beginning. The task of beginning fertility treatment and finding a surrogate (an individual who agrees to bear a child for another person or persons) commenced in 2015.
From the moment we began our fertility treatment it was evident that we were having to fit into a heteronormative (where binary gender identity and heterosexuality are assumed to be the default position) pathway. The forms in the clinic weren’t inclusive, boxes had to be aggressively scribbled out, and embarrassing excuses were made as to why the forms weren’t ‘quite right’.
Wes felt very much like a spare wheel. Most of the dialogue and the appointments were aimed at me, but he’s the Dad too. He’d be the one left in reception, sitting alone wondering what they were talking to me about. In fact, this is the beginning of the triggering behaviour that would follow us to the present day. A feeling of exclusion and detachment from the process of family-building, and feeling less important than the genetically connected father in our family.
Fertility clinics are strange and stressful places, and the enormity of their impact on your life is overwhelming and profound. Posters of happy cis-gendered (those whose personal identity and gender is the same as their sex assigned at birth) heterosexuals everywhere. You feel grateful for even being in their presence, so challenging them over a form, seems petty. Or it did at the time.
It was February 2016, we had our embryo transferred into Caroline (our surrogate) on the 13th of February. Next followed the two-week wait (2WW). On day 10, our surrogate took a pregnancy test and messaged us asking if we could speak. We were concerned as she sounded urgent. We answered the call and she simply said ‘Congratulations, you’re going to be Daddies!’ We cried, we hugged, and we cried some more. We were pregnant!
The next 10 weeks flew by. Our next appointment was at our NHS Hospital — to have our scan. I remember us walking into the busy waiting room, only to be stared at and smirked at by other parents. Caroline had three men at her side, one was her husband. Her name was called, and we all got up — to be told ‘no, just the ‘real Dad’ please’. Here we go…
The term ‘real’ Dad is something that cuts deep, and sadly hasn’t gone away. Strangers will also ask us ‘whose sperm did you use!’, ‘who does the Mum jobs?’ and ‘don’t you feel guilty she doesn’t have a mother?’.
When Talulah was born it was magical, better than I expected but harder than I imagined! We were parents and I was a Dad now too. It wasn’t until we were pregnant with Duke that Wes pre-warned me and spoke up for the first time about what was to come. He had remained silent and dealt with the demons all alone, why? He didn’t want to let the side down.
Duke was born on the 20th of August 2019, it was just as wonderful as Talulah’s birth. We made adjustments to accommodate my own fears. Wes knew potentially what was coming. I would cut the cord, I would have skin on skin contact as I had raised concerns about my own bonding, and how others viewed me. The imposter Dad. That’s exactly how I felt.
The first 8 weeks of Duke’s life were dark for me, I was sleep-deprived and this was impacting my marriage. I resented Wes for being biologically related to Duke, I hated people telling me how much Duke looked like Wes, I would remind them I was his Dad too — and I’d see their puzzled face as if to say ‘we know you are!’.
I was overcompensating at every opportunity, and it was chipping away at me. I felt like I was being excluded in conversations about Duke. I was the third wheel, and it almost broke me.
Frequently, healthcare professionals didn’t engage for fear of saying the wrong thing. These deepened my feelings of exclusion and also meant there were missed opportunities to talk about our mental health and how we were coping. I made an appointment to speak to my GP. I had been putting this off deliberately for that fear I mentioned. I was misrepresenting my community, or so I felt.
I had created a platform [Instagram] where we showcased our life and family to the world, I was blogging about it — but not all of it. I was trying to ‘usualise’ families like mine, showing the world gays have kids too, but I was too afraid to say I was struggling, and parenting is challenging.
What I was experiencing was postnatal depression (a type of depression that many parents experience after having a baby) and I was supported by Wes and my GP to ensure I got the help I needed, getting counselling and medication — and knowing that I wasn’t failing. Implications Counselling (which the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Association requires couples have when considering surrogacy) is designed to tackle this, by helping to reflect on and understand the implications of treatment for individuals and any children. But no one prepared me for these experiences — and I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so how would I know?
Duke is now 2 years old, and I’m in a great place. My physical and mental health is much better and whilst there are still triggers with regards to biology, I’ve learnt how to deal with them. I have a tighter network of professionals around me that are there to talk to should I need them. Parenting is a tough gig but suffering alone is much tougher. Talking and making time for me has helped me not only become a better husband, Dad and friend but also a kinder person to my own self.
I’ve got this.
If you have enjoyed this blog, do not miss the full 10-part series that will explore aspects of modern-day fatherhood, men’s mental health, and the science behind it — running through to the 19th of November — which is also International Men’s Day UK.
As part of this series, please find our already published blogs including:
Our blog written by our Editor in Chief, Professor Carmine Pariante, where he interviews Elliott Rae, the founder of Music.Football.Fatherhood (MFF) and publisher of the book DAD.
A blog written by Arran Williams where he discusses the emotional impact his partner’s two traumatic birth experiences had on him.
A blog written by Clinical Psychologist, Jane Iles, in response to Arran’s blog, where Jane explores the impact traumatic births can have on fathers’ mental health from a clinical point of view.
A blog written by Joseph Straker, mentioned throughout this piece, where he discusses his own personal experiences of postnatal depression.
A blog written by Vaheshta Sethna, a lecturer in Psychiatry and Mental Health (Education) at King’s College London, where she discusses her research in relation to the topics discussed by Joseph Straker in his blog.
A blog written by Jamie Cowen, where he discusses his experience of learning to live with trauma after the loss of his son during his wife’s pregnancy.
Dr Kristi Sawyer’s blog which looks at the impact of perinatal loss on Fathers’ mental health.
Every Wednesday we will publish a lived-experience piece from one of the fathers who have contributed to the recently published book DAD or the Music. Football. Fatherhood. (MFF) online platform, an online community of Fathers. This will be followed on the Thursday by a scientific piece from one of our contributing scientists exploring the associated mental health aspects.
We hope you enjoy this ITM special series as we shine a spotlight on men’s mental health and fatherhood.