Being a father is a frustrating thing. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, the strain becomes visible. You’re short with your kid. You make a cutting remark to your spouse. You punch a pillow here or there. In more constructive moments, perhaps you take a walk. Or channel those feelings into exercise. Or, if you’re like me, you seek out some loud music, and you crank it.
On one such occasion — and such is fatherhood that I have since completely forgotten what sparked it — I turned to what I consider a masterpiece of sheer rage: Nirvana’s In Utero. Song for song, it’s 41 minutes of unadulterated pain, from the blaring guitars that kick off “Serve the Servants,” to the defeated harmonies that close out “All Apologies,” with plenty of piercing feedback and shredded vocals in between. You can, and I have, scream yourself hoarse singing along with it.
But on this occasion, I was struck by a lyrical theme that I’d never really put together before. There was the “umbilical noose” in “Heart-Shaped Box.” There’s the line about “all of a sudden my water broke” in “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” In “Scentless Apprentice,” something, it’s hard to make out what, “smells like semen.” And in “Pennyroyal Tea,” a repeated line that any father can relate to: “I’m so tired I can’t sleep.” Could it be that, all this time, Kurt Cobain had written an album about the pain of fatherhood?
I thought about it a little more. Cobain and Courtney Love had become parents around the time the album was written, giving birth to Frances Bean almost exactly 25 years ago. And then there’s the art on the back cover: a disturbing collage made up of broken baby doll parts. Upon further research, I discovered that Cobain himself had created the piece. His title? “Sex and woman and In Utero and vaginas and birth and death.”
And oh yeah: The album’s title is In Utero.
It occurred to me that, while our culture still has a ways to go in portraying women suffering from post-partum depression, at least there’s a certain awareness about it. But dads are inevitably portrayed as either distant patriarchs (see Draper, Don), loving but incompetent (pretty much every sitcom ever) or, on rare occasions, loving and present (typically in sentimental songs, like John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”). But what about the dads who find fatherhood traumatic and struggle to cope, let alone thrive? Was it possible that, nearly a quarter-century ago, Cobain broke that taboo and nobody noticed?
It certainly seems like it, at least to me.
Like any of us, Cobain’s upbringing affected his own approach to fatherhood. He was distant from his dad, who tried to force jockdom upon his sensitive son. His parents famously divorced, and Cobain was fairly unforgiving of his father, even into adulthood, when the Cobain’s rare father-son encounters were awkward affairs.
Cobain seemed determined not to repeat what he perceived as his father’s mistakes. Despite rock stardom, and despite his struggles with heroin addiction, he seemingly attempted to be a doting father, at least at first. You can see him holding his newborn daughter in this MTV interview, where he charmingly feeds Frances Bean from a bottle, and pantomimes her burps and farts. (You know, classic dad stuff.) As Darcey Steinke, who interviewed Cobain around this time, put it, “The only subject that seemed to give him any joy was his daughter.”
But as with so many fathers, this outward exuberance masked internal fears. When Cobain found out Courtney Love was pregnant, he apparently feared the baby would be deformed, as some sort of cosmic payback for his doodling “flipper babies” as a youth. More seriously, he wrote an unsent letter to his dad in which he confessed to an extreme version of the kind of fear every parent knows: “Every time I see a television show that has dying children or … a testimonial by a parent who recently lost their child I can’t help but cry. The thought of losing my baby haunts me every day. I’m even a bit unnerved to take her in the car [for] fear of getting into an accident.” He then alludes to his parents’ divorce and pledges that, should he find himself in the same situation, he will “fight to my death” to keep his child.
Of course, we all know what happens next. Over the next two years, Cobain struggles with addiction and temporarily loses custody of his daughter before ultimately killing himself. During that time, as part of an intervention, Courtney Love even mentions the above possibility—losing access to his daughter—but to no avail. Cobain called fatherhood “the highest form of responsibility a person can have,” and I can’t help but wonder if this responsibility ultimately overwhelmed him.
I hadn’t given any of this much thought until that fateful venting session with In Utero after my wife and I had our first daughter. I am nothing like Cobain, aside from being a white guy with a fondness for cardigans, and my struggles, such as they were, paled in comparison. But in listening to the album, I recognized an extreme version of the anxiety any father goes through. The sleepless nights, the sudden burdens, the awareness that you can’t go back, the fear of failure. Even worse, I couldn’t think of another piece of pop culture that so starkly captured the essential truth that there’s more to fatherhood than soft-focus Instagrams. And somehow, In Utero’s true topic had been ignored.