By Mitch Bacon, MA
I just survived another day of keeping up with my 4 & 2 year old sons. The nighttime routine consists of wrestling them into pajamas, herding them into the bathroom for brushing, reading several books, and attending to the multiple requests they keep coming up with after the bedroom door finally closes. Once they finally go quietly into slumber, my wife and I can attend to miscellaneous chores, respective work for our businesses (she’s an acupuncturist and I am a therapist), and maybe get a few moments to hang out together before we are exhausted. One friend of ours recently stated that parenting was awesome 30% of time, drudgery 40% of time, miserable 10% of time, and the last 20% split between laughing hysterically or crying hysterically. Although everyone’s statistical breakdown will be different, the courage and humor to embrace the difficulty of parenting was worth noting. There can’t be enough said about the joys and rewards brought on by parenting, but it is far too uncommon to honestly talk about the less glamorous parts that parenting provides. Generally speaking, there are far more outlets for mothers when it comes to supporting each other. For men, the opportunity to speak authentically about their challenges as fathers is even more limited and therefore a big focus in my practice. In addition to being a father myself, I am a mental health therapist in Portland who works predominantly with men, many of which are fathers. Through my experience as a father and the stories I hear from those I work with, I have noticed several re-occurring themes coming up worth mentioning.
Becoming a father is a huge shift in lifestyle. Sometimes you are lucky and have friends who are in the same boat, but even if so, it can feel lonely. I hear many struggling fathers say: “no one else knows what I am going through.” When things get difficult as a father, there seems to be the tendency to not reach out to your support system. Many factors contribute to this, but a primary one is the lack in normalcy around having conversations about how hard it can be. In some circles, it even becomes taboo to discuss the challenging moments. Thus leaving many fathers bearing this burden on their own. Additionally, many men have a harder time admitting when they are struggling, further compounding the potential for feeling isolated.
The biggest combatant for feeling isolated is to become more connected. This may sound like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to lose sight of this. Reach out to old friends or find new ones. Have conversations about what you are facing. There are more and more opportunities for fathers to connect: take your kid(s) to Seahorses PDX, strike up conversation with other parents at the park, or go to a kids music show. Building your village is a crucial part to feeling more supported to better weather the rough patches.
Although we have come a long way as a society in expanding the roles within parenting, traditional norms can still come up when you least expect. Portland might be a mecca for the stay at home dad (SAHD), with many fathers playing extremely active roles in the lives of their children. Yet even if you feel emotionally secure in your position of being home with the kids, challenges to your security can come from many directions. For instance, I hear a lot of SAHD’sdescribing how they feel judged by their own parents (who come from generations when it wasn’t as common) or from friends. It is commonly accepted for a mother to be at home with the kids, but many fathers feel like they have to justify why they do to the greater society. There is a potential to feel resentful as a man if you are the one who has to stay at home. Not to mention, it can be difficult to not be the “breadwinner.” Any or all of these challenges around masculinity have the possibility of materializing when you become a father. When these type of issues arise in my practice, I work with men on becoming mindful of where these messages come from. Are your parents more conservative and you are internalizing their beliefs? Is this the influence of traditional gender roles? Are societal norms for how to be a “real man” infiltrating your experience? Becoming more aware of who’s beliefs these really are or where they come from is a vital first step towards developing coping strategies and expanding your narrative. But trust me, it can be hard!
Parenting provides such a range of emotions, on any given day. There are many more ways to be challenged while embarking on this adventure. I have only named a few of the common struggles that I hear (and experience), with many more being possible. A common thread to any of the difficulties that can come up is that having conversations and telling your story is a huge piece in the healing process. This fact alone is a major hurdle for the traditional man, who’s code is to “grin and bear it”. Yet when you can break through that barrier, it expands your capacity to embrace fatherhood in a far healthier manner.