Rethinking Fatherhood from Producing to Persisting

Understanding Empathy

Blog entry by Dan McMillan M.Ed. R.Psych.

Congratulations, you’re a dad! You’re excited and determined. Something inside you really wants to be good at this. You want to be a great dad. Maybe even better than your own. Throughout your pre-fatherhood life, you were sure you would be one day. During her pregnancy, you were sure you would be. You read the books; you went to the classes. You thought you were ready. As ready as can be.

Then your baby cries. Your beautiful baby is crying and you can’t seem to figure out how to settle him. You bounce, you rock, you sing, nothing works. Were those classes and books all lying to you? Are you bad at this? Are men just not meant to look after little ones?

You’re sweaty and seemingly still helpless to soothe this tiny thing that means the whole world to you but won’t stop crying. Mom returns and you pass her the baby. The baby calms, if he’s hungry maybe also feeds. Mom seems to have a better handle on it. You tell yourself you will figure this out later. After all, she is the one with the breast milk. She grew him inside her. You may even start to think gendered thoughts about women being “naturally better” at parenting than men.

So you give yourself a pass for today. Maybe for tomorrow as well. You tell yourself when your baby gets a little older you’ll be more important, more helpful, useful again. For now you focus on what you can. You work, you reno, you mow the lawn, something, anything. At least you can do this for your family. This will be the way you contribute.

So you do. Again and again for hundreds of tiny moments you make this choice. Not with ill intention, but out of fear of ineptitude and wanting to help your family. Wanting to be a good dad and partner. Slowly you move your energy into what you can produce, avoiding the helplessness of not being able to give your child what they need emotionally, behaviourally or relationally. This avoidance creates a cruel self-fulfilling strategy in which you don’t develop the needed skill set, eventually leading to a home with a strict division o labour and, at times, an accompanying division in the marriage.

Rethinking Fatherhood from Producing to Persisting

For me, this moment of realization came when my first daughter was a few months old. I had become fixated with finding the perfect family home in the perfect community for her to grow up. When I found it, then I needed to update the home, to make it just right. Then it needed a fence. Not just any fence, a 6ft tall cedar fence. I had grown up around handymen and this seemed an important part of being dad. This was the template I knew.

I felt like I was helping when I added to the home in some way.

So I channeled my desire to be a good dad into these activities. I also knew time with her was important, so I tried to do both. I would stay up late and get up early with my daughter, helping her sleep and caring for her. When my partner as awake, I’d try to tackle a renovation or expand myself professionally. I was trying to be the perfect dad by doing it all. I wanted to be an involved dad and a handy dad. I wanted to be a good provider but also emotionally attuned and present.

My want to do it right pushed me to do too much. But you can not get blood from a stone. One day I learned that energy spent on one place takes away from another. I was spending another hot afternoon building the less-important-than-I-thought-it-was fence, and it hit me. I was being my own dad. My caring and dutiful father who pushed himself so hard to be everything that he’d ridden the edge of burnout for years, paying the price with his own wellbeing.

I knew I needed to change. It no longer seemed worth it. The true cost I was paying was that I had less energy and time for what mattered most. Being a good dad mattered so much, that I was, ironically, pushing myself and these ideals too hard. It became clear that I should be paying with my ego rather than my time. That, I could do.

I could force the project and tasks to wait; and tolerate the discomfort of jobs left undone (or poorly done). This meant the discomfort of facing my own judgement or that of others. This was what I needed to do for us both.

And it worked. My wonderful little baby girl not only taught me the true value of my time, but also about my fears. Fear that if I didn’t produce for my family that I wasn’t of value. Fear that I wouldn’t live up to the template I had observed of a highly capable father. Fear of how to define my masculinity now without these time-consuming achievements.

The world is full of good dads, but the media is not. There a few healthy examples of involved, caring, attuned, competent fathers to fall back on when we are lost. Unhealthy traditional conventions suggested that involved-fathering was emasculating, and this is the complete opposite of the truth. I believe there is no more masculine role than that of a caring, strong, present dad. The world needs this. It needs you. It needs a better map of what this should look like. It does not need more fences or more fortunes or more “success”.

If you are a new father reading this, I encourage you to hold yourself accountable.

Many years from now, will you be happy with how you spent your time today?

I know life has many demands, but try to put down the hammer, get out of the office, and go to your little ones before they stop letting you.

Article by: Dan McMillan

Daniel McMillan

Daniel is a registered psychologist working out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He counsels individuals and couples in the areas of mental health, relationship, trauma, and men’s mental health issues.