Today’s dads are required to do much more than bring home a paycheck and discipline their kids. For many, the role of “father” has expanded to include diapering, nurturing, playing, and arranging playdates, just to name a few. This expansion of roles and duties can leave a new dad feeling stretched too thin.
Without a doubt, at times the job of being a father can be stressful and leave you barking, yelling, and harrumphing around the house. A common question that dads tend to ask themselves is: “how did my dad do it”? Depending on the answer, some dads want to replicate what their dads did and some do not. In my experience, the dads who come to see me want help to do it differently.
Take the story of my client Jim, a new father of a 6 month old boy. [Note: These details are altered to protect confidentiality.]
Jim is a 37 yr old executive who came to see me for “stress management,” or as he put it: “ I need to get a grip on my anger. My dad lost his cool one too many times with me and I’m seeing more of my dad in me than I would like. I don’t want my family to be afraid of me like I was of my dad.”
He has an excellent job, makes a hefty salary, and is being groomed to rise through the ranks of his company. He’s earned the respect of his peers, is active in his community, and at least according to his Facebook profile, has it all–his son was born on Father’s Day, and he routinely post shots of the two of them at the park, getting ice cream, and traveling in the Baby Bjorn. With hundreds of FB friends, four years of marriage, and a solid job, it sure appears that he’s “living the dream.”
But his “reality” profile reveals a few things Jim would rather keep to himself, one of them being his ability to get too angry at the people he loves. Jim knows that something needs to change.
Good for Jim, right? The first step, for anyone, is to be honest with oneself and identify the problem. The second step is to seek out help, which is not an easy thing for many men.
As a therapist specializing in parenting issues for the past ten years, I’ve discovered a few things. One of the most profound is that Moms tend to “mother in community” and Dads tend to “father in isolation.” So when a new dad comes out of isolation and says “I need help,” I feel honored and excited to help him get the “grip” he’s looking for.
For Jim and most men who come through my door, information is power. After taking a thorough history, I typically like to appeal to their intellect by providing information, and, when appropriate, normalizing their experience. I educate them on what I’ve come to learn as the three leading contributors to excessive irritability: sleep deprivation, high and consistent stress levels, and perhaps even alcohol or drug use. Jim was batting 3 for 3. All of these contributors are very common for the new dad and can be worked on with the proper support and guidance. Here are a few suggestions:
5 things you can do to keep your cool:
- Make sleep a priority. It’s hard to function in life without it. So many guys expect to live off of 3-5 hours without impact. Make a commitment to address your sleep deprivation– one idea is to tag team with your partner to have her take one shift and you the other for nighttime feedings or wake-ups. For more ideas click here: http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/getting/overcoming/tips A resource from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School
- Curtail drinking and drugging. Leave it for the weekend only or stop your drinking and drugging for 2 months and see what it does to your mood and level of frustration. Be aware that some people see an increase in irritability after they lower their drinking, which is why it’s important to replace it with something healthy and positive (see #3).
- Reduce stress by making a decision to do one or two of the following for one month straight: exercise, eat well, meditate, practice yoga or walking meditation, try talking therapy, or reference ”5-minute Mindfulness” by Douglas Baker. https://www.amazon.com/5-Minute-Mindfulness-Exercises-Mindfully-Five-Minute/dp/1592337465
- Connect with your kids. Build in a 15-20 minute block of time each day to spend with your kids, distraction-free. Even if your day is fraught with conflict, tension, or mayhem, do it anyway.
- Spend time alone with your partner. Go for a walk with your wife/partner and hold her/his hand. Notice how it feels, and then try holding hands 3 different ways, experimenting with what feels right. Set up a date night once a month. Go out for coffee, and while you are out, notice what you hear and what you see. Talk with your partner while you use your senses to take in your surroundings. Change the pace of your week a little, and see what happens.
- Bonus suggestion: Create, build, or join a community of fellow Dads. Realize or be reminded that you do not have to do this alone. One resource to look up is: https://www.meetup.com/BostonDadsGroup/
- Open for Business: Your children will come to experience you as open and receptive, and are more likely to approach you when they have an issue, concern, or crisis.
- Monkey See Monkey Do: You will be a calming presence for your children, and this will help them be calm in turn. They will be able to model themselves after you.
- A Crack in the Window: When you are present, you benefit from getting a window into your child’s world–what they think, how they feel, and what they do… this matters to them.
These suggestions are just that, something to consider as you gain more experience navigating and adjusting to the many challenges associated with being a new dad. It is not an easy job and can be fraught with a lot of challenging yet wonderful moments. Try to remember that the role of a Dad is constantly changing and requires a combination of flexibility and patience with the process. The point is to slow down and take advantage of some suggestions so that your are able to enjoy every minute.
John C. Carr, LICSW
Psychotherapist, Author and Fathering Specialist
“Becoming a Dad: The First Three Years”