"So, I disappointed my son again today."
"Yeah, I told him that I would I toss the lacrosse ball with him, but I just couldn't get away from email. There was a big blowup at work, and I just had to keep hammering away…on a Saturday."
"Man, I know what you mean – the same thing happened last weekend with my daughter's soccer game. I felt like such a jerk."
That's the kind of conversation I'd love to have with another dad on the playground, or with a buddy out for drinks. But it never happens. And if I do open up, the conversation always focuses on my work difficulties and not on my concern that I’m falling short as a father. Work stress seems to be the easier topic to tackle. But I have three kids, and only one job. Raising my children is the area of my life where I face some of the greatest challenges, and I feel like I'm doing it alone.
That's not an admission you hear often, and if I'm honest, I am partially responsible for finding myself in that state. The foundation for my development as a father was the classic image of a strong and silent father who was more of a background member of the family.
Growing up, I learned that parenting was primarily my mother's responsibility. My father's contributions – as provider and disciplinarian – were defined largely by his absence. His ability to provide required him to be out of the house, and his power as a disciplinarian was enhanced by not being around as well. ("Just wait until your father gets home" was my mother's most effective tool for making us behave.)
When my wife and I were expecting our first child, I realized that the idea of a backstage father was not unique to my own childhood. Doctor visits, birthing classes, parenting books, and even family leave policies at work were all geared toward mothers, with dads as supporting actors at best. The stereotype of a father as the strong and silent parent is still so present that most men don't even bother to think about whether they need guidance, tips or support. And asking for it can seem like admitting that we are somehow deficient in the natural ability to be a father. That fear keeps us isolated.
I was terrified when my daughter was born after an emergency c-section. My wife lay recovering in the hospital, and I was alone with a baby that needed so much more than provision or protection. The so-called strong and silent father was not going to cut it in this situation.
That scary first night was 16 years ago. Two more kids later, I understand that being a father is likely my greatest contribution to the world, and I cannot find anyone to talk to about it. Of course, I can easily chat about my kids' achievements in sports or grades in school – these seem to be sanctioned topics in the world of male small talk. I can also pay a therapist (and I happen to be one) to listen to some of my more difficult experiences, but that is a professional relationship that can sometimes get expensive.
As a dad, what I yearn for is empathy, connection, and support from other dads, so I'd like to propose how we, as men and dads, can improve the connection we have to each other. As a psychotherapist, I have some ideas about what might work. But as a dad and person, I need buy in from other guys on the soccer field, at the bar, across the dinner party table.
Be open. That sounds simple, but I can tell you from both professional and personal experience that it's anything but. Opening up to another person means taking a risk and showing vulnerability. It also means relinquishing control of the outcome. Reread the hopeful conversation I described at the beginning of this essay. The only way for that conversation to evolve into a supportive one is for me to share that I am struggling. And I have no control over what other people will do with that information. They may ignore it and change the subject. They may express surprise or say they don't relate. But, then again, they may just share that they feel the same way, or they may share another struggle they have. Start small and see what happens.
Ask for what you need. I always believed that a successful father puts his needs last, after those of his family. Many fathers fully invest in their roles by spending most of their energy in a career and the rest focusing on teaching and disciplining in ways that keep our kids safe. This focus on provision can create one-way relationships in which we give without ever taking, and that dynamic can creep into our relationships with our partners and friends.
Relationships are strengthened when you express a willingness to have others support you. Again, you can start small. Try asking a friend to help you out with a project around your house, or ask for some advice about a decision that you are considering. Once you feel confident with the small steps, you can raise the stakes by asking for what you need emotionally: "Hey, I've been pretty worried lately about teaching my kid to drive. Do you have any tips?"
Stop keeping score. I often tell my clients that life flourishes through sharing, not comparing. But all too often, I make everything a competition, and talking with my friends about fatherhood is no exception. Comparing is almost a reflex for me, and from sports achievements to school performance practically no topic is exempt. It all gets measured and entered into the Fatherhood Games.
Sometimes the comparisons are overt, like when I tell my friends how amazing it is that my daughter is one of the only freshmen on the girls' varsity lacrosse team. I want them to know how great she is at sports, and, by extension, what a great father I am. But more often the comparisons are recorded in the secret scorecard in my head. Like when I hear about something impressive a friend's kid does that mine don't, and I tally it on the "inadequate as a father" side of the board.
In both of these situations, I have an image of what an ideal father should be, and I constantly compare myself to him. And I know I'm not the only dad who does this. It's like we're all engaged in a secret competition to be the greatest father of all times, but the contest is based on unrealistic standards and rules that are inconsistent and arbitrary. How unfair is that?
It's so much better to simply share what's happening in my life. And when I do, I enjoy my time with other fathers more. Actually talking about my inner scorekeeper has resulted in some of the best connection-building conversations I have had. For instance, when I talk about my daughter playing lacrosse, I've tried coming at it from this angle: "I am so proud of my daughter. She is the only freshman to play on the girls' varsity lacrosse team. It may sound silly, but her accomplishment makes me feel like I doing something right as a father." That admission opened the opportunity for my friend to share some of what makes him proud about his kids and how he feels about being a dad. And we both won.
Know that you are not alone. As a psychotherapist, I work with fathers all the time who face similar challenges and struggles, who want connection with other fathers, and who are just waiting for someone to reach out to them. So I am committing to stepping outside my comfort zone next time I'm chatting with a dad at school or on the sidelines of a lacrosse game.
Join me. These are simple ideas that have the potential to make a big impact if you give them a try. Experiment and see what works best for you. We owe it to ourselves, but if you need a little external motivation know that our children our watching. They are watching to see how we treat ourselves as a model for how they should treat themselves in the future. They are also watching to see how we demonstrate the courage to try new things, the patience to nurture relationships, and the resilience to persist despite failure. Creating a community of connection requires all of that – courage, patience, persistence, and experimentation. (And a sense of humor doesn’t hurt).