Parenting should come with complimentary therapy. When parents leave the hospital with all the extra diapers and that giant water bottle thing, we should also get some sort of coupon book good for at least a dozen sessions. When our kids become teens, more therapeutic and creative coupons should naturally come our way. For example, when our kid goes for their driver’s permit, the DMV should check their eyesight — and our mental health. Feeling overwhelmed? How about you take advantage of our DMV-approved soundproof screaming booth?
I remember struggling with physical exhaustion when my kids were babies and toddlers, but that’s nothing compared to the emotional gut punches of parenting my teenagers. Those keep me up at night.
Fortunately for me as a stay-at-home dad these last fifteen years, I’ve had a dad’s group to help me along. The five of us have raised our sixteen kids together, and helped each other through all the milestones of parenting, including celebrating first steps and my use of a tarp to help potty train my toddlers. A tarp covering the living room carpet seemed like a no-brainer, but I have to admit that it messed up my house’s decor. But I think what I’m most grateful for, especially now dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and our children’s teen years, is how we dads help each other by sharing the emotional load of parenting.
These enduring dad friendships have gotten me through some pretty dark days.
When our kids were young, we met several times a week for playgroups and silly adventures. (There is a giant ball of sisal twine with a 40-foot circumference out in Kansas, by the way, should you wish to see it.) But even as our kids got older, and playgroups gave way to school, we still met each week — because as soon as we felt we had a handle on things, we got punched in the face with new problems. Parenting never stops.
You’ve got a daughter in high school now? Great! Well done! Anyway, here’s something new to think about: dating and sexuality. Good luck with that, #girldad! Next week, we’ll dive into college applications, school shootings, bullying, social media, climate change, and how to protect your teen’s mental health through a pandemic. You’ll be fine.
This is not to say that moms don’t bear a crushing mental load of parenting, they absolutely do. My wife, for example, has a lot to deal with. My kids need her to help them navigate their emotions, a job for which I am sadly ill-suited for. We can blame the patriarchy, or just acknowledge the fact that I’m not sure sometimes how to handle my own feelings. Even as a stay-at-home father, I still act like a stereotypical male at times.
Fatherhood for the Stay-At-Home Dad
Media talks a lot about the strain women are under to raise their kids, and that’s great, but we also need to talk more openly about how much fathers also worry about parenting our kids.
Our society generally does not encourage men and boys to discuss our emotions. We’re not taught to embrace our vulnerabilities, but to guard them, and that’s a problem. Because, honestly, putting on that brave face all the time is exhausting, and expending so much energy to suppress our feelings makes it ten times harder to raise our teenagers, who challenge us at every turn.
In my dad group, we’ve created a safe space to discuss our emotions and we’ve all found it incredibly helpful. We can express any stress, guilt, or mental health concerns we may have with no fear of negative repercussions or judgment. We can let down our walls and talk about difficult issues and challenges we’re facing being a dad.
When one of our teens starts to date — what rules do we set for them, and why? When one of our kids wants to go to college — what advice do we have about paying for that? When our kids turn eighteen — how can we help them succeed in the world we’ve spent so much time protecting them from? Those are just some of the worries and big decisions we’ve shared and worked to solve together. Collectively, we’ve learned through trial and error that instead of dictating to our teens what they should and should not do, it’s better to guide and lead them. This strategy works so much better for us than “because I said so.”
My very observant daughter once told me, “I think you’re all finding new ways to manipulate us.” When I asked her how, she explained, “Because you don’t tell us what to do. You just talk to us until we see your point. It’s unfair.”
Is it manipulation to guide our kids, as my daughter claims? Maybe. But I like to think that being thoughtful about how to talk to our teens about difficult subjects is more about effective parenting than manipulation. Maybe it’s just that we dads have learned to draw on our lived experiences, our collective wisdom, and our common sense.
The next parenting challenge we are tackling in my household is how to send our kids out into the world. For me, that creates more worry than just about anything else I’ve done. When my daughter graduates high school, will she be able to afford a place to live? Does she want to go to college? How much of my help does she want? Where is the line between me being overbearing and being helpful? Have I done my job as a father to give her the best chance at being happy? I know I’ll have to relinquish control at some point, but right now I’m struggling to let go. I’m thankful I can bring my questions and anxieties to my dad group.
Early on, when I was trying to figure out how to be a dad on my own, I was full of self-doubt and I constantly questioned my worth, unsure if I could be the person my children deserved. But then I found my dad’s group, and it gave me a safe place to be vulnerable and honest, and friends who lend me strength and support, help me find resiliency through honesty and vulnerability, and appreciate my help in return. The lessons I learn with them become lessons I pass on to my kids and I see how those lessons play out and benefit all of our lives.
While I can’t offer you a coupon for therapy or some creative way to alleviate the frustrations of parenthood, I can offer you the first piece of advice I give to dads (stay-at-home or not), which is: “Find your people. Embrace your community. Go beyond superficial conversations and get the advice you deserve as a father.”
I say this knowing I’m lucky. I know most fathers don’t have a group of friends who can offer this unconditional support. But with groups for dads popping up all over, in person and online, and City Dads Groups supporting many of them throughout the country, finding one you can join might be easier than you think. I encourage you to seek one out. You don’t have to figure out how to be a great father all on your own.