Fatherhood and Mental Health when the World Falls Apart
Before I became a father, I was very unaware of my own mental health. Today, on the eve of World Mental Health Day, I’m reflecting on how fatherhood has reshaped my identity and improved my awareness. In fact, my self-designation as “dad” has propelled me to where I am now, working for a vibrant and growing mental healthcare provider in my home state of Ohio.
I was lucky enough to be present for each of my three children’s births. I even helped “catch” my eldest, a calm resident guiding my hands as my wife released our daughter onto the world. For each child, everything changed the moment they entered my life. I am not the man I was before. Each child remade me every time, reborn as they were born.
It’s a wonderful thing. I am proud of the person I am today, but I wasn’t always. To become a father—and to keep being one—I had to let myself, my identity, be broken down. Then my family and I could build it back up again.
I used to think I wasn’t “masculine.” As a teenager and young adult, I was scrawny and bookish. Depictions of men in our culture didn’t match my burgeoning worldview of nonviolence, empathy, tenderness. I thought a man had to be arrogant, aloof, aggressive. Those didn’t suit me very well.
Fortunately, I developed deep attachments with people who coaxed me into vulnerability and validated the very real feelings I shared. I eventually made my way to therapy, to deal with the residue of anger and resentment and guilt. At the same time as I was rebuilding myself, my children were helping lay the foundation.
Building a Father
Although I embraced my identity as a parent right away, understanding myself as “father” has taken more time. That’s because I had to build that myself, I realize now. The differences between “father,” “mother,” “parent,” or any other caregiver designation depend on cultural norms and individual personality more than anything.
Yet I am a father. Gender roles have never been important to my wife and I, but we remain different people with different skills. So we’ve been creative and strategic about how we parent. For me, fatherhood has meant playing cards, wrestling, reading books, doing homework, cooking, cleaning, watching movies, snuggling, singing, dancing, changing clothes, folding laundry, exploring, taking walks, visiting parks, and repeating “I love you” over and over again with my kids.
Certainly, my wife does many of these things, too, but we do them in different ways. Our children also look to us to fulfill slightly different needs. Or, at least, they’ll gravitate toward one parent or the other depending on the context of their need. (Our son once admitted that he asks my wife permission first because he thinks she’s more likely to say yes.)
These differences have little to do with “father” as a cultural concept. But they have a lot to do with how my children see and understand their father. They helped make me into the dad that they need. And they look to me to be their dad when they need me most.
And right now, we all really need each other.
Building a New World
I don’t know how to be a father when it feels like the world is falling apart, and neither do you. None of us with children have experienced anything like this year before. (That’s why you’ve heard the word “unprecedented” about a gazillion times.)
I do know, however, that being who I am—my children’s father—is what my children always need. Sometimes that means my role is comforter, teacher, counselor, investigator, or simply playmate. But sometimes that means I need to be vulnerable and share my real feelings, to be accountable and ask forgiveness, to trust and to build trust, to cry and not feel ashamed, to laugh and not feel guilty, to be true to myself and love myself.
This year—from the deadly pandemic that forces us to stay home to the social upheaval that forces us to question our nation’s moral code—we can’t ignore ourselves as parents. While many of us speak publicly of the (utterly valid) exhaustion we feel, we also should publicly acknowledge how we model behavior during this time for our children—and how we will build a new, better, kinder, gentler world with them.
My children know how I feel, my outrage at racism and my urgency to eradicate it off the face of the earth. They know my commitment to the safety of others, particularly those with health vulnerabilities. It’s no mystery to them why we wear masks and avoid crowds. They comprehend my anger at the brokenness of the world. And so I need them to see my commitment, equally, to building it back up.
Fatherhood, Mental Health, and the Future
The amount of stress we all are operating under is not sustainable. Stress is integral to our understanding of how adversity affects us psychologically and even physically. Reducing it, therefore, is key to achieving not just mental health but whole health.
Fathers have unique stressors. Fathers also are uniquely equipped to address some potential stressors in our children. We need our communities to help us raise our children, and we need fathers in those communities.
We recently restarted our Father’s Feelings study (safely and remotely through virtual sessions). This study is part of our effort to address the particular behavioral health needs of male fathers. But it’s also an opportunity to give participating dads space to express their feelings, experiences, and frustrations.
Today, more than ever, we need dads to embrace their fatherhood—whatever that means to them and their family and their culture and, yes, their mental health. There’s no single right way to be a dad or a mom or a grandpa or an aunt or an older sibling or cousin. It’s something we have to build together. We must support each other and give our children an opportunity to learn and grow in their own unique ways.
So be kind to yourselves, be kind to others, and, if you are a father, be committed to becoming a new man in a new world. Because we’re going to build it all back up together.