June 15, 2012

Photo of Paul Brooks, a Time to Change bloggerHere is a shocking secret. It’s stressful being a father of young children.

Why is this a secret? Because we don’t talk about it. We should just man up and get on with it, shouldn’t we? We’re men, damn it. It’s our job to be stoically dependable at all times.

‘Reality check’, as Simon Cowell might say to a deluded talent show contestant. Dads with young children are often on an invisible treadmill of worry that’s pulling them inexorably towards a big, steaming vat full of stress.

It’s Men’s Health Week and the headline statistics tells us 60% of British dads are out of shape. It’s not just our expanding middles that put us at risk of heart disease. Prolonged stress does us no favours either – and it has another, more sinister ally. Where stress lingers, depression is itching to get in on the action. It can quickly take you from being a chap who copes with all life throws at him to being someone who feels unable to cope with anything. That happened to me.

The worry starts when our partners are pregnant. We want to look after them and our unborn babies as best we can. Then there’s the worry and stress of the birth itself. I don’t need to be told that men have the easier deal when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. Of course we can’t carry the child ourselves or give birth to it, but trust me, we can carry worry all too well, and very few people seem to care about that.

At the time when we most need support and understanding, dads are often ignored

At the time when we most need support and understanding, dads are often ignored, excluded, stereotyped and patronised, both during the pregnancy and after the birth. I regularly went with my wife to pregnancy check-ups, yet the midwife often seemed oblivious to my presence and rarely even said hello to me. Advice for new dads is usually little more than ‘Why not help your wife by doing the shopping?’

I once encountered an old lady as I was pushing my baby daughter in her buggy. “Doing your bit, are you?” she asked. Grr.

I don’t buy into pointless, petty, false divides and competition between men and women. We need to support each other. I don’t think anybody can be truly ready for the physical, emotional and mental demands of having children. You have to somehow develop limitless patience, the ability to keep going all day and all night on barely any sleep, and cope with the relentless screaming that goes with it.

You can’t underestimate the impact of constant tiredness and pressure on your mental health.

You can’t underestimate the impact of constant tiredness and pressure on your mental health. They affect your ability to think clearly, and that’s when other people’s ignorance and judgemental attitudes can really affect your wellbeing. You feel like you should be enjoying every magical moment of having children, then feel guilty when you don’t. The most placid or upbeat people get wound up and snappy when faced with sleep deprivation and a permanent assault on their senses.

But we feel like we need to keep soldiering on, proving that we are great husbands and dads, still the same indispensable employees we always have been. We keep our stresses and frustrations to ourselves, and can end up turning them in on ourselves, with devastating effects.

Some stress is inevitable, but relentless stress over several months or years is dangerous

Some stress is inevitable, but relentless stress over several months or years is dangerous. You can feel like a machine, existing purely to carry out a series of duties, all day and all night. Just as machines malfunction if they’re put under too much strain, so do human bodies, including your mind.

I’d urge any parents to ask for support if they need it. Dads, don’t ‘man up’. Wise up. Don’t be too proud or too ashamed to accept help. I just kept going until I burned out. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I should just add that parenting is a uniquely wonderful experience – lovely, life-affirming, joyous and hilarious – just not all the time. Don’t be fooled by those permanently smiling super parents. You don’t know what’s going on in their heads…

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