Being a father doesn’t come with a how-to manual. Most of us are just out here trying to do our best job and learning, one day at a time, the ins and outs of this instructionless endeavor. Whether you learned from your old man or you’re doing this on your own, there continues to be a series of common issues that plague a man’s ability to be the best father he can be. I’m a therapist, so let’s dive into these factors and explore some changes that can help you be a more present father.
Fatherhood, among many things in life, is a choice. A choice that comes with accepting the challenge of being the source of guidance, protection, and love for a human being that will depend on you for the next few decades.
Pretty scary, right?
Despite your internal battle with fear and doubt, something inside you made you make that choice. Instinct. God. Love. For whatever reason, you chose to be a father. And with that choice came the responsibility of following through on the biggest promise you’ve ever made: “I am going to be a good dad.” Up until this moment, your biggest worries had been finding a career, asking someone out, or deciding what to eat for dinner. Now, you find yourself face-to-face with the complex responsibility of taking care of someone other than yourself, raising the next contributing member of society, and being part of a new family system.
Little did you know, that promise you just made was going to reveal to you the good, the bad, and the ugliest parts of you.
Inadequacy: What if I’m not good enough?
What will they say? Did I do this right? Am I making the right choice? All of these questions are pretty common, and they stem from a place of fear that pulls at a deeply rooted feeling of inadequacy. We all have this to an extent, but parenthood seems to be special in that it feels like someone is always watching with something to say. And if you’re anything like me, a simple task can feel like rocket science in the presence of an audience.
When being a dad feels like you have to perform for society, your parents, or your neighbors, those feelings of not being good enough can result in compensating behaviors such as perfectionism. Perfectionism can be characterized by the high or unrealistic expectations you place on yourself as a father in order to avoid feeling not good enough. It can also look like anxiety, being overly critical of yourself or others, and overreacting to mistakes or unmet expectations. When you practice perfectionism, you enter into a dangerous game of conditional worth that says, “So long as things are perfect, I am a good dad.”
But the truth is, things will never always be perfect. Sure, at first you might feel good from the praise you get from external sources like your parents, social media, and your friends, but over time, the cost of overcompensating with perfectionism is going to make fatherhood exhausting and lead you to burnout. Many fathers are held back not by their internal feelings of inadequacy, but by how they act in response to those feelings.
You are a model for failures, just as you are for successes.
Ironically, being a perfect dad is keeping you from being the best dad. Your worry of what others might think is making you anxious and you’re missing out on some of the best moments with your kids. Being a Superman dad creates distance with your kids in that their mistakes may feel bigger and more significant than they really are. They see perfection in you and imperfection in them.
The point of fatherhood isn’t to be perfect, but instead, I suggest that fatherhood is about showing our kids how to make courageous mistakes, own our mistakes, and overcome these mistakes. The sooner your children can see you be a flawed human being, the sooner they can accept themselves as capable and confident human beings. Dad, you’re going to mess up. That’s no secret. The magic comes down to how you model the ability to learn from these mistakes and come back stronger than before.
Instead of hiding mistakes, practice celebrating mistakes as opportunities to learn from them. Celebrating mistakes will give you the opportunity to connect with your kids as you team up with them to resolve a common goal. Plus, it could also give you the opportunity to practice your best attempt at a good old-fashioned dad lecture.
Poor boundaries: From Yes Man to No Man
As a father, you want to be known as someone people can count on to show up when needed most. What’s good is you take pride in that; what’s bad is people take advantage of that.
You would think that being the most reliable person for others would translate to you being the most present father. But what happens instead? You give everything in your tank to everyone around you, and by the time you get home, all you want to do is just relax. Meanwhile, your spouse or your kids—or both—are waiting for you to get home and show up for them. Sound familiar?
Your inability to say no to others causes you to take on more than you can handle, makes you resentful, and affects your ability to show up as a father. No is not a bad word, but it does feel uncomfortable to say it. You may have gotten used to being there for everyone else, so initially saying no may result in some negative feedback from yourself or others. However, saying no more often is an essential boundary to incorporate into your life in order to free up space and energy for the people and activities that matter most to you in life.
Think of it in terms of budgeting your energy. Imagine every day you start out with a hundred yeses. You know your kids require a certain number of yeses, your partner another quantity, and most importantly you require some yeses for yourself. Once you run out of yeses, you have to start saying no in order to replenish the tank.
Up until now, a majority of your yeses have been going to work, friends, and other areas of your life—leaving little to no room for a “yes” for you, your partner, or your kids. Some days, the math will be different because life is complicated, but spend some time thinking about where you would ideally like to direct your energy on a daily basis—and create boundaries, like saying “no,” around that vision. Being a person someone can count on is an honorable trait to have, but your energy is an extremely valuable and limited resource. Treat it as such and use strong boundaries to help you spend it wisely.
Not asking for help: There is no “I” in Dad
I know you’ve heard this before and you’re going to hate me for saying it again, but: You don’t have to do this alone!
Whether you’re married or single or otherwise, we men have a tendency to feel alone in many of our struggles, including the struggles of being a dad. Although it may feel like nobody is there to help, the truth is a little more complicated than that. When you carry yourself in a way that portrays you’ve always got it together and never need help, you are training the people around you to believe that you indeed do not need help, and therefore they should not offer you support.
Since nobody knows what it looks like for you to receive help, people don’t really know how to best support you when you inevitably become overwhelmed. Unfortunately, you might view this as “Nobody is there for me,” and the cycle ensues. The truth is, there are more people willing to support you than you think. How much and how often they can help is a different story, but the point is, they are there. Asking for help from anywhere (from a neighbor to a therapist to an old friend) can help you feel less alone in your struggles and subsequently improve your mental health and your ability to keep showing up for your kids and family.
Being a dad is no easy feat. There’s no manual, no right way, no gold stars. You’re out there doing what you know and hoping that it’s good enough. But hey, if you’re reading this article, you’re doing better than you think. Take a breath, dad. The promise of being a father is one that lasts a lifetime. Every day is a chance to keep improving and bettering yourself. And if you learned anything new from this piece, then you’re already that much closer.
Some of the issues that hold many fathers back continue to be feelings of inadequacy, poor boundaries, and not asking for help. Keeping track of how these things may be showing up in your life can help you better understand their impact on you and your family and can let you know when to address them. Working with a licensed therapist is a great way to start tackling these and any other issues you may be having related to fatherhood or mental health.