What Doesn’t Kill you makes you stronger, or something like that!
Lets face it, life is tough! It’s full of pressure, expectation and stress. We are expected to earn more, and to work harder and longer to achieve all the things that we are told are necessary to live a successful life. Now these expectations are true of all of us living life’s journey but as a not so young father of two living up to my own expectations of what success as a father, husband, and son meant, as well as working towards on building my own career, this burden can be immense. This blog is not meant to be a story of whose life is more challenging because there are very few people in todays world who could be accused of doing it easy, however, my interest in the expectations of the modern male are borne through experience and as part of a reflection on my own life. I hope that it provides an insight into the burden of expectation, a burden that we can all struggle through at times in our life.
Growing up I was fortunate to have a wonderful father as a role model. His role in our household was far more than the stereotypical norm. He cooked, cleaned and a whole lot of other things as well as working two jobs to provide for his family. However, although he broke the mould in many ways, he rarely, if ever, discussed his emotions or if he was struggling in any way. This to me was, at the time, a sign of strength, a sign of what a man must be. This was further reinforced as a teenager in sporting teams and school where in the midst of other males it was more like a game of survival for the supposed mentally fittest. This sort of conforming to societal norms is ultimately pretty common and the midst of a carefree life as a single male or in the throes of new relationships the impact for me was minimal. In life however we live in the chasm of change. As we move through the cycle of life, responsibilities change, expectations change and this can be very confronting.
I’d like to think that my life is quite typical and that my friends and family are representative of what is generally happening commonly in today’s world, in other words, “Mr Average”. Before the birth of my son life was pretty simple. I had a great group of friends, fantastic social life, met my wife to be and got married. Life was split between an absolute focus on my career and socialising and living the “good life”. As is always the case, hindsight provides an opportunity to acknowledge how good things were. Work and starting a business was stressful and difficult but this was offset by the capacity to balance this with friendship, family and socialising. I basically was able to do what I wanted, life was really great. Marriage was part of this journey and further strengthened this balance.
It was about 6 months after the birth of our son that I really started to notice a change in life. We revelled in the afterglow of having a baby for that first 6 months and I had always wanted to be a parent who contributed equally to the care of our child. What I didn’t anticipate was how much this would impact me. At the time I couldn’t really explain how I felt. I genuinely accepted this change as being part of parenthood and with no comparable experience, I didn’t question it. It was also a topic I never felt comfortable discussing with friends in any great depth. It just seemed to me that it made me less of a man to express that life was difficult. I also did not want to undermine the challenges of motherhood that my wife was facing. From my perspective at least, it was interesting to see her cope with her own change. From my perspective there were discussions with friends who were also new mums to share feelings and relate experiences. Social media was also used in this way which I thought also provided an outlet. Neither of these options felt natural too me but they were both available. I couldn’t understand why I was not comfortable using them so I just kept ploughing on hoping that things would improve as my son got older and life would get easier. Our daughter arrived when our son was 19 months and that theory was blown out of the water.
I have to tell you that this was when I really started to feel the pinch. Having two kids under two, working long hours, wanting to ensure that I was an equal parent, having to move into a bigger house for a growing family and wanting to ensure that my wife was coping was a headspace I was struggling to cope with. Now I am far from the only person to have to face this increasing responsibility but the burden became significantly greater to bare. In particular I didn’t really have the time or energy to try to process how I was feeling and more importantly I felt that it was weak for me to feel this way particularly seeing that I wasn’t home all day with the kids and at least had the opportunity to get out and “escape” to work. This cycle continued until my daughter was closer to 12 months and I was finding life so difficult that I had to try to rationalise how I felt. Every time I attempted to talk about it with my wife or friends it felt like I was telling a “woo is me” story so stopped myself because I am sure from the outside looking in my life seemed next door to perfect. There were endless circular conversations in my head to try to understand my feelings and yet still couldn’t summon the courage to talk about it with anyone else. My rationale being that if I couldn’t express how I felt to myself, how could I share these thoughts?
My daughter is now approaching 2 and I can’t really say that this burden has gone but over the last 12 months I think I have come to a position where I can understand and rationalise how I feel. Firstly, being a parent is tough, there is no escaping this truth and maybe a large part of struggling through this is a rite of passage that we all must go through.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Well no. I think a lot comes down to this stereotypical social construct of what makes a man. He must be strong! He must not express emotion! He must be the breadwinner! Yada, yada, yada! The question is whether these are societal and cultural expectations or are they largely self-imposed pillars. The answer? Probably a bit of both. There is no escaping the fact that a large part of society expects this of a “man”, however, the only person who can truly determine whether they live up to their own self-imposed criteria is the individual themselves. As humans we tend to be our own harshest critics and therein lies the problem.
On many of these criteria I was successful. I was the breadwinner, I was contributing as a parent to the lives of my children the way I intended and I felt that I was being supportive and sensitive to the challenges of motherhood that my wife was facing. Tick, tick, tick! So what was the problem? Purely living up to expectations is not enough to sustain anyone because often you can spend so much time living up to them that you forget about yourself as an individual. This was compounded by the fact that I didn’t have the tools to communicate this to anybody meaningfully and that I felt men shouldn’t do this. With societies changing expectations (for the better might I add!), and the need for dads to be more engaged and connected with better contributors to family life whilst still feeling obligated to live up to the traditional expectations of a male, there felt like no time for me to do anything that allowed me to be me and retain my own identity. This was really the crux of the issue
On reflection, as parenthood changed my life, the most significant change that has impacted me was the capacity to have an outlet. Without any outlet and without feeling like I could communicate with anybody about this I felt like I was losing my own identity. This was a problem that was a lot harder to fix. Some may think that we should just be able to express our feelings and share those with other people but may I suggest that most men do not feel comfortable doing this, even with the closest of friends. Sadly, we may often find it more difficult to speak to our partners because we do not want to suggest our struggles are more significant than theirs during the beginnings of parenthood or so as to not lot on to any perceived weaknesses. Furthermore, as responsibilities mean that maintaining friendships becomes harder any hope of sharing those thoughts becomes even less likely.
So, did I find a golden ticket? Alas no. I do realise however that I have needed to change my own expectations. In particular, I need to get better at talking about the struggles and burden and that this in fact helps relieve some of that pressure. I also need to realise that I am not super human and that if I do not share, at least sometimes, how I am feeling then the important others in my life can never fully understand how to support me.
Many of the pressures of change in life, and in particular parenthood, will never disappear, so finding a way to cope is important. Trying to talk more about these struggles is a start but still something that I will always need to work at. Equally, however, I think for men a regular outlet is important even though it is vital that this outlet has a positive influence. Whether it’s going to the gym, playing golf regularly with a group of friends or participating in a sporting club it is important to try to commit some time in your life for you because it can feel very isolating to not have these sort of opportunities to look forward to. It is these things that may have part of life previously that allow you to connect the past to the present and maintain a sense of identity. It is also these opportunities that can give you a support network when the inevitable struggles of life hit. Familiarity with peers can make it much easier to feel like you have a shoulder to lean on.
Ultimately what I take from this is that it is important to recognise that the role of a dad is changing, and that it is vital that we are able to temper the traditional expectations to assist in finding balance. It is also important to ensure, for both new mums and dads, that feeling like you can retain some of your own identity through this time, rather than solely feeling lost in the journey of parenthood, will help provide a coping mechanism to not only survive, but thrive!