No sooner has Fathers’ Day come and gone (June 21st) then we turn, the very next day, to marking International Fathers’ Mental Health Day (IFMHD). This day has now been up and running for the last few years. Like so many of these celebratory days I fear it may get overlooked amid the daily blizzard of social media memes and sensationalist news.
It would be a shame if this happened to IFMHD. But any neglect might also be due to the nature of the day itself. For it asks us to go beyond the abstract and into the particular and the personal: to look compassionately and objectively at how we were treated by our fathers and how we’re fairing as fathers. The impetus behind the initiative appears to fall on the dramatic wrenching event which occurs when a man suddenly shifts from being just a regular bloke to becoming a father. The new-born days and months can indeed be most bewildering and, not least in terms of importance, profoundly sleep-deprived. Using this narrow lens of fatherhood is understandable as fatherhood never stays still for long, marked as it is by constant evolution and change. Therefore the need to draw the net over a manageable and relatable portion of it is a pragmatic if rather limiting choice.
But what IFMHD can do, whatever its limitations, is to open up a space for potentially difficult conversations. By doing so we prepare ourselves, we men I mean, to begin to confront the sort of searching, self-directed questions hinted at above. If we’ve been well-cared for and fathered ourselves then we’re not likely to stumble in giving our answers. But if we weren’t then our words might fail us – we’d much rather just change the topic, if it’s all the same to you. For these questions like Was I loved by my Pa? Am I truly able to give and receive love to my children? are not, after all, everyday questions. They are more like questions that only a therapist or the closest of friends get to ask. But shouldn’t we all be more able to ask these questions of the men in our lives? I guess this is partly why IFMHD was created in the first place – and I applaud the two men, Andrew Mayers and Mark Williams, who set it up.
When working with clients who also happen to be fathers, and when it might benefit them and their process, I share some of my experiences of fatherhood. I share with them something of my own tough days: the brittle patience all too easily broken when child-rearing is challenging, the struggles to separate out my own childhood issues from those of my children, the times when I felt little other than boredom and distraction and horribly boxed in by my self-created role as house servant (not that the doing of domestic tasks is unimportant: the many, many jobs of family life must be done by someone after all). Sometimes I go deeper still: I reveal my inability to stick for long with my children’s highly repetitive play. Overall: having to live with my ever-wandering mind which only desires to take me further and further away from the immediate concerns of my children. I don’t imagine for one second that these struggles, these many hours of near complete zoning-out, are owned or known by men alone. In many ways it is much harder for mothers to admit to all of the above weaknesses, if weaknesses they are.
Though rooted in a fragment of the truth, and too often waved around as a full-proof opt-out card, fathering is often spoken about with accompanying grins and laughter. On my shelf is a book from 1928: On Being a Father, by A.M. and K.E. Walker. It is a most light-hearted guide to what is perhaps the most important of all human endeavours: the care, nurture and education of children. Here’s a brief taster:
We may laugh and yet … fatherhood has a shadow over it. We just don’t always know what we’re doing or supposed to be doing. And our minds – and bodies – so often wish to be elsewhere. And yes, uncertainty and frustration are valid as feelings because they do what feelings always do: simply rise up, unbidden. But we not obliged to take the next step – a case of translating the sentence ‘I find this really hard’ into ‘I’ll disappear now so I don’t have to keep doing this’. The economic fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic will hit women harder than men – which also goes for the three months of the actual lockdown. Plenty of stuck-at-home fathers have been reluctant, so female friends tell me, to sharing out equally the daily domestic round. In the midst of the pandemic has returned, or so it would seem, that old chestnut that we men are just not very good at multitasking. That 1928 view of fathering suddenly looks less out-of-date than at first glance.
But to go on at length about the pressures and the pains of parenting is to tell a most one-sided story. The profound bonds and connections we experience with our children matter enormously to most men, though I for one routinely overlook them and instead keep myself a-wallowing in my irritated moods and curbed freedoms. When I’m not with my sons I worry about them all the time; part of me just wants to be around them, trying – though in vain, mostly – to keep them happy and safe all of the time. But I don’t necessarily want to be with them all the time (nor they with me). Fathering, and mothering, is a task of such enormous subtlety: we aim to provide the right amount of freedom for our children to grow in but not so much that it starts to slide into indifference, or worse, unconscious neglect. We passionately hold them close when distress and fear wash over them, but at the same time we know we must also create for them an opening out onto the world from which they may, of course, never return. Fathering, just like mothering, is often a most thankless task.
My hope, at the end of the day, is to be the ‘good enough’ parent. And for someone at my level of self-doubting, even this feels like a bit of a grand claim at times! But I may need to let go of my striving and my disappointments a bit more often, for this repeated pattern of falling down and getting back up again may well be amongst the most valuable lessons I can perform for my children. For they, more than likely, will in due course go through the same falling down and getting up cycles with their children. And at this point they will start to ask themselves: