Remember when it was only one person you needed to be accountable to at the end of the day? Unless you’re someone who got married right out of college you probably had a number of years of focusing solely on yourself. Not that friends, dates, and family didn’t factor into your decision making, but you were able to close your door at night and your roommates were left to their own devices. Those days when it wasn’t a struggle to find time for yourself as a new dad?
Do you remember how hard it was to find time for yourself even then?
We live in a busy city that doesn’t take kindly to going slow and having unstructured moments. Maybe you were the type of single guy who made lists or maybe you just somehow made sure the important ‘grown up’ things got done. Maybe your lists had few to no cross offs and maybe the important things suffered. Still, you looked at yourself in the mirror and you went on without really needing to be accountable to anyone else.
Now there’s someone staring up at you and all you know is he won’t stop crying and his diaper needs to be changed.
What You’re Teaching
The last minute stopping-by-the-bar-for-a-drink-after-work-that-could-last-until-the-end-of-the-game may not be a possibility anymore (or is self-time still possible?), but that shouldn’t mean that there is no longer a part of you that is your own.
I’ve said it before: You’re not taking care of your kids if you’re not taking care of yourself. Do you really want to teach your children that a father’s job is to totally subsume himself to the role of Dad and partner? Because this, right here, right now, is the most effective ‘teaching’ that you will do as a father and it’s called ‘modeling.’ Not the morals you may try to instill, not the life-lessons you may pass on. Sure that may be what you recall as the concrete take aways that perhaps your father taught you, but much deeper lessons are in the way you handle your emotions and the way you live your life. The modeling you do when you’re not “On”–when you’re not having what you may think of as a parenting moment. That’s what seeps in.
Memories of Your Own Father
If you think back and you see your father as a totally self-sacrificing man who never carved out time for himself because he was taking care of family business then you may have learned that a father does not have an identity separate from his child’s needs. Many sons grow up seeing this and feel this burden; this is how it’s supposed to be. Many fathers push themselves too far, taking on too much responsibility for others and losing themselves, without going to doctors, without talking about their feelings, without allowing themselves time to take care of themselves.
Is that a legacy you want to leave to your son or daughter? Is that self-sacrifice the legacy you’ve been left? Does thinking about taking care of your own needs bring up tremendous guilt? Pay attention to that and explore how that seed was planted. Time for yourself as a new dad is difficult, but it is possible.
Being a Man, Being a Father, Falling Short
Many fathers I talk to feel the societal male pressure to shoulder all of the money issues, the life stress issues so their child can be carefree, focused on school work and friends, without having to worry about all the other stuff. In fact, those that can’t be the caretaker they believe they are supposed to be feel tremendous guilt and shame that they are not fulfilling their role as a father or even as a man. They think it’s their responsibility to keep everyone happy.
It makes sense they want to shield their kids from all the stuff we struggle with as adults—and that’s not the worst instinct to have. It can be a huge disservice to put an adult’s burden on a child. I’m not saying to make your four year old sit with you while you redo your budget for the twelfth time (good luck with that, by the way) so they can see how difficult it is to manage finances the next time they start moaning about how much they want the newest accessories for Elsa. I’m saying that if you think you are hiding your stress, you are probably wrong and your child will probably assume that he or she did something bad, that he or she is the reason for your stress. I had a teacher in grad school who used to say, “Children are great detectives and horrible interpreters.” She meant that children can sense when something’s up and they usually think it’s about them.
We spend a heck of a lot of time teaching our kids to be individuals, to be educated, to make their own money and the idea is that the days of finding a man or a woman to ‘take care of them’ are gone. So why do you want to model total self sacrifice if that’s not what you want your kids to learn?
Everyone Wins: Prioritizing Your Child, Prioritizing Yourself
Listen, your child is your priority. Especially as an infant, their entire well-being rests solely on you (take a breath, you probably knew this already). If you are co-parenting then finding some time for yourselves is important as the child probably represents a huge shift in your relationship (want a tip to negotiate that self-time, dad?). You’re going to want to find time for your relationship and you’re going to want to discover time for yourself in a relationship as well as time for yourself as a new dad.
On of the great/frustrating thing about kids, especially the ones on the younger side, is that the minute you think you’ve all settled in to a routine, something comes along and changes that. Almost through the first year and stranger anxiety pops up and your easy-going infant won’t go to anyone except you. Grapes are your toddler’s favorite food until she hates grapes and the trip to the Food Coop yesterday was a waste. So stop waiting until you develop a routine to sit down with your partner and find some time for each other and some time for just you. It’s allowed.
If the idea of approaching your partner with this—with your own needs, especially if she or he is the one who is doing the majority of the caregiving—we can talk about some options. If thinking about putting your own needs out there when you have a newborn (or a toddler, or a school age kid, or a teenager) just seems incredibly selfish feel free to drop me a line as well.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)