Accepting the trying times.
Getting married, changing jobs, going through a breakup or starting a family all influence a man’s mental health, but in a lot of cases, men are uncomfortable discussing their issues. Their reluctance to share can lead to disconnection, isolation and poor mental health. I work for the Movember Foundation and we recently funded some research on social connectedness among men . It shows that as men age, they lose their connections, become lonelier and are at higher risk of mental health problems like anxiety, depression and suicide.
My wife and I had been married for almost ten years when we found out she was pregnant. She is one of six children – the second oldest and seven years older than her next sibling. She’d had experience in helping raise children; I’d had none. I was elated at the thought of becoming a father but I had no idea what to expect. Advice was abundant but usually not very helpful or delivered with pessimism. Books, while in some cases inclusive of the father’s perspective, lacked any real depth. Advice from friends who were fathers was fleeting, often delivered in the backyard, by the grill, beer in hand. Compared to many of our friends, we were late to the kid game so there was also a bit of a lag with respect to shared experience. Few men – and even fewer women – ever asked me how I felt about things. Throughout the pregnancy, and even once our baby was born, there was little discussion around what my role was or what it meant to be a good father and husband.
As I’ve grown into the father role, I’ve realized how important it is to have a community and a place to have honest conversations. Our group of friends make an effort to get together as families, but also separately as fathers. This usually happens in familiar male environments – ball games, over a beer, over lunch – where we feel comfortable and can engage in a conversation beyond the simple, monosyllabic ones that typically occur. I’ve found that initially I need to lead the discussions, which I’ve largely learned how to do from my job and my need to share my experiences. The key is to ask questions that lead to deeper, nuanced conversations – this isn’t about making men feel vulnerable, just comfortable enough to realize that we all experience highlights and challenges. I always try to be very positive when speaking about my experiences (even the challenges), telling light-hearted stories about things like changing diapers and trying to bathe my son. By sharing, the conversation opens up and we can talk honestly.
This community has given me the sense that men are embracing the awesomeness of being fathers. The stories we share are educational, honest, encouraging and, in some cases, pretty damn funny. Conversations range from school, sports, ninja parent techniques and challenging days to how to avoid getting poop on your hand. There is so much to learn when you first become a parent that you can find yourself over-focusing and stressing about every little thing. This is unhealthy, not just for you but also for your partner and family. I’ll have successes, I’ll make mistakes. Sometimes I won’t know what’s going on at all and sometimes I’ll completely nail it. Fatherhood is a series of wins, some tiny, some huge, and my community has played a big role in helping me to fully embrace that.