Synergy Health Article
Becoming a parent for the first time is a challenging experience. Long held perspectives and motivations can change, values may be tested and for the athlete, there can be a sense of guilt that training goals are not being met, or if we continue to train, that our time could be better spent at home. Everyone is tired. As men, we also contend with maternal preoccupation, our changed relationship with our spouse, and contending with our new role as a father - which for many of us can be a steep learning curve.
I remember the first few weeks of our son’s life as like the melting Salvador Dali clock. Hours rushed past and some moments seemed to stretch out interminably. I will often say to my athletes that “the greatest growth appears on the cusp of support and challenge” it was fair to say in these first weeks I had crossed the line of support and was firmly in a space where I was challenged on almost every level.
This may sound jarring or self centred, but I believe firmly that I should look after myself first. And that is what I struggled with most initially. I say this not from a position of narcissism however from love and concern for my wife and child. If I am unable to attend to my physiological and psychological needs then I will be unable to look after and provide for my new family. The strain of holding myself to this standard, working from home and then on top of this the daily challenge of having a new human in the house who was completely dependant on us and resolutely kept to his own schedule quickly climbed on top of me. I felt inadequate and nearly completely out of control. Being someone whose life is spent assisting others to overcome challenges I had moments where I felt like a charlatan, how could I expect anyone to follow advice that I would give, if I couldn’t overcome this most basic and fundamental of challenges?
The working from home became increasingly difficult. My focus was pulled to my wife and son, and the multitude of other things that needed my attention. When he would cry I would rush upstairs, or if I didn’t I would stand downstairs in my office, consumed with distress that in needing to get my work done I was not there for Anna or the boy. Things were not going well. So I made a choice to do something that I find very challenging; I turned to others for support.
As a new family, both you, your spouse and your child become public property and a repository for all manner of wise advice, folk remedies, and behavioural strategies that are freely offered and all put forth as gold standard, no matter the efficacy (or sanity). I feel lucky to have people in my life who rather than hammering me with “wise” advice simply showed empathy. I remember a particularly fraught text conversation with a friend who not only is a father, but works in mental health. Instead of nailing me with advice or the old saw of “everyone gets tired” or even worse “when I was a father for the first time ….” he simply said words to the effect of “Fatherhood is really challenging especially if you’ve not done it before, I remember that” and “If you need to talk I’m here”. On the surface two very simple statements but this acknowledgement of shared experience was valuable to a) lessen my sense of isolation and b) give me space to put things in place. If he had come through. I certainly could.
I spoke to my wife about my fear and distress around not coping. I spoke to a friend who was just about to have a baby and most importantly, I spoke to my Mum. The notion of the strictly nuclear family is a uniquely modern, western phenomena. I’ve discussed in previous articles my fondness for the natural, supportive manner in which our hunter gatherer ancestors comported themselves in a group however I had found that in regards to child rearing I had perhaps fallen into this modern trap. It does take a village to raise a child and if you are lucky enough to have support from parents or other relatives, utilise it.
Mum sent me packing to my father’s office to work. In doing this I was able to separate home from work and focus on both better. Mum made herself available several times to just help out around the home. I still feel guilt about this, however I understand from many grandparents perspectives that this is considered a privilege rather than a chore, so I’ll hold to that. Mum also provided the objective perspective that my wife and son were coping just fine, which they were, and if need be Mum would throw herself in to help with that realm as well.
Having support, containment and gradually adjusting to the new challenge of fatherhood let me put some more practical strategies in place which were further helpful in easing the load on my family and I in these first few weeks -
For those of you that are self employed, if you are able, I would strongly recommend hiring an administrator. Having someone’s support on a part time basis to cut through the minutiae of my business life was super helpful. Having to not focus on the smaller, time consuming stuff has made my time more profitable, productive and enjoyable, plus my inbox has never been clearer.
A Firm Finish
For those of us that are self employed, flexible finishing hours can be both a blessing and a curse. I now stick to a regular finishing hour whenever I am not out coaching. Along with this, giving myself permission to leave things for the next day, or “imperfect”. The work day ends and I am free to focus on my wonderful family.
A Legacy Project
I’ve been enjoying planting out a 350m2 section of our garden with native plants for us to enjoy in the future. Having something to focus on outside of the family which will contribute to the family’s wellbeing has been a useful distraction also.
I’m reading more than I ever have. I read to my son all the time and I’m listening to a tonne of audiobooks. When I’m doing any number of the domestic tasks that fatherhood entails, having a book in my ears is great for keeping my motivation up. I’m learning so much at the moment with our son here that it feels natural to push that learning into other realms as well. It doesn’t have to be hours, but some time a day learning something new is a useful strategy to keep your perspective intact.
Acknowledge, Acknowledge, Acknowledge
Finally, in terms of what I discussed at the start of this piece, Yes, you are going to feel a pull, a rub, guilt, distress, and any number of other emotions. That is a good thing if you acknowledge them. They are appropriate emotional responses to a challenge that will affect you globally. Once you’ve acknowledged something, then you can act. When you act, you can make a positive change.
Lastly, I’ve been fortunate over the last decade to surround myself with athletes of all levels who are parents and have witnessed some truly great teamwork in terms of having children at events and fitting training in around busy family lives. This in itself is an inspiration, and I can’t wait until I can spend time exploring the outdoors with our boy. Having a degree of empathy towards the athlete who at times puts family over training has been a useful professional development also.
Adventure is the norm in my world, and having a child is simply a new facet in me having adventures, and one that is an adventure all of its own. Anna and I still plan to live our lives to the fullest that we can. It’s just that we just have to be more creative now. I don’t believe that my “old” life has stopped, with the arrival of our son, but indeed that the quality and richness of it has increased exponentially. I am assured that the challenge of fatherhood does not stop once the child becomes independent, however the nature and quality of the challenge differ. I’m so excited to see what is around the corner and that feeling of excitement can only be a good thing.