"Daddy, you have to be nice."
I can't pinpoint it, but that phrase may have been one of the the triggers that spurred me to sign up for therapy.
Because I wasn't being nice.
I wasn't being a good dad.
I was doing all the "right" things in fatherhood but was, time and time again, failing at the core thing - being nice. Over the course of months, I was slowly becoming someone I didn't recognize. I didn't feel happy-go-lucky. I didn't feel like even smiling too often.
Not because anything in my life had gotten worse in the past year - I had an embarrassment of riches. Which made it all the stranger why I couldn't get a grip on myself, like I was becoming a pessimistic, sometimes angry guy for no specific reason.
One time in the fall, I was so mad — so unbelievably, white-knuckled mad — while watching my twin 1 year-old girls and 3 year-old son that I slammed a door in the house so hard it shook.
Another time, I threw a water bottle across the room at the wall because my son had, you know... asked for water a few times in a row; he, like me, couldn't figure out why I did that or how that solved anything. Or I'd scream WHAT THE FUCK at the top of my lungs to no one in particular because I had. Just. Had. It. It was like I was stepping outside myself, and even as it happened, I could hear a part of me saying "What is your deal?"
I was angry sometimes as soon as I woke up. Not angry like I wanted to hurt something. More like I had a tense feeling in my chest like a branch pulled to its limits that was about to snap back.
Some days everything could fall apart and I'd laugh and push through it and would be fully aware that this is just the stage of life I'm in — not a lot of control and an endless adventure.
The next day, an extended bed time full of babies popping back up or my son refusing to go to sleep would make me want to punch a hole in the wall.
Let me clear right away- I'm not talking about abusing my kids or anything dangerous; much of this was internal. Trust me, I understand if you were startled reading any of that and were wondering otherwise because so rarely do any of us like to admit we have anything less than a glowing experience with our kids beyond a few "Oh man that was a rough day!" slips.
But no doubt, I was dealing with some real shit, and I'd spend hours talking to my wife about it; she was as understanding and patient as ever even as we both were wondering what happened to the old me. I didn't want to keep going down that road. Already, I had heard my son a few times mention "daddy getting mad" and I knew exactly what he meant. That's enough.
It has been the better part of a year since I wrote a post.
I still fully believed in everything I had produced for Instafather. All the tips and tricks and posts I had produced — I know those things work, I know those experiences are worth sharing, and I know dads (and moms!) that were getting value out of it. (Funny enough, to this date, my post about Push Presents remains, by far, the most popular content on this site!). I knew that you have to be strict about nap time, that you have to have a good understanding of swaddling, or that a loud sound machine is a life saver. And that any dad could be all the better for having that info.
But I didn't believe in myself anymore. It's not that my heart wasn't in it — I hadn't stopped really valuing being an involved dad and helping new dads get quickly up to speed on everything they were about to experience. I was still a magazine columnist. I was still just as active as ever otherwise.
It's that I was feeling hollow. That anything I would write needed a big, fat asterisk such as * By the way, although I totally think this tip will help, I also yelled about a bath toy being wet today so take it with a grain of salt.
What makes a good dad? What makes a bad dad?
I kept wondering that.
I wondered how many dads were dealing with what I was dealing with, like they could show up for all the events and do all the bath times and read all the books and still have a side of them that was just fucking failing.
I don't know the answer to that, but I have to think it's not zero.
My kids, who in the time since I last wrote have grown into the most adorable, funny, sweet, exuberant little toddlers you can ask for, deserved a better me. Some days I could give that to them (even throughout all of this, I still had many fun, memorable days). And some days, my son would remind me that I needed to be nice because I had accidentally gripped his shoulder too hard with my tense hand as I was trying to do a delicate balance of working through a mental rage while dealing with the insanity of toddler reasoning (hint: there is none). Truly, the frustration toiling inside again and again was physically expressing itself in my grip. I had to take a second to cool off and count 1, 2, 3, 4 like I was Daniel Freaking Tiger getting told he wouldn't get to ride Trolley that day.
How I Pushed Through
I got help.
I spoke with a therapist for the first time ever. And again. And again. And again.
I had no idea what was expected or what it would accomplish, but I knew I couldn't keep doing the same thing and assuming the results would be better.
My wife, who just wanted me to be happy and had already done what she could to get me some down time, agreed it would help to have me talk things out, as I had a tough time even explaining to her exactly what I was feeling. ("I just feel angry all the time and I don't know why," I remember telling her, which, considering I have a loving, beautiful spouse, a good job, three healthy and happy kids, many friends and fun hobbies, makes no sense on the surface.)
My therapist listened intently as I talked and talked, which, as I discovered, was the very best aspect of the sessions ... how often do you get to just talk and not have someone try to give you a quick solution or interrupt or judge you? That's therapy.
She didn't try to justify things. Instead, she pointed out what should have been more obvious: that getting less than 4 hours of sleep a night for three years + having a daughter who almost died + having twins + regular work and life stress had pushed me to the breaking point. People handle that different ways. In my case, the extreme mental and physical exhaustion had manifested in bouts of anger, which was just stuff bubbling to the surface; really, it points to mild depression, she said. And I ignored it for too long, thinking I could just ride it out until things got better ... except that's not how it works.
I had got to the point that, even if most people thought I was handling things well (it's amazing what we all do to have the outside world think we've got our shit together, right?), I couldn't really do it anymore. My kids needed me to have it together, and at that point, I couldn't deliver, and in some cases I just fell apart.
Realizing there was something deeper there than just a rough patch or "typical parent stuff" made it real, which helped me come to grips with it. It also was by no stretch an excuse. Just a reality. And one I needed to figure out for my sake, for my family's sake, and more.
So in the meantime, I mostly avoided writing, here and elsewhere. And I waited for answers, for some kind of breakthrough. I wanted to start to make changes to do something about it. Somehow.
I can't tell you exactly helped snap me out of it. I'm not entirely snapped, I suppose; you don't climb out of this quickly when it was such a long spiraling process to get down.
But I can tell you that every day now, I haven't been waking up angry. I don't get as easily frustrated. I am appreciating little victories more. I don't still feel "hollow." I'm enjoying things more, for sure.
Some of that is just the basic reality of the kids sleeping better, where adding just one hour more of sleep a night makes a huge difference.
Some of that is using techniques to take a mental step back when I feel that old feeling. Like stepping out of a room for a minute if I need to. Like making a bigger priority out of taking care of myself or being vocal about needing some time. Like being more aware of what kind of dad I wanted my kids to have, and knowing under no circumstance would that involve my son feeling the urge to say "you have to be nice." Those little victories add up.
One core thing that had bothered me? I had a big problem with not feeling like I was ever getting things done. I'm a "get stuff done" guy. It's part of how I identify and feel good about myself. So when I have months and years go by where I'd constantly thinking "How come I never ever can get everything done?", even if it was just stuff around the house, it hurt. No joke.
What changes that? As my therapist told me, "being a parent is a check off the list, too." Being a dad this or that day is an actual accomplishment, in and of itself. It doesn't need an addendum. It doesn't need a qualifier. Being a dad IS the checklist.
That's an entirely different mindset. I am guessing if you've been nodding along this whole time, maybe it's something that can help you, too.
I've already told myself that I can't worry about what's going to happen next week or next month or next year. I want to make today really great. And then tomorrow, I'll work on making that great, too. That's doable. I can already tell you I feel much more like the dad I felt like when I started Instafather — an imperfect, does a lot of dumb stuff but greatly enjoys things kind of dad. That sounds perfect to me.
I'm truly glad you took a few minutes to catch up. I'd absolutely love to hear from you — please reach out if this struck a chord or you want to ask something or you just want to see what's new with my kids! (They are growing like crazy. My twins are 21 months old already!)
I hope 2017 is a fantastic year for you. Me? I'll work on making tomorrow a fantastic one.
Update: The response to this has been overwhelmingly! Here's a post about that and where we go from here.