When baby first came into this world, I felt amazed, excited and in complete awe. But I also felt completely useless. Until the first nappy change came along, in which case I was like ‘yeah I learned how to do this, now’s my chance to shine to give mum a break’. And that was probably where it all started, feeling like I was never doing enough and needing to do more. Feeling guilty that I wasn’t helping care for my daughter enough, or feeling guilty that I wasn’t helping my wife enough. I was experiencing what is effectively known as ‘Dads Guilt’.
And I still experience it to this day. It’s a feeling that just doesn’t seem to go away, particularly during those rough times (aka developmental leaps, or illness, or starting day care). But it’s manageable, and guilt isn’t a ‘bad’ feeling. Guilt can be motivating if we don’t let it take control.
Any advice taken from this article is of a general nature and examples relate to my experience. If you are struggling with ‘Dads Guilt’ or any other difficulties, please seek support from your doctor or relevant health professional.
Is Dads Guilt A Real Thing?
Good question. Well to start off with, guilt is when we feel bad for having, or not having, done something that violates our beliefs, ideas or the way we would normally behave. A lot of information is out there about how mothers experience guilt when raising their children, feeling they are not doing enough, supporting enough, loving enough, caring enough. There are a lot of blogs out there that cover the writer’s personal experience and struggle with mums’ guilt, and ideas on how to manage it and get through the tough experience. A lot of really great resources, supports and stories to help mums’ get through and figure out what will work for them.
In the last few years, more research has been done looking at fathers, and whether they experience similar levels of guilt as what mothers do, and how this impacts their parenting and relationships. What this research has shown is that dad’s to experience guilt when it comes to parenting, and a lot feel bad for similar reasons to mums’. A survey conducted in 2017 by Today.com highlights that of 1200 dads, about 1 in 5 dads feel guilty about not being present enough or not doing enough for their children, and 1 in 4 feel guilty about not earning enough money for the family.
So in short, yes dads guilt is real, just like mums’ guilt, because as parents we feel guilty about what we do or don’t do for our kids, because we just want the best for our children.
What Do We Feel Guilty About
Before we look into managing guilt, we need to ask ourselves two main questions: What do we feel guilty about specifically? and Should I actually feel guilty? Being specific is important, because an emotion like guilt doesn’t tell us what is wrong, it just says something doesn’t feel right. So by being specific, we can now target our guilt into making a specific behaviour change.
Two personal examples
- I often feel guilty about not being able to be at home and spend more time with my family. This increases when my daughter is a bit more to handle due to illness/regressions etc. So when I look at these reasons, I feel guilty because I can’t help my wife care for our daughter when she is unwell, and I feel guilty that my daughter only sees me for a few hours a day.
- Although I’m pretty good at settling and comforting my daughter now, in the beginning she only wanted mum, and this meant an extra burden on my wife and me feeling pretty useless. So I specifically felt guilty about not being able to settle and comfort my daughter.
Should We Feel Guilty?
Sometimes we should feel guilty. When I look at the clock and realise that I’m an hour past my daughters feed time and that’s why she’s being fussy, I feel guilty. And for good measure, because that guilt means I quickly feed her before mum gets back! But we all know, deep down, that most of the stuff we don’t need to feel guilty about.
An article written by Lila MacLellan cites 2 studies, one that looked at the amount of time parents spend with their kids, and one that looked at the quality time spent with kids. The studies basically found that quality time plays a bigger role on childrens emotional wellbeing rather than the amount of time we spend with them. Now you may be thinking that’s pretty obvious, but the kicker is that the research indicates quality time as being the ‘incidental’, normal everyday interactions we have with our kids, such as dinner time, asking how their day was or the bedtime routine, where we can engage and communicate with our kids. So according to science, if you are doing normal family things together, spending time and being in the moment with your kids, then your kids will be fine.
But going back to specifics, you need to ask yourself if the thing you feel guilty about is within your control, or out of your control. Because if it is out of your control, then you need to learn how to manage your feeling, but if it is in your control then you can look at what you can do about it.
Managing The Guilt
Avoiding guilt is not a healthy, long term strategy. I encourage people to use it as a short term strategy, but that they need to figure out their long term game. One long term strategy I use personally and focusing my energy on what I can actually control.
Looking at the earlier examples, if I feel guilty about not being home more often, and I focus on work as being the problem, then I’m probably going to find myself feeling worse. Because ultimately I need to work to support my family, and changing jobs isn’t likely to free up my time. So what I choose to focus on instead is when I am home, all the things I am already doing to support my family and be with them. (I am still focused on trying to free up more time by earning pay increases or finding additional streams of income – so I can work part time – but that’s a long term goal that isn’t going to show immediate pay off.)
Likewise, I couldn’t control that my daughter wanted my wife to help her settle in the early stages, but I could still give it a good shot and keep trying so she would eventually be able to feel comforted by me. Sure there are still times where she only wants mum despite my best efforts, but I don’t feel guilty about it because most of the time shes fine with me too.
Like any good strategy, you need to use it with balance. Don’t try cramming more activities into what little time you have available, don’t sacrifice self care completely for family time and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Communication Is Always Key
As much as us dads like figuring things out ourselves (just ask my wife about all my DIY projects), guilt is one of those feelings where the more we talk about and seek help, the less it impacts us. The MOST important strategy for managing parent guilt is to talk about it. Ideally you should talk about it with your partner so you can both support each other (remember, both of you are probably feeling the same thing), but friends, family, your GP, the neighbour, even the dog down the road are all going to be able to help in some way (even if it is only listening).
So as much as we may hate talking about our feelings, it is often the biggest factor between someone being able to manage their guilt compare to someone who isn’t. So take 5 minutes to chat with your partner about your thoughts and feelings, ask them what they’ve been feeling, and figure out how you both can work as a team to support each other.
Guilt Be Gone
In short, remember the following:
- Dad guilt and parent guilt is a real thing. So if you are experiencing this, be rest assured that there is another parent out there that is likely feeling what you’re feeling.
- Science says you shouldn’t feel guilty. I know that won’t help you, but you should know it anyway.
- Focus on what you can control. If it’s out of your control, then there isn’t anything you can do anyway.
- Be in the moment, focus on your family when you are with them.
- Keep it balanced. Just because it’s within your control doesn’t mean you should go overboard. As much as possible, balance self care with family time with your relationship.
- Talk about the guilt, preferably with your partner, but talking about it with anyone is helpful.
And even after doing all of this, your guilt probably won’t be completely gone. But then it shouldn’t ever be, because guilt isn’t a bad thing, it’s their to guide us. We just need to learn how to manage it so we don’t let it take control.
Advice in this article is general in nature. If you are experiencing difficulties in your parenting journey, please seek support specific to your needs.