The emotional tangle of being a dad

As I held each of my children for the first time, an emotional umbilical cord formed. With dramatic suddenness, I was attached to them, not just with fatherly commitment but with real empathy. I discovered that my ability to feel pain did not stop at my skin – I felt their pain. In fact, their pain could distress me far more than anything in my own body.

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Parenthood introduced me to terrifying new levels of emotion

There were now these little people in my world that I cared about more than I cared about myself. Falling in love with my wife had already made significant breaches in the emotional defences I had erected during years of selfishness, but becoming a dad brought those walls crashing down. I was defenceless to crying, distressed infants, who stirred such powerful feelings in me I hardly knew what to do.

Becoming a parent required me to do some emotional growing up

The biggest bit of learning was to switch off my ‘default labelling’ – too easily, when I did not know what I was feeling, I called the emotion ‘anger’. I remember my little girl breaking away from me and running out into traffic. I dived after her and pulled her back. I am sure there was a huge pot of complex emotions boiling in my chest – fear, relief, love – but it all just spilled over as anger. In fact, anger is probably the least useful parenting emotion there is.

I learned I was supposed to feel things

It really helped to learn I was supposed to feel things, because I was supposed to do something! One of the best ways to handle the emotions that got stirred up in me was to learn more about parenting. As I learned to be more competent in comforting and handling my children, I was less disturbed by their crying and emotion. I learned to get better at interpreting their cries and expressions, and even their misbehaviour and crankiness, and to respond to it practically or with my own emotions.

I learned that my children need my emotional response

And, especially, to know that I love them. The big problem is that I am shy. (I act like an extrovert but so many shy people do!). I do not know why it happens – these little babies we hug and cuddle so much get a bit bigger and then we get all awkward about saying, “I love you” to them or hugging them.

Maybe we don’t want people to think we are soft and mushy. Maybe we pick up on their awkwardness, especially as they start heading into adolescence. Personally, it took a deliberate policy decision – “I am going to tell my kids I love them every day!” Courage is not an emotion – it is the moral force to push past an emotion to do the right thing anyway. Good parenting takes guts.

The flip side to the vulnerability

The flip side to the vulnerability I feel in response to my children’s emotions is the profound pleasure I get from their joy. I cannot think of a single thing I have enjoyed more in life than experiencing their pleasure. I have enjoyed them opening presents on Christmas mornings far more than I’ve enjoyed opening mine (mind you – socks). I thrill to their thrills, their triumphs are mine. You cannot put it on an Excel spreadsheet, but it is one of the best dividends for this investment we are making called ‘parenting’. I know there is a trap – some parents live their lives vicariously through their children far too much. I know, I know – but I really do enjoy it.

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.