Being a stay-at-home-dad can be risky!

I consider myself a stay-at-home dad since I resigned from my full time career as a pastor. After nine years of ministry burning the candle both ends and over-working, depression took hold and after finally reaching the point of seriously planning suicide I sought help. I couldn’t go back though. So I made a deal with my wife. If she went to work for us, I’d take care of the home – lock, stock and barrel. The reason for this was that she wasn’t traveling too well either emotionally because of the toll mental illness had taken on us.

And so I took on a new role. I organised the home, established routines for the kids, and went on a steep learning curve not so much in how to do the job, but how to find a rhythm in each week so that I could still live in an active recovery space and not become overwhelmed by the fact that housework is never completed – it’s the nature of the beast.

I was intrigued to read that while house dads are increasing in number (10-14%), it’s not all beer and skittles. A recent The Age article reported some old research that put men at 82 times higher risk of heart disease than their career paid counterparts but went on to outline some other risks suggesting

Househusbands who linger too long can find themselves in premature retirement, shut out of the workforce, and quite isolated…

House husbands need look no further than house wives to know that it’s not going to suit all of us and that the downsides are the same irrespective of gender. There can be less “job satisfaction” because the work is never done. Progress with the children seems slow at times. It feels like spinning the wheels compared to say an engineering sales role that I performed where I could measure my sales figures.

I’ve done a couple of key things to make it work for me. Firstly, I don’t hope to have it all done. I try and prioritize and get down the key things and let other stuff slide (although I do get defensive if I feel criticized for this). Secondly, I make sure I get out enough and have some kind of life outside the home. I work two days per week in the community services sector, I fly fish (this captures exercise, mateship and photography as well) and I drop in on the local Men’s Shed once a week and make something – like a chicken feeder, or spice rack for example.

One advantage men have is that we’re not “nesters” by nature, so we’re not in general as “houseproud” as a women. Nor do we feel as scrutinized as the fairer sex by their peers (the sisterhood can be a harsh club at times). We’re not as susceptible to guilt when we don’t get it all done so we can still be happy in the face of a full laundry basket, or sit down and have a cup of tea even though the dishes are piled up on the sink. We don’t feel like we should be able to do it all like your average mum who feels like a failure if she doesn’t. I know I can’t do it all and am fine with it. I get the kids to help and train them. Once a week they cook for us. They fold their own laundry. They tidy their own rooms. They all have chores that need to be done. I’m doing them no favors if I do everything for them. We’re a team.

As I sit here, my thighs and glutes ache. The school athletics carnival last Friday had a parent race. My wife entered last year and came a dismal last (she’s a shorty), so I was urged to enter this year and win (for the kids of course!). I entered and whupped those other dads and won. The kids were all suitably impressed. All up, I consider what I’m doing a privilege. There aren’t many dads who have as much involvement in their kids lives when they’re young. Most have to work full time. I don’t and that’s a blessing.

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The Sadness

He emerged from the bedroom for the first time as an eleven year old with hair sticking out in unusual places and seemed a bit slow getting started for the day. I remembered that last night he’d wanted to talk but I was too tired.

After cooking his birthday dinner my head was feeling tight and I was done talking so I’d said we’d talk in the morning.

“Did you still want to talk about something this morning mate?”

“Yeah.” he said tentatively with maybe just the tiniest break in his voice. “What should I do today?”

He was obviously still raw. He’d been dobbed in for doing something he hadn’t done, then been punished for it at school despite doing his best to explain. It was his eleventh birthday and he’d been hoping for the best day ever. Now today he doesn’t want to go to school. It was his mates that dobbed him in and he didn’t know what to do about it.

He said even mum didn’t know what to do either.

Christ. If his mum didn’t know what to do what hope do I have, I wondered. She’s the relationship guru.
Tears welled up in his eyes as he sat in front of an over-filled bowl of Weet-Bix and wiped them away on the sleeves of his green woollen school jumper.

Mum had said he had lots of friends. He wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t sure either. At his age, friends come and go. Besties today, but acquaintances tomorrow. Things are fluid in primary school land. But what should he do today? I read between the lines. How could he play with his mates as if nothing happened when they stabbed him in the back yesterday? And how could he confront them and fix it? Would anything make it right?

“Do you have to do anything today?” I wondered if he had detention or any other consequences from yesterday.

“No.”

“So if you don’t have to do anything … that gives you options right? You might not actually have to do anything at all”. I explained that sometimes when I try and fix things when I’m sad or angry, I usually muck it up and make things worse.

We stand in front of the bathroom sink and brush our teeth. I put my arm around his little shoulder. I’m still thinking. I feel his sadness. Easy answers evade me. I try to talk with toothpaste in my mouth but it it’s just garble. I spit in the sink on top of his spit and say “You know what mate? It wasn’t right what happened to you yesterday… but it’s not wrong to feel sad.”

“What do you mean Dad?” He sounded open. Gotta love how inquisitive kids are.

“Well, feeling sad is just part of being human. Everyone feels sad at times. Do you remember that book we read about the boy who had anger*? Sadness is like that too. Sadness goes away if you take care of it.”

“How do I do that?”

“Well, do things that you feel like doing today to care of yourself and allow that sadness to pass away by itself. Be kind to yourself and your feelings.”

“Like maybe play with Reid instead of the others?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. He’s a good kid. Or maybe just hang out with Ella and Erica or go to the Library. Whatever makes you feel a bit better.”

Then my brain kicks in and I come up with something. “Hey I’ve got an idea. How sad are you on a scale from 1-10?” I ask.

“Umm maybe about 5…?” He said thoughtfully. Not as bad as I thought. I thought he’d put it up around seven or eight.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do. You write down on a bit of paper what you think your sadness will be like at bedtime and I’ll write down what I think it will be and then tonight we’ll have a look and see how close we are.”

“We’re going to Ella’s for a BBQ tonight aren’t we?” he asks.

“Yep”

“So I’ll probably be happy after that.” He’s catching on.

We wander over to my study, and grab a sticky note each. He thinks, then scribbles, and sticks his note inside the front of the top drawer. I write on mine and stick it inside the drawer and slide it shut.

EPILOGUE

It’s 10.30 pm as we pull into the driveway. I smell like chops and sausages. The kids are exhausted from their swim and I just want them in bed. I check on the little one. She’s not happy that she can’t find the ripped off hem from her comfort blankie so she’s sooking. I threaten that I’ll find it and confiscate it if she doesn’t stop. She stops.

The middle one has made a hammock by hanging his doona on the underside of the top bunk. He’s curled up inside it looking like a possum in it’s mother’s pouch.  I’m too tired to care. He hands over his MP3 player that he’s not allowed to listen to because he hasn’t been focussing at school and is distracting others – according to the teacher who rang me while I was at work today.

The newly eleven year old has disappeared. He’s the responsible one. Doesn’t need checking on. I lift the lid on the fish tank and sprinkle some food in. I just want to go to bed. Dad’s arriving tomorrow … house is in a mess…. radiator in the Hilux needs replacing…. Then I remember the sadness.

The eldest appears. He’s remembered too.

“Dad! My sadness – It’s gone. It’s a zero!” This was better than expected. I feel happy – proud too.

“That’s great mate. Let’s check our numbers” I say.

He pulls his out first. It’s a three. Now my turn. A two. Happily, we were both cautiously wrong.

His problem hasn’t been fixed, but like dark clouds scudding across blue skies, the sadness has been allowed to pass and maybe, just maybe the problem isn’t as big as it first appeared to be either.

 

*Anh's Anger is by Gail Silver and published by Parallax Press.

Parenting with Mental Illness – The Downside

In my last post on parenting with mental illness where it dawned on me that when in recovery, we do have certain advantages in parenting, there is also a dark downside for children. You see I’ve come to also realise over the last few months that I’m experiencing more anxiety that I thought I was and that I was either misinterpreting it, or refusing to acknowledge it because of my determination to get better. A two-day mindfulness seminar put paid to my suppression though. Slowing down enough to actually observe what was going on inside me (thoughts, feelings and sensations) revealed the anxiety simmering away in there.

How does this affect parenting? Hugely.

I’ve noticed (in another lightbulb moment) that much of the time I’m parenting out of anxiety. Anxiety is informing my decisions and how I behave toward the children. If they’re getting a little rambunctious  in the rear seat, I remind them of the rule about no rowdiness in the car, but sometimes even just a little laughter, giggling and squirming can actually really irritate me. This means I repeat the instruction, by which stage they’re too excited to calm down and they continue  – muffled giggles now. At this point I’m beyond irritable, I’m angry. I smacked them all after a trip recently with a chinese fan one of them had. Another trip, I made them stand outside the car to “cool off” even though it was raining. I nearly wound down the window on a highway and threw a telly tubby out after it was swung by the small one into the big one’s face (accidentally of course). Imagine what I’m like if there’s an argument in the back seat!!!

In actual fact to be honest, none of their behavior was bad. They weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just being kids. When they’ve grown up and left home, I’m sure going to miss that giggling. I know that if I’m doing better, I probably wouldn’t even react – in fact I’d probably giggle with them. Seeing three squirmy kids eyeballing each other and making one another laugh really is a funny sight and would make a great memory. Unless you’re experiencing anxiety.

Parenting out of depression and anxiety means we’re not parenting out of values. We’re just trying to control our children in such a way as to manage our symptoms. It’s unfair to kids to somehow make them responsible. I really regret doing this, and now that I’ve realised it, I’m trying to pay attention to it, but it’s really hard to separate out my motives sometimes.

I’ve noticed with my wife that the kids do certain things to trigger her anxiety, but it’s more around fear. She will try and control them so she doesn’t feel afraid for their safety. This is really stifling and the kids and I hate it the nagging. “Stop doing that!”, “Come away from there”, “Move away from the edge”, “Get down from that tree, “Don’t touch that”, “Stay closer to me”. She doesn’t even like them walking the 100m from the bus stop to home without being supervised because they have to cross two streets. The fear and anxiety is just too much for her.

Having said all this, I guess the question in my mind is “will this harm my children?” Hopefully not. But it’s certainly not what I want for them or for us. I want to live a life and parent out of my values not my illness. I want what’s best for my kids, not what’s least harmful.

Parenting with a mental illness

I’ve been invited to work with a national group called Children of Parents with Mental Illness to develop a new website for dads who have a mental illness. I’ve attended a panel interstate and am contributing to a wiki which will then be morphed into the website. Next month, they’re flying down to film my story for the website.

In the course of disgorging what I’ve learned about parenting with mental illness it struck me (eventually) that parents with mental illness who are in recovery can actually make better parents! It was one of those light bulb moments for me because I realised that I’d been teaching my kids emotional and coping skills that were never taught to me.

One thing that mental illness has taught me is an emotional vocabulary. Before my mental illness, I was an emotional neanderthal. Most men are. If you ask Average Man how he’s feeling, you’ll get grunts to the effect of “not bad”, “fine”, “stoked”, “dunno”, and “alright I s’pose”. None of which are really feelings, and none are very nuanced. In fact he may not even know how he’s feeling. (Yes girls, it’s shocking!) That’s what it was like for me.

I’m still learning to be able to know and describe my feelings, but I’m on the way. Mindfulness is helping me observe my emotions impartially and notice where they are in my body and their intensity. Yes I know it’s all a bit girly by normal standards, but normal standards aren’t helpful. What I’ve found is that to be in touch with one’s emotions is to be fully human.

So these are the things I’m teaching my kids. To notice their emotions and to be able to describe them honestly and without judgement. To accept them, and yet to not feel compelled to do anything about them. Emotions are the like the car on the road outside our house. They come, and they go. We don’t jump out of our chair and race to the door and feel like we have to do something about them (unless you’re a dog). We can acknowledge emotions, experience them, and be kind to ourselves about what we’re experiencing but we don’t have to be ruled by them or carried away by them.

It’s a great way to approach difficult emotions such as pain, suffering, grief, anger, frustration, hatred, rage, jealousy, and rejection to name a few. These are really uncomfortable and hard to process for all of us, so giving kids tools to do it sets them up for life.

Help! My wife is doing man things

It’s been a fairly good source of humor for me to realize that now my wife works full time, and I manage the home, how much she’s doing “man” things – the things I used to do when working a stressful job more than full time. She’s a small, very feminine, good looking girl, who’s girly in every way (her two main hobbies are shopping and eating out), so it’s amazing how she’s picked up all these allegedly “guy” habits.

She dumps keys, sunglasses, diaries, paperwork, junk mail, bills and wallets on the kitchen bench. I’m trying to prepare a meal. This kitchen just aint big enough for the two of us. That would tick me off so much I’d push it off the edge.

I cook, and she doesn’t wash the dishes. It’s a rare occasion that she ever gets to the washing up. I do the groceries, attend to the kids, the laundry, some cleaning (I get a cleaner once a fortnight), pay the bills – the whole shebang. The only thing I don’t do is fold her clothes and put them away. That’s her problem. If they pile up enough, I dump them on the bedroom floor and make a little mountain.

She leaves clothes, socks, jackets and shoes about the house in various places. She leaves her plate at the table, and if she does happen to clear it, it goes somewhere near the sink, but doesn’t ever get rinsed. Then it goes all hard….

She likes to be “fun parent”. They’re the ones that distract the kids when they’ve got a school bus to catch or it’s past their bedtime and “responsible parent” knows that it’s going to turn to muck if the kids get hyper right before bed time, or start crying if the bus is there and they haven’t packed their lunch.

She comes home when she comes home. I don’t get a phone call saying she’s working back late. I never really know when she’s coming home. Then, she’s so tired when she gets home from work all she wants to do is turn on her laptop and vegetate on facebook. She doesn’t want the kids to be talking to her, or me asking her to help out. After tea, all she wants to do is stare at the TV until she’s tired enough to go to bed.

She gets work text messages and phone calls into the night and on weekends. She works some weekends and some weeknights so the kids don’t see her. She’s stressed about work – yesterday she went for a massage and today is going for a remedial massage because her whole body is experiencing muscle spasms. She took pain killers to get to sleep last night. Work life balance? Hardly!

She’s doing all the things I used to do, so it’s a form of natural justice – I can’t complain. It is funny though because these are all things that have been attributed to stuff guys do. But they’re not. They’re what people do, who are using all their emotional and mental energies on their job.

I have come up with a few solutions to save me nagging.

I don’t expect her to do anything. Ever. If I ring her and ask her to pick up some milk from the supermarket on the way home, I don’t expect her to do it. She may well say she’s too tired. I keep powdered milk and grocery milk in the pantry (plan B and C).

I plan my time and budget my energy to get absolutely everything done, so I don’t have to rely on her. If she helps out, that’s a bonus – and often she does. She would do more if she had the energy – I know her heart is in the right place.

I bought a big tub and anything she leaves lying around, goes into the tub behind the kitchen counter. Now if she leaves clutter on the counter, a little nudge and bingo, they’re in the tub!

I try and make the home a calm, clutter free, tidy environment for when she comes home, so that it’s a rejuvenating place. I try and cook her meals she’ll enjoy.

The kids and I eat at 5.45pm whether she’s home or not, so I can still get the kids into bed at 7pm. If I wait for her, it will only make it harder for me and I’ll get frustrated with her and I don’t want to be.

Finally, I understand. I know exactly where she’s living. I’ve been there. I wonder if marriages would be better off, if both partners experienced stressful jobs (not at the same time hopefully) because then they would be more understanding and supportive rather than nagging about their partners’ bad “man-habits”.

Emotional Language

I’ve noticed that my nine year old son often gets negative and frustrated. He regularly comes home from school irritated and saying things like “I hate school, I have no friends, the teacher is unfair” and other broad sweeping generalizations. Some days he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school, and once he told me he’d like to die. He can also get quite angry with his little brother and sister at times too. Sometimes he seems to have so much pent-up emotion that it’s obvious, he really has no idea what to do with it. He’s feeling it, but it’s overwhelming him.

There are two scary things about his moods and mindset when things don’t go the way he expects. The first is that he seems to be very much like me when he’s frustrated. I guess that’s understandable. We inevitably reproduce who we are in our kids – good and bad. When he’s looking like mini-me, you’ve no idea how much that presses the buttons of his mother. The second, is that I think he, being the eldest has been exposed to the conflict in our marriage the most in terms of his awareness of what’s going on. The venom, the arguments, the freeze-outs and stonewalling, the simmering tension, I think, has taken its toll on him.

It’s obvious that he, like me, doesn’t seem to know how to handle his emotions. It’s really only in the last few years, I’ve been coming to grips with my emotions, so I’m trying to pass this on to him, so he doesn’t end up like me.

An emotional language, is the ability to identify and describe your feelings. Women are naturally good at this. Their ability to describe how they’re feeling is much more nuanced than men, because they’ve had more practice for a lot longer. Ask a man how he feels about something, he might say “I feel good about it” or “I don’t feel too good about that”. Hardly specific or useful.

Last night, I helped my son journal his emotions. He’d had a bad day at school. I asked, how did you feel? Angry, irritated, frustrated, sad, annoyed, disappointed? I’m trying to give him an ability to accurately name his emotions. Then I asked what he was thinking when he had those feelings. “It’s not fair, we weren’t told about the changes, I wanted to do something different”. I’m trying to help him see the connection between thoughts and feelings, so that eventually he’ll learn to challenge his thoughts, to try and lift negative emotions. I asked him what were some alternative thoughts and we brainstormed together.

I asked him how long those negative feelings lasted and what changed them. I’m hoping to teach him mindfulness, where he’s aware of his feelings in the moment, and he’s grounded and is aware when negative emotions are fading. I want him to get to know the things that lift his emotions so he can be more strategic about using those things.

Finally I want him to understand that emotions rise and fall over the course of a day, or a week. We have low emotions and high emotions all the time. I helped him to see that his mood was good around tea time and afterward – so he doesn’t globalise and say “the whole day was bad because of what the teacher did this morning”.

Emotions go up and down depending on how we view the events of the day as they unfold. Being grounded and aware of them and being able to name them is the art of mindfulness. Challenging our views and thoughts about certain events can help manage our emotions. Knowing those things that can boost or lift our emotions is important, and you can only discover them by being mindful. Also realizing that emotions come and go and that experiencing a full range of emotions is part of the richness of the human experience keeps what we’re experiencing in the moment in perspective. Our current mood won’t last.

I hope that by teaching him a nuanced emotional language, that it will become part of a toolbox that strengthens his resilience and well being. The alternative to having a good emotional language, is denial and suppression and those tricks failed me miserably. I hope he can avoid the mental illness that I’ve experienced.

Simple is Good

I think for some reason (maybe being the outdoorsy type) tribal life has always held an allure for me. I loved the documentary “Tribal Wedding” where filmmakers Larry Gray and Mary O’Malley a western couple from Sydney, traveled to Tanna in Vanuatu and married in “kastom” style – the native way.  There were so many great quotes and ideas raised during the documentary. There is a simplicity to which these villagers live that don’t involved the stress and busyness and utilitarian lives we live in the west. I call it the simple life.

To me the simple life revolves around simple tasks. For villagers it’s things like procuring firewood, building or maintaining shelters, fetching water, tending their gardens, hunting for food, raising children and maintaining relationships. The men have secret men’s business where they deal with issues in the village, but it’s evident that reinforcing relationships between the elders is significant to village harmony. So too, the women gather around the fire and preparation of food, which goes way beyond simply feeding the family. It’s building community.

One of the things my wife has found working with ‘at risk’ youth who are in trouble with the law, bombing out of school and getting into general mischief is that it takes a village to raise a child…. but that way of life is long gone from our “cultured” societies.

I think as a result of my burnout and slow recovery, I’ve come to long for the simple life. I’m actually trying to build a modern-tribal lifestyle. I am my own guinea pig.

I’m not about to take my clothes off and go live in the backyard, but I think there are certainly elements we can learn from tribal people. I try and take time over food preparation. Instead of seeing it as a necessary evil, I see it as part of the daily ritual that helps anchor us to the simple life. It takes time to prepare good food. I involve the kids with our cooking so it also helps us work together and they enjoy the food a lot more if they’ve been involved in making it.

Our home has electric heating and a wood fire. I have decided to buy a chainsaw and cut up logs, haul them home, split them, stack the wood and burn it. It’s a lot of hard work, but again, there is a certain earthiness and reality involved when you don’t just flick a switch, but actually take the time to light a fire and burn it to heat the home – not to mention the atmosphere and toasted marshmallows.

I’d like to be slower with the children too. I’d like to take time to talk to them without feeling hurried. I’d like to waste time with them – play with them – enter their world. I took my son interstate on the weekend for a funeral. We had lots of time to talk. Last thursday I bailed him out of school and took him fishing. On the way to the lake (where he hauled in a 4lb brown trout in fine fighting condition) I asked him what he’d like to do when he grew up. He said he’d like to perhaps be an artist, or a musician, or a ninja. Ahhh to be seven again.

I try and drive slower. I accelerate to the speed limit more slowly. I try and achieve less each day than I would otherwise. If I get one or two things done, I’m happy. I’m not the kind of person to just waste time. I’ve found if I build in lots of buffer and space into my time, that I tend to fill it with more meaningful things – like talking to people I love, or reflection. Or maybe reading a book. Or as it turns out, it may be conserving energy so  i can read to my kids when I put them to bed.

In the documentary, Mary (safely back in Sydney) wrestles with the great gulf between the modern and tribal life. She says ”I do believe we need to slow down and wind back our lives and consider some of the things that traditional cultures do… But how far back can we go? And how to go back? I’m still not sure. I think there’s a whole lot of us who are trying to figure that out.”

Yep. Simple is good. Do you have similar yearnings? Do you have any ideas for modern tribal warriors that I can experiment with?