A few months ago, I was in Starbucks studying and really just minding my very own business. Randomly, a man came and sat on the sofa beside me. He immediately started a conversation and for a few seconds, I did not make eye contact with him. Eventually the conversationalist in me kicked in and I caved. We talked about our drinks first, then the conversation quickly got personal. He is a middle aged man with two toddlers at home. He expressed how much he cherished the 30 minutes he spends away from the "pack" because "they drive me crazy." At this point, my antennas went up. I was not sure if he meant that literally or jokingly as many parents do. He is a man and honestly, men lingo is different.
To be sure that we are on the same page, I pried a little deeper. He started sharing all the usual stressors involved in parenting toddlers. Long story short, he hates diaper change, he does not like that toddlers cannot talk back (my eyes are rolling on the inside at this point), his wife looks stressed and disheveled most of the day, and he can no longer sit "peacefully" and have a beer when he gets back from work. He topped it all off by saying "I don't like being a dad to anyone. If I can do it over, I will opt for no wife and zero children." As soon as he said that, he caught himself and said, "that makes me sound like a bad person- I am sorry, but some days are rough."
For a split second, I had to decide how to continue talking to this man without being disgusted by his whining. Clearly, he is overwhelmed and somewhat hopeless with his current family life. As much I would love to see him as another deadbeat dad who just doesn't want to help his wife, I couldn't. He is human and he has a right to express his feelings to a complete stranger. I could not relate to him on a gender level because instinctively, the female in me want to simply slap him across the head and tell him to suck it up. If I am going to continue this conversation, I needed to make the situation impersonal - I needed to put on my therapist hat for a few minutes.
Rather than undercut his feelings about fatherhood and parenting, I acknowledged it. I told him that many parents (fathers and mothers) feel the same way about their children. We talked back and forth for a while on the issue of parenting and societal expectation. The conversation was winding down when he said - "you are the first person that did not think of me as some kind of crazy father because of how I feel about this whole parenting thing." I gave him the - you don't want to know what I was thinking about you- smile and then told him that judging him based on his feelings or my biases will be unfair. He nodded slowly and reassuringly as I took a sip of my iced coffee with an extra shot of espresso, plugged my ears, and went back to studying.
That was a man going through every day dreading his life because he has toddlers that he wished he can return and a wife who does not seem to have a clue that her husband feels like crap about the family. As convoluted as that analysis seem, he is not your typical deadbeat father. He is actually very sensitive, which is uncommon for men to express. The only reason this story is worth sharing is that the conversation is with a man. I am guilty of assuming that "most" men are either not involved or ill-informed when it comes to parenting. I have not given much thought to the idea of a man being genuinely scared to parent his child until this man started a conversation with me on that faithful day.
Women share these types of feelings with one another all the time and we are never seen as deadbeat. I thought to myself, where is the space for men to share the same feelings around parenting? Why is a man who is afraid to be a father seen as weak? Why do we, as a society, always assume that a father who is not physically involved with his child is a scumbag? Have you have considered other explanations for how men act as parents aside from the behavior being "typical" of men? The reality is that women had nine months to physically and mentally get in the mindset of being a parent. Men made a deposit within 20 minutes and 42 weeks later, they are presented with a human person. This can be overwhelming.
As a society, we need to acknowledge that men feel crappy about parenting not just because they are deadbeats, but sometimes because they are genuinely overwhelmed. I submit that older men should include a conversation about parenting when speaking with young adult men. I propose that pediatricians should take a minute to speak with the father and answer his questions rather than dismiss his input. I further suggest that spiritual leaders, during marriage mentoring, should emphasize and normalize the emotions than men feel. Finally, I encourage all to realize that a man's obligation to be strong and to provide for his family should not overshadow his right to whine about parenting.