"Looking back, I can scarcely believe there was a time when fatherhood felt like it would be the end of me."
Being an involved dad to my two daycare-age daughters is now such a monumentally positive experience that I can scarcely believe there was a time when fatherhood felt like it would be the end of me.
A time of such a conflicting mix of powerful emotions related to parenthood – spending all day at work desperate to be at home with my wife and baby daughter, but then wishing five minutes after I walked through the door at night that I was anywhere else but there.
The fantasy of parenting vs the reality
Sitting at my desk, I realise now, I would indulge in the fantasy of parenthood, whereas when I returned home I would be confronted with the reality of it.
I suppose it is true when they say that “no one can prepare you for parenthood”, but my mistake – and it’s one I have seen colleagues and mates make since – was in not trying to prepare, not anticipating the changes that were coming, in thinking that if I was already juggling one too many balls in life, I would just learn to juggle another and it would be fine.
The reality is that a baby requires significant time, emotion and mental bandwidth and is usually the new addition to the slightly-too-full life you previously used to balance. It’s easy to fixate on the baby as the thing that upset the apple cart.
And many modern jobs are so connected 24/7 that it only takes one wrong text message or email in the early morning, nighttime or your day off for you to cease being present and engaged, which is the most critical part of being a good dad and partner in those early years.
Eat at least one meal as a family each day. Sitting down at the table together is a relaxed way for everyone to connect - a time to share happy news, talk about the day, or tell a silly joke. It also helps your kids develop healthy eating habits.
Scott had no idea how full-on the demands of parenting would be. Photo: Supplied
It took me longer than it should have to realise the work/life imbalance that many dads live with and try without success to master is simply unsustainable: if you give your family even close to the time and attention they deserve, many employers will question your commitment.
If you ensure your paymasters never have cause to question how engaged you are in the workplace, you can feel your connection to home life slipping away.
Naturally, plenty of dads instinctively focus on the professional, because modern life ain’t cheap and their partner is likely a) not getting a particularly generous paid maternity leave and b) will probably have her career torpedoed by deadbeats above who won’t even give her a chance to make her job work three or four days a week and scoff at the mere suggestion of a jobshare.
'Daddy, when will you be happy again?'
At the time, I felt like I got things back on track when my youngest daughter was almost 18 months old. In reality, it was another year later when she climbed on my lap on the couch, looked at me with concern and asked “daddy, when will you be happy again?”
I changed the subject because I genuinely didn’t know the answer to that simple question.
This next paragraph should say that I found a new job immediately, but I’m a slow learner.
It was another five months until my professional situation was detonated and all of a sudden there I was: free, with a blank slate and compensated sufficiently that I could genuinely choose my own adventure and actually prioritise all the things I said I would if I had the opportunity.
Today, being a dad looks completely different for Scott. Photo: Supplied
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Flexibility as currency
Buoyed by that confidence and safety net, my negotiations with prospective employers focused on firm boundaries around my work and the rest of my life. I had clear conversations about their expectations around 24/7 availability. I made it clear that flexibility was a currency I was looking to be paid in.
I try not to use the term "postnatal depression" to describe what I went through (even though that's undoubtedly the pot it falls in to), because I feel like that suggests my daughter brought me a darkness.
Debra Messing (mom of son Roman): “The priority shift is a relief. There are so many things that used to monopolize my time and my energy that I realize now, in the face of being a mother, are just completely irrelevant.”
In truth, looking back with the luxury of hindsight and regular full nights of sleep I can see that she arrived with a spotlight that illuminated all the ways in which the life I was living was lacking, balanced against my own happiness and too full to fit in all the time she needed for all the love we needed to share.
My greatest error was feeling like I didn't have a choice to pull the ripcord and build a life with room for her (and now for her sister as well). We all have that choice, and by adjusting some levers before you become a dad, you can avoid it all coming to a head with your mental health the major casualty.
Eighteen months later, it has all worked out brilliantly
If I could go back to May 2014, as I sat in antenatal classes thinking I was adequately preparing for the arrival of my first-born, here’s what I would ask myself.
Is there room in your life for how involved you want to be in this new life you’ve created? Parenting fully takes time. And it’s the seemingly minor things that build a bond: nappy changes, feeding, giving medicine — you’re showing your child that when they need comfort, you’re there to provide it.
And if the above makes you realise something has to give, can that be something related to your work? This is as good an opportunity you’ll get to talk to your employer about expectations and boundaries and flexibility — all the things you might always want to raise but don’t want to appear uncommitted.
And if they won’t give you that, is there someone who will? Jobs are like home loan providers in that changing isn’t always easy but can be worth it if you realise you’re not getting a great deal from your current arrangement. If work can’t give, hobbies may have to.
And when I think about time running out, I certainly do have a nagging feeling that I should spend more time with the people I really care about, deal with my social media habit, get focused, knuckle down, finally decide what I want to do with what remains of my life and then do it with ruthless efficiency before it is too late.
If there is one single thing I would go back and tell myself about this rude reality it’s this: it isn’t forever. It will feel like it is, but ground zero passes in an instant and your partner is automatically sacrificing a lot more than you just by being the mum.
You can do it, you should do it and afterwards you’ll be glad you did do it.
Kidspot Cares has partnered with Mum Society for a special event focusing on parents’ mental health. If you're in Sydney and would like to join some inspiring women sharing their stories at a brunch for mums, tickets are still available here . If you or someone you know is in need of support, please know it's available.
Make warm memories. Your children will probably not remember anything that you say to them, but they will recall the family rituals - like bedtimes and game night - that you do together.
Please share what helped you heal by joining the conversation on Instagram with the hashtag #youwillmakeitthrough to share your story.
Stigma surrounding postnatal depression is breaking down
Stigma surrounding postnatal depression is breaking down