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Help is out there. You just have to ask.
The first step to feeling supported is to let people in. So why do dads find this so difficult?
When you need help, who do you ask?
At work, it’s simple. You’re expected to hit problems, so seeking help is completely normalised. You’re encouraged to share your on-the-job woes: with colleagues, work buddies, managers, mentors, random co-conspirators, and an entire function of management who (depending on your POV) are solely there to help you with issues you’re facing while on the clock.
But outside of work? It’s a little more complicated.
This Christmas was a strange one for me. I want to spare another 2,000+ words in your inbox, but the tl;dr is that—like 2.5% of the UK population during Christmas week—I caught Covid again. So did my daughter. My wife and son didn’t, and thankfully neither did her parents.
But we ended up across two different houses. For 10 days.
It was’t great. But we made it work. We’re all here, and we’re all healthy.
I can’t complain. I didn’t complain. And maybe therein lies the problem.
This time last year I wrote about help, and the support structures that women create, sustain and nurture as they go through parenthood together. I wondered why dads are so terrible at building these networks:
“In an instant I realised how we, as men, need to get better at looking out for each other during fatherhood. It’s a time of fundamental change, a tectonic plate-shifting of what it means to be a man, triggering all kinds of emotions and memories ... and not all of them positive.”
This Christmas brought a new perspective. Maybe the problem wasn’t that I needed people to look out for me, but that I was incapable of asking for help myself.
I wasn’t feeling great that week. Physically I was fine—Covid was hella’ milder second time around, and after two vaccines, thank you modern medicine. But mentally, it was rough. My son—2.5 years old, falling under the spell of Christmas magic for the first time—couldn’t understand why we weren’t all together. We told him it was because of a cough, so a few days later on Facetime he told us “I have a cough too” FAKES COUGH “I have to go to your house now.”
I was feeling worn down. Exhausted by it all. I lost my sense of smell and taste for two days, which got me increasingly forlorn, which wasn’t helped by going down a Reddit rabbit hole of how long it might last, and how often it becomes permanent (send your “you never had a sense of taste” jokes to the usual address, thanks). And how did I deal with all of these feelings? I did what I always do in these situations—I bottled them up. I retreated into my shell—like a sad Donatello, a maudlin Koopa Troopa, a misanthropic Squirtle1—and closed myself off from the world.
But the people closest to me?
They knew. They always do.
Last week I received an email from man, struggling to connect with his son and overwhelmed by negative thoughts since becoming a dad. He’d read about my struggles with parental post-natal depression, and was compelled to get in touch. He’d signed up to be a member of TNF community, and I asked if he’d be open to sharing his story with other dads in the app. Almost immediately there was a wave of support—other dads who’ve dealt with mental health issues since becoming parents, or how they’ve navigated some of their lowest moments in fatherhood.
It was a beautiful thing to see: a group of dads, looking out for one of their own who was finding it all too much.
Parenting is fucking tough. There’s no use sugar-coating it. It’s harder today than ever before, especially since the structures of support that once held us up when we needed it are no longer there:
How many of us ask for help when we need it? If you’ve got grandparents nearby it’s an option. We’ve grown up asking our parents for help, so even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s nothing new.
But for those of us without the luxury of family nearby, do you have someone you can turn to? Or do you silently suffer? Your children will see how you behave when you’re distraught and they’ll model their approach based on what you (and your partner) do. And if you shut yourself away when you should be signalling to others that you need support? They’ll learn to do the same.
It feels timely to be coming back the topic of help a year later, returning with a different point of view—realising the work that needs to be done isn’t by them, it’s by me. If that’s not the definition of personal growth, then what is?
Help can mean many things, not all of them tangible. It can be as simple as a phone call, or a thoughtful message sent at the right time. But help doesn’t come to those who hide away when things get hard. This Christmas, I learned to—eventually—ask for help. And I’m grateful for the people in my life who went out of their way to make sure I was OK.
Help is out there. You just have to ask.
3 things to read this week
What happens when we don’t ask for help? We struggle. And then, for an increasing number of us, we burn out. Quite a few of you sent me this NYT article on How Men Burn Out and it’s required reading for any dad feeling the strain from all that juggling: “The key problems that distinguish men’s burnout — the characteristic cynicism, the lack of preparation for parenting and reticence about their struggles with work and fatherhood — share roots in the ethic of stoical duty our society has instilled in boys and men for decades: Go to work, and shut up about it. If you can put food on the table, then you’re a good father.”
One way men are getting more comfortable asking for help? Podcasts. Seriously. They’re enabling men to be more open with one another. “We’re living in an era of wild, psychedelic radicalization, leaving the internet booby-trapped with countless lures encouraging men to double-down on their anger, isolation and paranoia. Meanwhile, a biweekly baseball card podcast, hosted by a pair of dudes who are unable to hold eye contact, but love each other very much, emphasizes all of the qualities that are sorely missing from cyberspace — or at least the parts of cyberspace where men tend to congregate.”
Speaking of vulnerability, this short essay from Nick deWilde on how a nephew’s death lead him to refocus his life around his family is a stark reminder for us all to prioritise what’s truly important.
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A monthly book / film club. Kicking things off this month with “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman, which I loved. We’re going to rotate films and books monthly, coming together to share our thoughts and what we will be taking into our own daily dad lives.
More online events, and real-life ones later in the year. We’re doing a monthly coffee morning, and I’m going to kick off a regular mental health check-in for dads in February too. I’m also looking to do more things irl, hopefully coming to a city near you later this year.
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One thing to watch this week
Our house has transformed into an Encanto installation—posters, stickers books, lyric sheets, music constantly playing and we’re rewatching the film in Spanish (more to help with my second language skills than the kids, who are doing just fine.)
If you haven’t seen it yet, fire up Disney+ and watch it this weekend. Recommended for kids aged 6+ by Common Sense Media, but my general rule is to subtract ~2 years from whatever they say. The headlines: songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda; a healthy dose of inspiration from the works on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in particular; with vibrant colours and magic realism set in the stunning Columbian countryside
But for grown-ups the film hits on a whole other level, and is best summed up by this TikTok comment:
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last week I spoke with Oliver Burkeman about his new book “Four Thousand Weeks” and where productivity and parenting collide. One of you got in touch via the feedback link at the end of the email to tell me how much you enjoyed the essay:
“I enjoyed the laid back and conversational look at productivity and it's vice grip on how we live, work, and parent. As a divorced parent of 2 children under 3, it can feel like productivity is the most essential part of surviving a day. This was a good reminder that some of the best days come when you relinquish a desire for control and just allow things to unfold while you remain present with your kids.”
I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, anonymous stranger!
We also spent the weekend talking about what we’ve been enjoying (or not) on TV:
“I seem to have been devouring telly and films lately in spare time so here's a mega list: re-watching the hunger games, succession, afterlife s3 is brilliant, the expanse is pure sci fi awesomeness, book of boba fett and I'm also going through the bad batch, foundation on Apple TV is pretty good, the new season of Queer Eye has been really good at helping me process covid and my left field pick is Giri/Haji, Duty/Shame which is a really interesting BBC/Tokyo collab. Maybe I need to take a little less screen time ...” James B
“I feel like I’m 17 again because I am, for some reason, punishing myself by putting myself through a mediocre Star Wars show, like I did when the prequels came out. It’s like a really bad takeaway… you know it’s terrible but it scratches an itch that nothing else can. (Talking about the Book of Boba Fett, which is such a confusingly sloppy show)” Ivor
“We just watched C’mon C’mon, which is about Joaquin Phoenix watching over his nephew after the mom has to take care of the depressed father. It’s hard to describe in a way that does it justice, but the best description I’ve read of it went something like “It shows us of the answer to the question ‘Why have children?’” Joey
A final thought on help
Dads—let’s keep looking out for each other. But let’s also commit to getting more comfortable asking when we need help.
I’m in. Are you?
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