Hey You. Yes, YOU. You’re Doing Great.
Imposter Syndrome, Good Enough Parenting, and seeking solace in all the wrong places.
The answer is a little under 3% for those wondering.
That’s the number of dads who sign up and reply to my request to “let me know why.” You may have been one of them, and recall a vague promise that "I answer them all, even if it sometimes takes a while.” And sometimes, it takes time. Because there are softballs: emails with an excellent thought for an essay topic, or to share their sense of relief on having finally found a place like this. Those are easy. Others take a little longer: dads finding it tough, for all kinds of reasons; replies that require more time, and sufficient emotional bandwidth.
One of the perils of nearly a decade working at Google—and a pain point common to any of you who use Gmail for work—is that when you spend 20+ hours a week, across almost ten years, staring into the soul of the inbox interface, you slowly realise that through this seemingly innocent collection of subject lines, checkboxes, and categories contains the ability for anyone to place an unpinned hand-grenade into your lap. And in a company of over 100,000 very opinionated type-A folks, you’re never far away from the Director of something-or-other introducing themselves, having seen a deck you’ve been working on for six months, and excitedly launching a metal pipe into the front wheel of your bike. You never know when they’re coming, but, as inevitable as day follows night, they’re out there—arriving from different timezones, lying in your inbox, ready to explode at the first glance of the rising sun.
I’m still working through the PTSD of the terrors delivered unto me by this UI over the years. And that’s without getting into the holy hell the troublesome send button can land you in. An email dashed off a few seconds early, a flurry of supposedly private messages resurfacing at the wrong time. I once expressed my dissatisfaction with a Director’s presentation by mistakingly sending the feedback directly to him during his monthly all-hands. It was vague enough that I had plausible deniability, and could quickly send an open tab with whatever Wired article I was scanning when he asked why I had messaged him “can you believe this?” a few hours earlier. Or the time I was presenting to a VP, someone who’d been in tech so long he worked with Steve Jobs on the iconic Think Different campaign, and a previously-private GChat conversation presented itself in the corner of my screen, where a colleague and I were laying into a senior stakeholder in the company. I froze. Thankfully, he found it funny: “That little chat window is the only place in this company where people tell the fucking truth.” (Protip: if you’re using a Mac and don’t have Muzzle installed, you’re doing it wrong. Thank me later.)
So sitting looking at GMail isn’t my idea of a good time—quite the opposite. There’s a batch of emails I haven’t responded to because they needed a bit more thought, and I think this essay might act as a Reply All for a few of them; taking me into the glorious land of a single-digit inbox, a utopia I haven’t visited in at least a decade (don’t @ me, I am serious, PLEASE DO NOT).
Those emails can be summed up with a single thought: I’m not a good enough dad. I’ve seen a fair few of these over the last two years. Feelings of inadequacy; failing to measure up to other fathers, or to your own, or to the saintly unattainable greatness of Bandit Heeler, a papa that any of us fail to size up against in the pantheon of peerless parents. Here are two dads currently propping up the bottom of my inbox (both emails are shared with their kind permission):
I am here because as good as life truly is, it's not always like that. I get very down, feel inadequate, lazy, "playing catch up" with my business partner, feeling like I am generally "not enough". Your newsletter spoke to me, it was just what I needed to hear/know: I am not alone! I got your link from Emily Oster’s page, and immediately signed up once I read what it was all about. It hit me at the right time. I struggle with a lot as a dad, but I know now: that’s not uncommon. Also, there are NOT a lot of resources like yours out there for fathers. If there are others, I have yet to find them, haha, but I’m content here with you.
I have a 2-year-old but I definitely don't feel like a father the way I've always looked at fathers when I was younger—mature and full of wisdom. I still see myself as a kid—jolting for a second every time I see a reflection of him next to me. Like every dad, I try my best but I wouldn't say I've made any conscious effort to be the best parent (e.g. reading books, learning about phases of my child's development, etc). My wife is his full-time parent and I've leaned on her for everything about his upbringing. The extent of my pursuit to be the best dad is that I've over-indexed on presence: my job allows me time with him that generations of fathers before me would find overwhelming. I love it. In his 2 years of existence, I've missed only a handful of days. There's not a gap of more than 2 hours while he's awake that he doesn't spend time with me.
Still, I realize that I don't know what I don't know. And other than close friends with kids the same age, I don't have a deep well of resources I can access to feel like I'm improving as a parent. In every aspect of my life, I've obsessed about achieving some kind of optimal state (e.g. productivity, health, hobbies, relationships) but for some reason I've never been motivated to do the same for my role as a father. I wonder if there's something to that? Or maybe I'm subconsciously thinking my presence is enough. Either way, I'd like to find out if I'm fucking up somewhere or missing a parenting skill or doing something that could be done better. Because I have at least one more shot at it coming up.
Dads. Repeat after me: I. AM. A. GOOD. ENOUGH. DAD. None of us are perfect. We’re not even close. Perfect isn’t something we should be aiming towards. Perfection is a road to ruin. A bar that can never be met. But good enough? Good enough is great. Right now, at this exact second, you’re one of a few fathers across the world settling in to spend a few minutes reading a newsletter about parenting, taking a short moment to reflect, and being intentional about the type of father you want to be. You’re doing great. You don’t need to be perfect. You just want to be better. You want to be good enough.
The concept of the “good enough mother” was a creation of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, and was birthed back in the 1950s, when the idea of a “good enough father” was still a twinkle in yer grandpa’s ol’ baby blues. “Good enough parenting” is a balanced, practical and realistic approach to raising resilient and empathetic children. It’s about knowing that we’ll fail, whilst acknowledging those mistakes and imperfections are natural aspects of life, meaning you can focus instead on developing strong emotional connections with your kids. The “perfect parent” shields their child from the realities of life; the “good enough” parent knows life can get tough, but it’s important to build the necessary structures to help their child overcome and endure the toughest moments that life throws their way. It’s only through embracing imperfection that parents are freed from the tyranny of excellence. Winnicott said:
"The good-enough [parent] starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds, she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure."
It’s all too easy to compare our parenting chops against those of others. Dads who seem to be managing it all with ease. Firing on all cylinders, with a fraction of the stress. Men who are fucking up their kids less than you are. And here’s where I’m going to pull in another concept, but one—depending on your particular mental demons—you may be more familiar with: imposter syndrome.
Because comparing our achievements against those of others, and feeling ourselves coming up short, isn’t something limited to parenting. You know this feeling. That voice that nags at you, reminding you, at the very worst moment, you’re not good enough to be in this meeting, this office, or this company. That voice that says no matter how well things go, they’re onto you, and you’ll be found out soon. You’d imagine that a job somewhere like Google would mean escaping imposter syndrome forever, right? Being one of the apparently 0.2% of applicants to land a job there would mean you’re meant to be there. Right? WRONG. Because what is imposter syndrome if not your own internal inadequacy monologue, your very own anti-hype man, announcing the ultimate royal rumble: You & Your Demons Vs. Everyone Doing Better Than You.”
It was Jim, a coach I worked with back in 2016, that highlighted my worst habit; something I recalled when I wrote to him years later:
Six weeks in, I mentioned looking on someone’s LinkedIn, and after letting me finish whatever rant I was on, you probed “that’s about the fourth time you’ve mentioned looking at someone’s LinkedIn profile”. You asked me why I did it, and after some introspection I realised it was because I was constantly comparing where I am in my career with other people — peers, mentors, strangers. “He went to university the same time I did, and now he’s a VP of whatever” or “we were at the same level in our agency and now he’s the COO” …
You told me to stop — it wasn’t constructive and actually would lead to more negative feelings than positive ones. It reminded me of something I’ve always believed — if only we could compare ourselves to those worse off than us, rather than better, then the entire world could be a much happier place. I’d started to forget that, and get trapped into the career (and some would say Silicon Valley) focused mindset of “I have to get ahead, I have to get promoted, gotta be the VP of something, gotta get a new job and get more money”.
— Filling the Purpose Bucket
These days, I’m more comfortable with the ever-nagging symptoms of imposter syndrome. I’ve started to welcome his presence, a reminder that I’m pushing myself towards to places where I’m less knowledgeable, fertile territory where I can find room to grow. He’s still gabbing on in there. He spent the entirety of 2021, and most of 2022, telling me to “stop pretending you’re a writer.” He’s moved on now, telling me the same thing about coaching today. But he’s not as effective as he once was. Your powers are weak, old man.
Committing to being good enough—as a boss, as a colleague, as a parent—will quiet the beast. And that’s all we can hope to do. Because I’m a good enough parent. And so are you.
3 things to read this week
“The Stories That Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler in The NonLinear Life. One of the most insightful things I’ve read about family dynamics in a long time. Feiler writes about how having a strong family narrative—a sense of where you came from, and the ups and downs your lineage have worked through—will give your kids a stronger sense of resilience, and the ability to deal with all kinds of problems themselves. I shared this in the community last week and one dad said it was like a lightbulb going off in his head. “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
“You Are You. We Live Here. This is Now.” by Freddie deBoer. Another link that first surfaced in our community, shared by a dad with older kids. DeBoer—not the first time you’ve seen him here, and almost certainly not the last—wonders about the dangers in a world where our children prefer to be online than connecting with others in real life, and how we, as parents, can expose them to the push and pull of reality, rather than shield them from negative outcomes at all costs. “What I would like to ask [parents], and our culture, gently, is how they can be sure that what they’re doing isn’t counterproductive. Forget snowflakes. Forget participation trophies. Forget conservative mockery. I’m asking, sincerely and from a place of empathy: isn’t there a chance that the only real way to defend your kids from harm is to show them how constant a companion pain is and teach them how to overcome it?
“We Need to Talk (Just as Soon as I Consult ChatGPT)” by Alyson Krueger in The New York Time. Linked in the above Freddie DeBoer essay, this is as dystopian as it gets—parents using ChatGPT to help them talk to their teenage kids, as well as folks in other fields who are using computers to teach them how to talk to humans. The future is a strange place, my friends. "The next day Mr. Mitchem approached his son and tried out the advice [from ChatGPT]. “I said to him, ‘You need to make this decision, you are 14, and I trust you will make a good one,” Mr. Mitchem said. “My son goes, ‘Wow, that’s awesome. I’ll let you know what I decide.’”
You know what I haven’t done in a while? The cap-in-hand thing, asking the 97% of you who read this for free to consider supporting The New Fatherhood with a paid subscription. Honestly, I like writing these things as much as you like reading them. But it doesn’t half make my day when folks upgrade. So why not make “maybe one day” today?
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last weekend I asked if you had any advice for a new dads. And boy, did you deliver.
There are 1000 different things that need to be done with a new baby. There is exactly one that you can’t physically do. Do everything else. Dan
More than anything else, practice entering each parenting situation with curiosity and acceptance, asking yourself, "What is going on here? What do I need to learn?"
Sometimes, this will come naturally, and other times, it will be very difficult. But keep practicing, and use whatever tools help you stay open to surprise and let go of control, whether meditation, journaling, afternoon naps, a workout, or something else.
You'll be amazed at how the simple act of being curious and putting connection first will open up moments of deep connection between you and your child. Matthew
Don’t worry if you struggle to enjoy it at first. I heard so many things about how much love is feel and how that would overwhelm all of the tough feelings. I did feel love, but I also felt a huge knot of other, more difficult feelings including guilt for not immediately feeling overwhelming love. It took a while to unknot those feelings, and that’s ok.
This might seem like negative advice but it’s not intended to be - please don’t take it as so. It’s more just an acknowledgement that it can be very complex, and I never had that acknowledgement from anyone else so it was tough. Michael
My kids are 28, 26, 28. I will give one for toddlers and one for teenagers.
Toddlers: when they rage you get quiet.
Teenagers: detach with love, you cannot control your kids. All you can do is show them, unconditional love, always, and realize they are going to be who they are going to be, no matter what you do. Tom
Was hard to keep it to just these few. Go check the thread and read them all. What a lovely bunch you all are.
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Branding and illustration by Selman Design. Illustration by Tony Johnson. Survey by Sprig. Follow The New Fatherhood on Twitter and Instagram. I always welcome replies, but if you are compelled to put another email in my inbox after reading this week's issue, you will be forever marked as a particular type of sadist. Why not put a different type of email in my inbox instead? I’m off to get the kids. Adios!
Kevin, thanks for this. It's a great reminder. I always try to keep in mind, and tell my friends who are dads, that the very fact you are worried about not being a good dad is proof you are doing better than most. It's like what the doctors told my wife after our second kid, when she had terrible postpartum depression and worried obsessively about hurting the baby: the fact that you are worried so much about hurting your child means you are not someone who is going to intentionally hurt your child. It doesn't mean you know all the right things to parent perfectly, but it does mean that you are aware of the danger and are trying to prevent it.
Because being a "good dad" is not about following all the right practices or reading the right books and newsletters (whoops!) or never making a mistake. It's first and foremost about attention, about being present and caring about your family. If you care enough to worry you are doing something wrong, you are already giving them the greatest gift they could ever have.
Kevin, this substack just delivers it. I have seen a few other spaces where fathers talk about improving themselves and being good dads [particularly in Portuguese], but almost all of them are video-oriented. Receiving this newsletter is a great boon.
On another note, the pieces of advice you selected were great! I always tell my friends who are expecting their first babies "the first two years are suvival; as they grow, you will be able to relax and enjoy it more".
Finally, Bluey, what a great cartoon! I love the little details - how sometimes Chili and Bandit are just too tired and moan when they have to deal with something, how their house is usually a mess, how the kids are always inventing ways to make things fresh, the interactions with other members of the family [the grandparents giving lots of popsicles, the cousins who have a different upbringing, the single uncle].