Steve Willis is a personal trainer and TV personality with four children: Brianna (20), Ella (11), Jack (7) and Axel (3) from three relationships.
“My step-dad grew up in the tail-end of the era of children being seen but not heard. He met my mum when I was five. And with me not being his own child, and then three other brothers coming along, well, I think there was a lot going on for him within his own head.
“When that happens, there’s not much room, space or time, for anything else. As a child coming into that situation, you can quite easily magnify agitation or be a tipping point.
“So there wasn’t a whole lot of leniency. It was: my way or the highway. He was very, very strict.
“But you start to understand your dad better as you get older. There’s a recognition that he was just doing the best that he could. And like many of us, we’re victims to our own suffering.
“I believe there was a lot of uncertainty for him and he very much lived his life with his body-armour on, so that expression of emotion and that more gentle way of being wasn’t shown too often.
“As a child, I saw that example as a constant, so you think ‘Well that’s how I need to be as an adult’. My dad was so quick to anger, and used anger as a means of quelling a situation. But later I realised that there was another way.”
“Brianna was born when I was 22 so I was still young and very much like a dog chasing its tail. Your ego gets the better of you. I remember, as a young dad with Brianna, certain circumstances where I would almost be like this big scary monster to show her who was the boss.
“But then Ella and Jack came along in my 30s and there was a point when I had a conversation with myself around how I wanted to be there for my kids as a dad. I suppose that I wanted to do things differently to how I felt my parents were there for me. I didn’t want to perpetuate a lot of fear and, to a degree, the ignorance that’s born out of fear.
“If you can be gentle, if you can be kind, if you can harness those emotions – then why not be that way as a dad? Why would you want to be anything other than that?
“Dad was a small-engine mechanic and what I learnt from my dad was to work hard. But what I’ve done with that message, is not just in the sense – of getting up and clocking in, it’s in all aspects of life – trying to be a role model, a mentor, a better parent. I try to show my children that as a male, as a man, as a father, that nothing is below me. So I’ll get in there and clean our toilets, wash the dishes, cook the food, make the beds. But I’ll also do those things with pride. Because I think children are ever present and always watching.
“Dad was big on respect. He just wanted his boys to grow up being willing to go above and beyond for anybody, really.* That emphasis on making a contribution was something that he did, not so much in words, but very much in his actions.
“Being in the military as a dad – I didn’t know anything different and I didn’t really question any other way of being. And then I listen to mates who, get a little older into their late 20s and 30s and they have kids and they’re still in the army, and it starts to raise a lot of questions for them, with all the time away. Gosh, I left in 2004, and a lot of the deployments that guys have to do after that timeframe when they’re away for a minimum of six months at a time, that would be hard.
“As a parent, creating some space for yourself can really help. If you can just take some time out, even if it’s 5-10 minutes, to just take a few deep breaths, then it can really calm things down. I think so many of the things we do in the heat of the moment happen because we’re tired and we’re short of that (mental) space. It just takes a bit of defiance from a child and before you know it, we’re on them. Then there’s the guilt and the “Why did I do that?”
“I’ve been using meditation for years. Like before I came here today – I’d been down south, drove up here, took Axel to day-care and he just dead-set didn’t want to go. He was in tears. I nearly brought him home because I was just was feeling so much for him. I could feel all this tension within myself so I took, I think, 12 minutes, and I just sat down and crossed my legs in a low-lit area in the unit and just breathed in and out. I focused on my in breath and just connected with myself. Breathing in, I’m aware that there’s tension in my body. Breathing out, I calm and ease the tension.
“When there’s a breakdown in a relationship and then there’s a blended family, yeah, it’s challenging. It requires teamwork and teamwork needs cohesion, connection, bonds to form. This can take years. What I’ve learned from my own personal experience is that it requires compromise. We need to provide each other more breathing space in times of need rather than just projecting our thoughts and opinions into a situation. Providing that space can enable us to find calm, practical solutions that benefit everyone.
“I think there’s been a big shift in the status quo around just putting up with a relationship for the children’s sake. It’s more socially acceptable nowadays if you can’t work things out to go your separate ways but to still be unified as parents. We understand that.
“But once you move beyond that understanding and you’ve got to figure out how that actually works in the practical sense. Well, I think we’re all fumbling in the dark a lot more than we’d probably like to admit.
“There’s no easy solution. You want to spend time with your kids. You want to make that relationship with your partner work. You want to make the relationship work with children that potentially aren’t yours. But then you’ve got the additional responsibilities of work and bringing money in to support your family. It becomes really difficult.
“I think a lot of people find it hard to accept their circumstances. But with acceptance we can let certain things go. That creates the space to be able to deal with what needs to be dealt with.
“The other day I heard about this lady. Her twin sister, ended up sick and in a coma and when she woke up, she had a brain injury. Ever since that day, her father gave up everything else to be a full-time carer of his daughter. If there’s a superhero in this world it’s someone like that. That takes strength, that takes bravery. To grind it out each day, over and over again, and be there for your kin. Man, that’s noble.
“There’s this Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has a book called No Mud, No Lotus. Without the mud, the lotus wouldn’t exist, and the lotus is beautiful and it’s a flower and it sits on top of the water, but where is it anchored? It’s anchored in the mud. It’s through our suffering, and transforming our suffering, that we see the beauty. That relates to parenting.
“I’m in my 40s. But I’ve observed people that are older than me and seen their conflict with coming to terms with the later stages of life and being faced with death. That’s made me recognise that I want to have as much quality time and experiences with my kids as possible because, before I know it, I’ll be at that doorstep too.
“The older I get, the more I realise life is all about the human interaction.”
*EDITOR’S NOTE – When Steve talks about going “above and beyond for people” that’s the way he genuinely lives his life. While I didn’t know him personally, I used to live in his neighbourhood. One day he saw my heavily pregnant wife in Woolworths struggling with her groceries while trying to control a hyperactive toddler. Steve immediately went over to her to make sure she was OK and then offered to carry her shopping. He’s one of life’s good guys.
All photography: Jason Lee @jasonminilee
Images first appeared in Men’s Health