“The way I used to think of shock was like that zap you got if you licked a nine-volt battery. Then I found out we were pregnant. That redefined what shock was for me…”
This was Tom Docking’s initial reaction to discovering he was about to become a dad. He’d just embarked on a round-the-world trip with his wife when she unexpectedly discovered she was pregnant. Tom – now a father-of-three – reveals what he learnt from that early experience and how that compelled him to form Dads Group Inc, an organisation that connects new dads and families in local communities.
“It was completely unplanned. My wife and I had just sold everything we owned to go on a trip around the world – we were going to be away for two or three years. We started on Hayman Island and from there we were planning to go on to the Caribbean, to South America, to all those places. But that news meant we had to make a massive U-turn. It was like suddenly taking a hairpin right.
“Kate said I didn’t really talk for two weeks. What was going through my mind? Imagine putting your head into a giant church bell and then someone hitting it. What goes through your mind is a whole lot of sound, a whole lot of noise and a whole lot of nothing. You’re bewildered – that’s what shock is. There’s this sense of disconnection. It’s like all the plugs have been pulled out of the back of your cranium.
“We’d either sold or given away everything to move overseas on this trip. So we came back home to nothing. It could have been a really difficult and lonely experience for us as a couple. But thanks to the generosity of our family and community, we were OK. Someone helped us out with a house with subsidized rent, we were given furniture, stuff for babies. So I didn’t really need to buy anything. And it got me thinking: ‘Man, imagine if I was 19 and having a kid and I didn’t have any family.’
“But that happens every day. There are 300,000 babies born a year in Australia. Many of those are to new dads who don’t have any sort of support whatsoever. Realising that made me ask: how can there be no support for all these dads? Failing to support these guys means we’re not equipping them to support the mums. That’s how Kate and I went down the path of setting up an organisation to support new fathers in a really practical way.
“Lots of dads are initially kind of lost. Life with a new baby can make you feel like you’re failing on multiple fronts as a man. Often your capacity to work is limited because you’re so tired. You can feel like you’re failing at home because you’re comparing yourself to your wife who’s probably spent more hours a day with your child, so she’s increasing her capability and confidence way faster than you are. Then, you’re failing with your local community because you don’t have time for your friends anymore so you’re not out in the pub or surfing or playing footy.
“What’s happening is that your previously defined metrics for success have been ripped out from underneath you. If you don’t change those metrics you’re probably going to keep feeling like a failure in all these areas of your life.
“What you need to do is two things: firstly – spend time with other new dads (with your infants) to give you partner a break and to help re-baseline. Secondly, redefine what success looks like for yourself in the context of fatherhood.
“The greatest thing about redefining success is that it is personalized to you and your family’s own situation and values. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO, you’re unemployed, you’re a tradie or you’re a surgeon. Your fatherhood experience has to be defined by you and your partner.
“Now that is a very special thing. If you realise and recognize this, it can be a real opportunity. Fatherhood can be your opportunity to redefine who you are and where you want to succeed. Every single father has their own game to play. And every single one of them can win.
“Everyone’s metrics are different. I’ve got a friend in my Dads Group who does fly-in, fly-out work in Karratha (WA) from Melbourne (VIC). So being home for bath time every night isn’t going to work as a metric for him. But when he’s back at home for two weeks, his metric of success might be, say, teaching his child to paint or grow a veggie garden. Whereas that’s not possible for me to do on a Wednesday afternoon because I’m in meetings. So your metrics should be tangible, but they need to be personalized to your family.
“You also need to be setting goals that you can achieve easily. Because you’ve got less sleep, you’ve got less focus, you’ve got less resources and you’ve got less energy. You need to set simple goals. Set your expectations super high and you’re really going to struggle through the next 10 years of trying to be a great dad, trying to earn more money, trying to do this and that. You’ll set yourself up to fail.
“Whereas if you consider your value is in this family space, it’s easier to succeed on those metrics. You can make sure you’re checking the box on being a great father, checking the box on being a great partner. Whatever “great” means to your family unit, whether it’s being a stay-at-home dad or earning the money to put food on the table.
“Too often we end up comparing our situation to other people. Often we pull up at the lights in our cars, look left and we check out the car next to us. The next moment we’re starting to judge our own car and judge our own life in comparison, and then that car drives away. But you can’t take that approach. You have to just go, ‘Hey, this is our vehicle, this is our life, this is our family, this is where we’re going.’
“You just have to accept that doing your best in whatever circumstances you’re in right now as a dad, that’s what you’re asked to do. Because that’s what you can do. Maybe you can’t spend lots of time with your kid because you’re travelling overseas or you’re living away from them. But you can still write a letter. There’s always something you can do.
“Now is such a great time to be a dad. If you look at previous generations of fathers, many of them never even changed nappies. So there was a connection that wasn’t there between father and infant in that culture. But things have changed
“We now have so much information, we have such an opportunity to pioneer new ways of raising a family. Many men want to do something that’s unique and different and they’re chasing that out in the world. But when you become a dad, the opportunity is right there to come back and redefine with your partner what you’re going to do as a father, how you’re going to accept that responsibility and how you’re going to enjoy the most precious thing in the world.
“Your children can offer the most amazing reset for your life. It’s like you need to restart your phone sometimes, you need to restart your computer sometimes, and sometimes you need to restart your day. Your kids can help you do that. You pick up your child when you’ve got all this baggage on your to-do list, all these angry managers screaming at you down the phone. And then you pick up your child and it’s like, ‘Whew! That’s right. It’s not about all that other stuff. It’s about this life and it’s about appreciating that.’
“After picking up my child, I can go back to that storm with a smile on my face. I can smile with the rain smashing into me and just go, ‘Alright, I’ll get through this one because it’s not the main game. The main game is back there at home. This is just a whole bunch of noise and stress and I’ll get through it, just like I’ve got through all the other noise and stress in the last 30 years.’
“Picking up your child can help you remember that everything that life’s got for you exists in that little family unit. It can help to remind you that you don’t want to spend your life running too fast in the wrong direction.”
Tom Docking is the CEO of Dads Group Inc, an organisation that connects new dads and families in local communities. Check it out here