The concept of “dad guilt” might be relatively new, but the stats reveal it’s kicking in hard. Research shows that fathers increasingly worry about balancing their family duties with the grind of their working lives.
The Pew Research Centre in the US found that almost half (48 per cent) of working dads say they spend too little time with their kids, compared with 26 per cent of working mothers. Of those dads who don’t see enough of their kids, half (51 per cent) do not feel they’re “doing an excellent or good job as a parent”.
Dr Vijay Roach is familiar with this precarious balancing act. A father of five (!), he’s also had a wildly successful medical career and is President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
In the first episode of The Father Hood’s new podcast in partnership with Parents at Work, Vijay speaks about his experience with dad guilt and what he did to turn things around and develop a better relationship with his kids.
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Listen to the full podcast: here.
THE FATHER HOOD: People are familiar with the idea of “mum guilt” where mothers feel like they’re not meeting all of life’s demands. Do you think a similar concept exists for dads?
VIJAY ROACH: I think it definitely exists. When I see toddlers and notice the little dimples in their knuckles, I try to remember my own children and the dimples in their hands before they grew up. But I can’t remember them and that makes me feel sad. It makes me feel guilty. It makes me feel that in some way I let them down and I let myself down by not enjoying or being more mindful when they were younger.
And I reflect back; my youngest is 18 now, my oldest is now 28. I reflect back over all of those years and all of the opportunities missed. The times when I could have been there for them, the times I could have made different choices. As you said, my career has been successful and that is one way of measuring life. But I wish that I had taken advantage of the opportunities that were presented to me as a father.
But interestingly – and I think this is a really important message – it’s never all over. And when I had my epiphany, probably when my oldest son was about 15, I realised that there was still was a chance to enjoy my children. And I would say that over the last 10 years as a father to older children, I have really enjoyed developing my communication with my children, my interaction with them and my involvement in their lives.
So I think that an important message to send to fathers, is that while there will be different phases in your children’s lives in which you are more present or less present, the opportunity never goes.
TFH: So to clarify, the reason back then you didn’t notice your toddlers’ hands was because you were simply too busy forging ahead and building your medical career?
VR: But I don’t even know if that was an active process or whether it was just what you did. Get up in the morning, go to work, and whether your career ended up being successful or not, you earned an income, I don’t think it was a thoughtful process. It was just passively how one passively interacted with the world.
It brings up that concept of mindfulness. I think in order to be a present parent, it requires podcasts like this one in which we actually pause and think about it, because I do think that there is the opportunity for this to be achievable. It’s about recognising that people do have pressures on them to do their job, or to earn an income, or fulfill their other obligations. But to be a parent requires active participation, thought and mindfulness.
What happened to me was that I didn’t pause and think about being a parent as a component of my life. It was a passive thing and, because it was passive, I ended up paying more attention to the things that, on reflection, didn’t matter or don’t matter. Well, they do matter – making a contribution to the world, or doing your job, or earning an income is important. But I think I could easily have modified my approach and therefore ended up enjoying being a parent a lot more.
TFH: So what did you do to change the way you interacted with your children as a father? Because it sounds like you had some sort of parental epiphany.
VR: Well, the moment actually was particularly clear, which was when my relationship with my oldest and then probably the other four had become so dysfunctional that we weren’t enjoying one another’s company at all. We were barely talking. And Cathy, my wife, and I went to a counsellor.
We walked into see the counsellor and I explained that I was a famous obstetrician and gynacologist, that everybody loved me, that I was a totally good bloke, and that I had a son and he had all of these problems. And she looked at me and said, “Actually, I think you might be the one with the problem.”
So we sat down and we explored the ways in which I communicated with my children. It turned out I was autocratic, a sort of stern disciplinarian rather than someone who listened. And, in fact that that was my greatest failure, that I wasn’t listening to them and I wasn’t communicating respectfully. I had to swallow that, and that was very difficult to do. But I did.
I went home and I sat with the children, and told them what the counsellor had said to me. They, with some anxiety, responded, that yes, that was how they felt. They were aged 15 down to five.
So what we did is we all sat around the kitchen table, and we talked about how we treated each other. We had these personality questionnaires to do, and it was sort of interactive and everyone had an equal say. And I realized that actually I didn’t have to be that authoritative father; I didn’t have to be in charge. I didn’t have to be fearful that, if I wasn’t in control, it would all fall apart. And by communicating respectfully with my children, I didn’t lose their respect.
That was a special moment in our family’s life that changed the way that we interacted with our kids. And I was sort of liberated, I think, as a father to interact with my children in a much more positive, meaningful and relaxed manner. And I think that was to the benefit of me and to our whole family.
TFH: Did making that change enable you to let go of some of that guilt that you’d begun to feel or at least manage it better?
VR: I could let go of almost all of it. I think I’ll always carry that sadness of what I think I missed out on as young father. That’s hard. But I think that’s true with anything in life. I mean, I’m hopefully a more mature person now than I was back then. I’m a wiser person than I was back then. That’s just normal human development, and we need to be gentle with ourselves when we look at our former selves. But I was able to say, “Okay, that was then,” and going back to what I said earlier, that the opportunity is never lost.
The thing about children is that they’re wonderfully forgiving, and they’re wonderfully resilient, and they also desperately want that relationship with you. So if both parties are determined to make it work, and both parties can see the positive outcome of a good relationship, it’s never too late.
TFH: So what practical tips would you give to any other dads who are listening to this about how to handle this challenge that, I suppose, really comes down to balancing your work and your family responsibilities?
VR: I think you need to be contextual, because we need to recognise that being a parent is variable in terms of the age of the child. So being a parent to a baby is different to being a parent to one of your children at university. To assume that’s a generic thing is illogical. You’ve got to realise that and adjust who you are, and where you are, according to that.
But you’ve also got to practise self care as well. You still do need to be your own human being, and you still do need to go to work, and you still do need to have a career, or go out and party, or have other interests. The concept that a parent is someone who must act selflessly and deny oneself 24 hours everyday for the sake of the child is something that we’ve always put on women. But I now think we’re starting to put it on men. I don’t think that’s productive or realistic – I think it’s completely unfair.
Self-care is very important and that does not preclude also looking after your children. So I think that it’s about exploring ways in which being a parent is not just a duty or an obligation, but it’s also something that is enjoyable, positive and mutually beneficial. It might be, for example, that if I am going to be looking after my child on that day, that I go for a walk so that it’s something that I enjoy too. Or it might be taking them to a park, or a museum, or something that actually gives me stimulation as well as them.
Recognise that your activity outside of the house – work, spending time with friends, exercising or playing sport – is also a benefit to your family. Look at this from the big picture view rather than seeing parenting as something isolated from the rest of your life.
TFH: Your point about self-care is absolutely vital. There was a famous quote from the former Olympic swimmer, Libby Trickett, who suffered from perinatal depression, and she said: “You can’t pour from an empty cup”. In other words, you need to look after yourself in order to be a better parent.
VR: Thinking about it all now almost makes me teary because I think what I have gone through as a father. I love and adore my children, but I didn’t enjoy my children. I feel really sad about that because we had these beautiful little babies. And it wasn’t just work – it was me growing up. I was only 26 when we had kids and I don’t know what impact my own upbringing had on my parenting.
But now I can get a phone call from my son, for example, saying, “Can you just come over?” And I do. And then a 28-year-old boy gets in the car and talks for two hours about some crisis in his life and then gets out of the car, saying “I’m okay now.” And you think, “Wow, that’s just the most incredible experience.” That this human being knew that there was someone he could call and that person was his father. And I’m so sad that I wasn’t that person in the past.
Listen to the full episode of The Father Hood’s new podcast in partnership with Parents at Work: here.