Aidan, Founder of TMFC
This is exactly where I found myself in April 2020. I’d started the ball rolling; my partner knew the extent to which I was struggling but together we’d not got to the bottom of why. You see, by challenging the status quo and moving beyond the acceptance of your struggle you initially feel lighter. The problem you face in the early days after that massive leap of faith is that you’re still faced with trying to unpick what’s been holding you back.
I was acutely aware of the pressure to make changes from the moment I’d thrown our relationship into temporary chaos. But where do you turn and what challenges are on the horizon? You see you unburden yourself by sharing the detail of your struggle, but by doing so she’s expecting you to get to the bottom of the issues, get help and start demonstrating that you’re getting back on track. She wants to see results and you must focus on the next steps and prove that you’re committed to getting back on track. That’s where the challenge begins.
Let’s pause for a moment. The reason why you chose not to open up is because you couldn’t see where the support was going to come from. What you come to realise quickly is that once you’ve stepped over the threshold, there is no looking back. Your partner not only expects you to find the courage to keep moving forward, but she and the kids need you to start finding solutions to the problems you’ve allowed to spiral out of control.
The problem is that there is much support out there for you. However, your employer might offer a number of benefits that you can use to your advantage like an employee assistance programme (EAP). These are great, they are confidential, and you have access to it in your own time and therefore you can keep the matter private whilst getting some support or simple advice on what to do next. You can seek support from your local health professional or local mental health charity for guidance on steps to take and what’s great about these two avenues is that there will be plenty of free resources you can tap into.
Of course, you can join The Modern Fatherhood Club where you’ll find plenty of resources, online and face-to-face support. One thing I would advise against is large Facebook groups. There groups open you up the world of peer-to-peer support but can leave you open to unnecessary negative feedback. Some groups manage the posts well, but monitoring of comments is challenging and as a result, your willingness to seek support can result in some unfiltered criticism from people who might not have your best interests at heart.
On the morning after the night before, I woke early, uncharacteristically early. As a father of two and coming to the end of paternity leave, I knew that I needed to reset and recharge, and getting up and out of the house forced me outside of my comfort zone. A brisk walk, nothing more to clear the head. My eyes were stinging. After the dust had settled, we’d gone to bed and I’d desperately tried to allay her worst fears, exhausted from the rawness of the emotion we both fell asleep at 1:30am. I remember waking up thinking I need to make a change and it has to start now.
My alarm shocked me into action. I didn’t have a plan, I just believed that I would see this through, whatever this was I was going to push myself and demonstrate to her that I was capable of finding a fix. On day one that’s all I did. I got up early (5 am) and I went for a walk. It was a cool, dry morning, and the air was crisp. I didn’t walk for long and when I got back, I wrote a few things in a book, no real structure just wanted to get something down on paper. That was it – Day 1 done.
The biggest obstacle was getting out of bed! I had to sneak around, but before anything else, I had to get out of bed. Not an easy feat knowing you’ve only slept for a few hours and as a new father against the early onslaught of sleepless nights, it’s even harder.
I slipped downstairs, got dressed, and snuck out through the kitchen door and out of the gate. Oddly, and I hadn’t even thought about this, you need an exit strategy so as not to wake the kids! You’ll be amazed at how low your alarm actually needs to be to startle you into action, but still, you have to be ready for it, and the clothes should be next to your bed.
What I noticed more than anything was how quiet it was, at 5 am it’s eerily silent, but it doesn’t take long for the drone of the cars to start up. The thing is, here we were in the early days of lockdown, so the world outside had fallen silent. I walked briskly to a cut-through I knew well. Off the path, I was able to avoid detection. I walked and walked until my head cleared. I had no plan and no intentions to do anything else at this point. The night before the darkness had started to lift, and that morning was the first time I’d been able to walk without the weight of the world on my shoulders. I got home, made a coffee, and sat in silence trying to work out my next move.
My exercise is now central to my routine. As a busy dad who works from home, I need that escape, that time to decompress. By doing it early in the morning I’m better equipped to handle the challenges faced when trying to get the kids to nursery and school on time.
It’s at this point I started to research tactics and strategies used by others. But the first move was simply to get up and get out. I did this consistently for a week. By getting up early, I’d created a window of opportunity, a small space for me to get ahead of a mind that was still very much in overdrive. A week passed. I felt better but not clearer. I still felt very much unable to clear my thoughts. That’s when I sat down and started to write, not for long but I needed to get something down on paper (both positive and negative). I felt this enormous conflict. I wanted to be a better parent and husband, but I didn’t know what that looked and felt like. However, I did know what I didn’t want it to feel like, and that’s where the pieces started to fall into place.
I knew what wasn’t working. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t able to turn off the dialogue in my head, and my priorities were in the wrong order. I wasn’t exercising, I hadn’t ballooned or anything, I just wasn’t moving. A 3 1/2-hour commute with meetings all day didn’t give much opportunity to move. So, the walk was the start, but with gyms closed, where would I exercise. I didn’t have any goals for my health, and it was much easier to comfort eat because it was convenient, so I set myself a series of challenges, run 10 miles and exercise daily and push myself with it.
I downloaded the Beachbody App. We’d been able to save some money in the early days of lockdown, with no commute and no nursery we’d seen our monthly outlay reduce substantially, so we agreed to focus attention on exercising. I set myself a number of challenges within the app and signed up to a number of different sessions! Back in 2014 we’d purchased Insanity Max 30. We’d both started it, but never finished it. That therefore became my first challenge. The process continued throughout lockdown and by the end of 2020 I’d completed Insanity Max 30, P90X3 and Transform 20. I never committed to exercise beyond 30 minutes – I had after all needed to balance, work, and the chaos of lockdown with being present and less distracted around my kids.
Let me be clear at this point, you don’t need an hour or two hours, you just need to use the time you do have to reset and by setting aside time you are able to have a better relationship, manage stress level and the game changer for me was better sleep.
The next step was to explore my journey into fatherhood. What preparation did I do? What type of father was I, and what type of dad did I want to be? I had to answer these questions because I felt like my entire being had shifted from Aidan, the husband, and career-focused man, to Aidan the father, husband, and career-focused man. My priorities had changed, but the parts of me that were important to me before my children arrived were still very much there and whilst I was prepared to make sacrifices, something inside was telling me that if I sacrificed too much I’d lose the parts of me that got me out of bed.
Frankly speaking, a lot of us deprioritise everything the day we become parents and I include mum in that statement too. We believe selflessness will somehow be rewarded and what we fail to realise that those things that mattered before baby arrived remain important and to cut them out of your life completely will only lead to you feeling conflicted.
I had to find answers to a simple set of questions, these questions helped me gain a better understanding of the impact I wanted to have on my young family:
What are you missing?
Is it something that would allow you to build a better connection with your kids?
What obstacles are you facing right now in your role?
What gets you excited, what challenges you to step up and deliver something?
What do you want from your role as dad?
What do want for your children? And importantly
What is it that your kids really need? How will that change over time?
These questions can help you understand the impact you want to have, but also give you clear insight into what’s holding you back and how you want to feel in your role as a dad. There will be things you love, things you no longer have time for and wish you could get back and there are things about you that you wish you could change, but think it’s too late. At 37 years old I was spiralling out of control I wanted nothing more than to be a positive influence on my boys! Without clarity you cannot find the motivation to make changes.
I found the last question the most powerful. As you build confidence you can dive deeper into why behind the changes necessary to impact from a position of strength and confidence. But understanding what they really need, enables you to see it all from a different perspective. A clear headed dad will see what his kids need. Whilst we’re all very different in our parenting approach you cannot argue that what your kids need is warmth, love, food, compassion, emotional connection and guidance from someone prepared for the journey ahead. That’s it. Everything else is just noise that you create. As they get older they will want different things and experiences, but they’ll still need everything I’ve just spelled out. A distracted dad, caught in a conflicted state might not see his role the same way. Remember in my own story fatherhood wasn’t the obstacle, I was.
A lesson for both us and our children.
With my breakdown hitting hard at the start of the pandemic I decided to disconnect from things that added little value to my mental state. The news had to go and whilst it might seem a little short sighted, that constant buzz about the pandemic and the negative dialogue didn’t feel healthy. I chose to filter out the voices and opinions of those I believed were not contributing to a positive state of mind. Having lived through a Brexit news cycle and the constant stats in the build up to lockdown COVID-19 it was becoming increasingly difficult to listen to the news without feeling frustrated. For month certain voices had been heard on key topics and those voices had begun to grate. To this day the only news I watch or read is the sports news, and even that I now filter out by publication to ensure someone else’s agenda isn’t influencing the way I think about a particular set of circumstances.
A big win for any dad in my view is disconnecting from the phone or any technology whilst you are around your children. A distracted dad, scrolling emails or social media isn’t engaged and he isn’t listening and from time to time I’m sure you find yourself participating in doom scrolling! Simply put you’re burning time either to focus on you or them, and you’re teaching them bad habit. I’m sure they get enough screen time as it is in a world that influences their daily viewing and is on hand to fulfil without any effort expended that all-important hit of dopamine.
I have a simple set of rules.
Leave the phone outside the room I’m in with my kids.
Leave my work phone on my desk and in the office away from the family room.
Limit my own screen time, a difficult task when you’re writing on your phone or pulling together ideas for content.
Turn off notifications from all news outlets and that includes the sports updates.
Turn off social media or limit access between certain hours of the day.
Limit where possible screen time for the kids (Pad more so than TV).
Centrally control the TV shows available to the kids via the streaming services settings functionality.
Shut down applications after 8pm to avoid any unnecessary scrolling.
I have to work hard at all of these. I’m conscious of the impact each of these can have on me, my mental health and my relationship with my kids. The Holy Grail is removing all social media, but given I use it for business I’m working toward removing it from my phone and only using it on a PC.
If you’re not convinced by the above, take a look at your screen time recorded on your phone and check out the breakdown by application and try turning the news off for a week and see if you miss it.
I had to get back on track and I didn’t want unnecessary distraction and when clear on the motivation behind your reason to change you can tweak and change the things I’ve talked about to work for you.
As a dad you want time to decompress. The question is whether or not the habits you’re using are adding to the problem. Often they are an escape and by escaping you might be driving a wedge between you, your partner and your kids. For me it was about understanding the downstream impact. If I chose to grab a few beers and go to bed late, whilst I felt relaxed at the time, the reality was I would quickly lose my patience the following day. As a new dad as you’re wrestling with the challenges of adapting to fatherhood, it’s critical in my view that you consider the impact of your decision making.
Community is important. Talking to other dudes is important. Standing at the bar watching the game is important. What I've discovered in recent times though is that time alone is important too, but too much time distanced from friends can eat away at you.
I work from home, and that, for many, is a challenge. How you label it is key, but above all else, when you're not in an office environment, you have to make time for you to connect and chat with your friendship group.
Working from home creates barriers to interaction. It stops you talking to other people and enjoying a laugh over a coffee or just before a big meeting starts. However, there is now a delicate balance to it all. If I work from home, am I any less stressed? Well that will depend on my routine and what I’m doing to exercise the grey matter between my ears and the muscles in my body!
Pre-pandemic and pre-snap, I worked from home, but I worked all day and behaved similarly to my approach to working in the office. FaceTime, visibility, and playing the corporate game. It was only once the dust had settled and I started to look after myself mentally and physically that I recognised my value to an organization didn’t outweigh the value and contribution to those closest to me. That said, it’s difficult to decouple the two, Aidan at home vs. Aidan in the working world. However, with greater clarity and understanding of what’s important to you as a father, you can balance the two without losing sight of the impact you’re having.
Everyone is busy and those of you with friends that have kids will find it even harder to catch up. I know this all too well. My friendship group, those lads I’ve surrounded myself with since I was at school or live either abroad or over 200 miles away. So catching up is hard. But we do make the time to talk and catch up face to face when we can. There is better community support for mums, but with businesses like The Modern Fatherhood Club looking to bring dads together the only obstacle standing in your way is joining the next meet up.
You owe it to yourself to find the resources that work for you. I didn’t start TMFC until I was ready to talk more openly about my own struggle. I’ve been astounded by the willingness of dads to share stories and talk honestly about their own unique situation.
My advice, encourage your partner to do the same and take it in turns to meet up with friends. Unfortunately the cost of a night out is always more expensive if you’ve got limited access to a support network locally, but that doesn’t mean you both can’t connect, spend quality time together. Like everything I’ve talked about, routine will help you balance your relationship, your career, health and well-being. You have to work at it all and find the balance that works for you both, remember sacrifice it all and you’ll feel conflicted and burnt out.
By losing sight of what really mattered and not recognising the cost my decisions to push my body and mind to unhealthy limits, I cost myself at least 18 months with my eldest and the earliest days with my youngest. I had a choice that fateful night, but turning to face that challenge was only half the battle. Little did I know that I would have to work this hard to stay on track. It is time to silence your biggest critic, learn to love the man you are and the father you are becoming, and it’s time to reset, push on and have the impact you want to have on your young family. The question set I shared evolves over time, but reflecting on your role and the impact you have daily is something I urge you to do. It helps you learn from your mistakes, but most important of all it helps you remember the little things, those things that make you smile, laugh and dare I say it cry. I believe embracing change and working at it with intentional effort can make fatherhood even more rewarding, and by embracing change and focusing on what truly matters, fathers can create a healthier and more fulfilling life for themselves and their families.
Your children need a strong, resilient and confident father, but above all else they need someone who isn’t distracted by the outside world. They need you to love them unconditionally and they need you to engage in play and creativity. By getting back on track you have a great chance at guiding them toward their own bright and positive future.
Aidan, Founder of TMFC
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