This Sunday is Fathers Day in Australia. So I thought I would invite a “fatherhood expert” to reflect on all things fatherhood in our guest blog spot this week. Meet Timothy O’Leary. Tim is a father, therapist, long time supporter of our philanthropic partner PANDA and author of a book for fathers called BIG Fatherhood. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Happy Fathers Day for Sunday Tim. What does Fathers Day mean to you as a Dad?
Thanks Kellie. For a start it means feeling the love for my family. My son is 13 and my daughter is 10 and I am proud of them both. I also feel blessed to have a supportive and loving wife, so for me it’s more of a celebration of my family. I’m also touched and amused by their ‘Happy Father’s Day’ cards which they hand-draw and are so sweet.
What would your Fathers Day wish for all Dads out there be?
Hmmm, on the one hand I’d wish new dads some energy! And fathers of toddlers, I’d wish patience! I believe that knowledge is power so I’d wish fathers to have two kinds of knowledge. One is the kind of knowledge that helps you to understand your family’s needs better. The other kind is the knowledge of yourself that allows a dad to know what he needs right now. The former wish is to do with many dads missing out on key information about what children and mothers need. We also know that many dads are playing a bigger role in the lives of their children but that the world hasn’t kept pace with these dads. In the western world, around 1 in 2 dads are struggling with work-life balance issues. But many workplaces are yet to recognise that family-friendly workplaces make good sense. They are associated with higher productivity and staff retention. This means that lots of dads are under significant stress – so I wish them less stress and while mindfulness is a part of the solution, so are flexible working hours!
What do you think Dad’s most need from their partners in this challenging parenting gig we are all a part of?
In truth a lot of dads would want me to say sex here, which is a common source of couple conflict after children. What dad’s need from their partners is love and one of the ways that men often seek love is via sex. Exhaustion is definitely not an aphrodisiac so the couple’s sex life suffers, leaving men feeling less loved. So they get stuck and ‘lose their voice’ (this is a Collaborative Couple Therapy term). In CCT we aim to find our heart-felt voice and build understanding. So the dad can say how hard he’s finding the absence of sex and voicing that heartfelt sentiment will be more likely to bring tenderness and care from his partner. Maybe not sex right now if his partner is exhausted and overwhelmed, but it means that they are close in this moment and closeness over time IS associated with sex! So I’d hope that dads could feel loved, knowing that sex will return as their children get older and date-nights and couple-time become more frequent.
And what’s your sense of what mothers need from the fathers of their children – what feedback do you get from your clients?
Mothers need a whole lot of support from the father. I encourage couples to have ‘Relational First Aid’ strategies. What I mean by this is that both partners have a clear understanding of each other’s preferred way to manage stress and emotional difficulties. Too often we try to solve each other’s issues according to our own tried and tested methods. What I am going so say now may sound a bit harsh but we haven’t sold the concept of ‘communication’ to men well. Men are raised to problem-solve whereas a great deal of emotional conversation between couples is to build understanding. We just haven’t sold that to men well at all. They are still trying to fix her problems and she’s after understanding not fixing. When men can see that communication is about building understanding, it allows them to focus on something tangible. If dad knows that it is about understanding, then he can focus his attention in a more purposeful way – giving her his presence. And that’s huge.
At mindfulness4mothers we explore how mindfulness, self compassion and the science of flourishing can ease our way. How it can help us feel calmer and more connected to ourselves, our children and partners. What difference does mindfulness make to you as a father and to the fathers you see who have developed these healthy habits?
Well Kellie, for me mindfulness is both a philosophy and a tool. I use mindfulness as a philosophy on life in accepting the impermanence of living and the raw truth of many moments. So I accept that life and people are not perfect, and that suffering is a valuable part of life. As a tool I use mindfulness to detach from the negative thoughts. I take the view that all negative thoughts are distortions of a situation, just a small part of the bigger picture. Most of the time this allows me to un-hook myself from negative thoughts and to find the solution, not the culprit as they say. As a dad there are many opportunities to have negative thoughts. Particularly with babies and toddlers when their needs for care and support are so great and so constant. And you are continually delaying your own gratification. Your coffee is half finished, your newspaper unread and your sleep incomplete. Lots of unmet or delayed gratification of your needs. Meanwhile your child’s every needs are attended to! Plenty of ‘food’ for negative thoughts!
Let me go back to my earlier point on the importance of knowledge for dads. The architecture of the child’s brain is developed in the first six years so the way we work with our negativity is critical. We are better parents when we are in a more even state of mind – and this is associated with optimal infant development. Dad’s need to know this. Mindfulness allows us to take a deep breath during moments of stress and to pause before reacting. In that pause it is helpful to consider that it is the frustration itself that is the hardest thing to deal with right now. The practical parenting stuff is a matter of basic problem solving. Cleaning up vomit at 3.00 am is not a difficult task but it feels pretty awful! My suggestion is that mindfulness can be the tool to get you through the tough times and allow you to give your children an amazing gift. Your presence.
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, and thanks to all the mothers who made it possible!