Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter is almost 2, and being a dad has been the greatest experience of my life. But lately, I look at my child and feel absolutely nothing. What’s wrong with me, and what can I do to get my mojo back?
A: Over the course of the 20-plus years I’ve been writing about parenting, there have been only a few things that I’m not sure I want my kids to see. This may be one of them. But you can read it if you promise not to tell them.
In this column, my books and my other work, I often talk about the joys, anxieties, fears and intense feelings of love that are all part of being a father. Like most men, your experience — despite the ups and downs — has been overwhelmingly positive, and you wouldn’t trade it for anything. In fact, being a dad has become such an integral part of your life that you probably can’t imagine not being one, right?
But then came that day, completely out of the blue, when you looked at your child and realized that the intense love you felt just the day before had been replaced by a numb, hollow feeling. And the delight you took in raising her and being part of her life had been supplanted by complete and utter ambivalence. You’re overburdened and underappreciated, and you can hardly remember the last time you had a conversation with someone who knows more than 40 words. And now, you feel like chucking this whole dad thing and starting a new life somewhere else, as far away from your kid as you can get. Does that sound about right?
Fortunately, these feelings of ambivalence usually last only a few minutes or a few hours. Sometimes, though, they go on for days or even weeks. But no matter how long they last, one thing is pretty much guaranteed: The instant after the ambivalence starts, you’ll get hit by feelings of guilt — for, as you put it, having lost your mojo in the first place. And those guilty feelings will stick around long after the ambivalence is gone. After all, goes the internal monologue, if I’m not a completely committed father, 100% of the time, I must not be cut out for the job at all.
Most mothers are quite familiar with this ambivalence/guilt pattern. But because they’re generally more willing to discuss their worries and concerns with other mothers, they learn rather quickly that it comes with the territory. Sure, like you, they still feel bad about it, or maybe even a little scared, but at least they know they’re not alone.
Men, on the other hand, don’t learn this lesson. If we have a few other fathers with whom we can talk things over, we’re incredibly lucky. But it’s still pretty unlikely that we’ll actually talk to them about this. It’s already hard enough to ask for advice about diaper changing, discipline or nutrition. But having ambivalent feelings seems like a serious weakness — perhaps even a character flaw (or at least it sure feels like one). And we’re certainly not going to expose any weaknesses or character flaws to another man who might just laugh anyway.
Hopefully, just reading this has been enough to convince you — at least a little — that your changing feelings toward your children are completely normal. But if you’re still worried, or you need more reassurance, force yourself to spend a few minutes talking to someone about what you’re feeling: a close friend, your clergyman, your therapist, even your partner (it’ll be harder to talk to her, but at least she’ll know exactly what you’re talking about). And remember this: You’re going to have these feelings dozens of times over the course of your fatherhood. So you’d better get used to dealing with them now.
Follow Armin Brott on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.
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