You hear a lot about mothers’ guilt coming from the pressure to be the perfect parent while also fulfilling their career or creative potential. But father’s guilt doesn’t get talked about much, and as a result, us dads feel we’re on our own with it.
Banter belies the truth
When the sources of our guilt do get talked about, it’s probably bound up in banter about the dad body or not pulling your weight as you leave the office to get back for bedtime. The stereotype of masculinity subtly says that guilt isn’t something we should feel. After all, we’re supposed to be strong physically and emotionally, to have clarity of vision and the ability to turn that vision through action into reality. That’s what a real man is.
But as Brits know only too well, humour often marks the site of real tension. A principle that’s true in the development of our children too. What our children find funny indicates the concepts they are getting to grips with. For babies peek a boo allows them to safely explore the ideas of separation and permanence. For toddlers working on toilet training, the words poo and wee hold many hours of giggling fun. The banter about being a part-timer shows that we and others are wrestling with the tension between the norm of putting in the hours and trying to create a life that works better for us.
The guilt that grows in our minds as we laugh off the ‘part-timer’ jibes while packing up at 5 in the hope of smooth commute to make bedtime, points clearly to our uncertainties about how well we’re living up to our professional identity and our parental duties. We want to be great at both, and we’re trying, but in both arenas we’re pushing against a traditional story that runs very deep.
The traditional story of the working man is the source of our guilt
The stories of success in a professional sense are dominated by men who have sacrificed home life to climb to the top of the business ladder. What makes our guilt appear, and those part-timer jibes funny, is the universally accepted truth that success at work is what makes a man and that success comes from working hard, putting in the desk time. This professional story is one of super heavyweight size, which is in direct contrast to the size of the story of committed, caring, gentle, nurturing and loving dads. We’re fighting a forest fire on one front while simultaneously trying to kindle a spark on the other.
It’s very hard to fight an established norm, to see the world differently, believe in different things and then act accordingly. But that’s what many men are doing, and that’s why I think we feel guilty because we subconsciously slip back into believing the traditional story is the true path to a life well lived.
The traditional story is killing us
Now we’re seeing the cracks appear in that universally accepted story. Dying for a Paycheck, by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, makes this case with crushing clarity.
Work is the biggest source of stress in society. Stress has a very strong causal link to chronic disease, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many unhealthy individual behaviours like overeating, underexercising and drug and alcohol abuse. Chronic disease makes up 75% of the US disease burden and brings with them the associated costs to the economy and our relationships.
For those of us feeling guilty for trying to buck conventional wisdom and carve the life, we want to have, rather than the life we’re told to have, the road will never be guilt free. But, recognising what we really want, what we stand to gain, what we prioritise and what we will have to sacrifice, is the first step.
Our employers, managers and leaders can make this path easier. By recognising that the strengths they value so much in people only really come into play when those people are feeling good about their life choices. This type of business is one that supports its people while they serve its mission. So if you are a dad, or a mum for that matter, who feels parental guilt, it might be worth keeping an eye on how supportive your employer is being to your lifestyle choices.