Mothers As A Foghorn For The Family's Needs: Why It's Not As Simple As Telling Fathers To "Step Up"

“My doctor was lovely but they didn’t get it. They suggested therapy and yes, it might help, but I already know what I need to do to look after myself. I need to read a book in the sunshine, with more than five minutes between interruptions. I need to go for a run, regularly. I need to sleep for ten years. And above all, I need my husband to deal with his own sh*t so he can actually parent instead of me doing everything for everyone and him being a passenger in this family.” I receive multiple messages just like this every week from mothers in opposite-sex relationships feeling depleted, undersupported and very pissed off. These mothers are all struggling with intense feelings of overwhelm, guilt, loneliness and anger. They are also already trying really, really hard to be okay. They are taking deep breaths, practicing mindfulness in pockets of time, engaging in self-reflection. They are working their butt off to leave work on the stroke of knock-off time so as not to be late to day-care pickup, attempting to maintain friendships with other mums just as busy as they are, trying to cobble together some semblance of village in an era of isolation. They are feeling disillusioned by motherhood, invisible in a society that doesn’t see (let alone value) the intense work that is nurturing small and precious people. Above all, they feel incredibly hurt and let down by their partners who were so excited to become dads, and now avoid solo caregiving of their offspring like the plague. What more can therapy do for these mothers who are experiencing unpleasant yet utterly understandable emotions, and the physical burnout to match? Who have pleaded with their partner time and time again to “step up” only to be met with defensiveness or the cold shoulder? My guess is not a great deal. What might transpire if instead of sending overloaded mothers to therapy and simply instructing apparently lazy dads to “step up”, we flipped the script entirely? I’m not saying therapy has no place parenting, but I feel in many cases where a mother cries out for help, we’re pathologizing the wrong parent. Every single one of the four mothers who have contacted me with a story such as this in the past fortnight could identify their partners did less active parenting than they’d intended, not because they didn’t want to be involved with their kids, but because as dads they didn’t have the emotional skills to deal with them. They reported partners who would shut down around their kids, or blow up, or avoid being present at all. I do get it, kids are triggering AF. As the “default parent” mums have little choice but to do the internal work, to explore our triggers and expand our capacities to meet our kids’ needs. With the “dad as financial provider, all else optional” model of gendered family roles, fathers have been given a “get out of jail free” card on this one, but sweeping their triggers under the carpet is making things worse, not better, for everyone involved. Today’s fathers are the boys who 30 years ago were told not to “harden up”, to stop crying, that anger was the only acceptable emotion for real men. It would be highly uncomfortable and even frightening to have your kids push all your buttons with no tools in your emotional toolbelt to choose from except anger or withdrawal. I would imagine it’s far easier for fathers to fall back on (potentially unknowingly internalised) sexist attitudes like “the kids just need you” or “mothers are naturally better at this stuff” and disappear into a vortex of overtime, projects or YouTube than it is to look their anxieties, insecurities and childhood wounds in the eye. To put it simply, effective caregiving requires being able to be witness to our children’s emotions, and many dads have never learnt how to be with their own. What would therapy (especially integrated mind-body therapy) do for these fathers, learning to actually feel their feelings for the first time in safety? How would increased emotional intelligence help fathers feel more willing to practice solo parenting in short and longer bursts, such that their confidence in their capacities as a parent snowball in a self-fulfilling prophecy? How much would this open up opportunities for mothers to step back from the intensity of constant caregiving, to press pause on being all things to all people and reclaim the time to do the social and self-care activities they already identify are important in keeping themselves well? My guess is we’d see less maternal depression, anxiety, burnout and lower rates of physical health problems too. We’d likely see less family violence, fewer separations, fewer fathers suiciding. We’d probably see kids growing up with stronger attachments to more caregivers, hardwired for resilience, intelligence and nurture that transcends current gender norms and transforms the way our society operates. These ideas are not new. Father-targeted supports and family-based, emotion-focussed parenting programs have existed for many years and achieve excellent results. What is new is the idea that when a coupled mother presents for help, that it be seen as a flag for the mental and emotional health of the family as a whole, and that it is essential rather than option to offer assistance beyond the person sitting crying in the doctor’s office. Not every dad would be up for it but when it’s spelled out for them like this, with reference to data and outcomes and a reminder of the kind of dad they want to be, some would. It’s these dads whose experience and example of what “fathering” means as a practice (rather than a word indicating their involvement in conception) could change to conversation for those who aren’t. I have long believed that healthy mothers make for healthy families, but mothers alone are not responsible for making their families well. In two-parent families it is important to explore what is going on for both of them, or we will continue to provide solutions to mothers in isolation that merely band-aid over a festering familial wound. When a mother cries out for help, she is the foghorn for her family’s needs. Let’s meet all of them.


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