In the Disney movie Encanto, the character Luisa has super-strength. Covered in muscles, she lifts boulders and just about anything else for the household and the surrounding village. When pressed by her younger sister, Luisa confesses through song that she feels burdened by her gift of strength, physical and otherwise. She feels constant weight from expectations to carry “all the heavy things [others] can’t shoulder” and, on the inside, she feels ready to crack. Yet she maintains a strong façade because she thinks it’s what everyone needs but, as the pressure never stops, she doesn’t know how much more she can take.
Her song struck a nerve for me and, I suspect, for many other dads.
Dad is supposed to be the strong one. Dad carries the weight of the house and the family. He’s supposed to be in charge — the guy who’s got it all together. But under the surface, how we dads handle pressure matters. Because, ultimately if dad does crack, it’s the kids who get hurt most.
As a stay-at-home father, I feel a lot of pressure. Stay-at-home parenting means being at work 24/7/365 with little sleep, lots of self-doubt, and the isolation from other adults that comes from being alone children most of the day. My jobs include making sure the kids are happy, healthy, engaged, entertained, educated, creative, fed, sleeping, not killing each other, not killing anyone else, not destroying the house, and so on. Then come the household responsibilities: grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning (which, for parents of young kids is the equivalent of constant post-tornado repair), home maintenance and million other things. All this for a job that isn’t particularly respected.
Oh, and don’t even try to wrap your head around the biggest pandemic in a millennium, political upheavals, climate change, or anything else of the global catastrophe variety.
For many dads, the worst pressure of all comes from within. As a self-acknowledged perfectionist, I feel a constant push to not just be Dad, but to be the “perfect” Dad. The kids have to be constantly engaged. They can’t be on screens, but should be completely tech-savvy. These children we raise should be artists, but Jackson Pollack-style doodles and smashed Play-doh in the hair isn’t good enough. They should be reading by the end of their first month, writing novels by age 2, and applying to colleges by 3. They should be popular and surrounded by friends, but of course can’t socialize with anyone these days because of COVID. And on and on the pressure builds. Life turns into an Instant Pot set on high, and that isn’t good for anyone: you, your spouse, or your kids.
You know the secret to good pressure cooking? It’s knowing when to turn the valve. There’s a moment when you flip the seal and steam erupts like a geyser. It’s the difference between a magnificent meal and a mutilated mush.
So how, as dads, can we turn the valve on our own pressure? How do we acknowledge that pressures are real and will always build, but relieve them before we burst?
Step One: Find the Quiet Moments
Look for times during your parenting day that can be lower key. If all else fails, and you’re overwhelmed, it’s not the end of the world to let them watch an episode or two of TV (try Bluey, dads – trust me). Yet, there’s a lot of answers beyond just screen time. Do the kids like to draw? Print out a mandala or complex illustration and color beside your kids! Coloring is proven therapy, and the adult coloring book industry thrives. Whatever your situation, and no matter how brief, try to make sure there’s a few down/lower energy moments in each day to vent that pressure.
Step Two: Mix It Up
Get outside. Get your kids on playdates. Go meet dads near you. Go on “dadventures and explore the many little things around you from the zoos and museums to the tourist traps and more. Too much monotony drains the soul and ups the pressure. If you’re inside everyday and the only conversations you have are with stuffed animals at tea parties, that pressure cooker’s ramping up. Talk to other human beings. Go to places outside the home. It forces you to stay active physically and that’s great for the kids, too.
Step Three: Find a Pressure Outlet and Maintain it
Almost every dad I know has an outlet outside of his kids. I’m a fantasy writer. That doesn’t just mean I draft fantasy novels when the kids are asleep. I take moments during playtime to put on some epic fantasy music. While I’m in a repeat of the tea party that never ends, I allow a corner of my brain to daydream about those next plot twists. Combine that with aforementioned drafting, and writing is my release, a meditative event I honestly need. Some dads woodwork, others game or paint or brew beer. Doesn’t matter what the outlet is, find it and guard it as sacred time.
Step Four: Ask for Help
If the pressure’s too hard, tell your spouse. Hire a sitter. Reach out to your local City Dads chapter or some other dad friends. Talk to a therapist.
As Luisa in Encanto eventually realizes, asking for help is strength not weakness. We all take on too much. It’s OK to share that burden if we need to.
Don’t let the pressure win. We’ve all felt it. And hopefully we all realizes there are vents to let off that steam before you pop.