Therapy Made Me a Less Angry Dad
I was waking up angry every day and I didn't know why. Seeing a therapist gave me a reality check and helped me find ways to deal with the stress of parenting.
I spoke with a therapist for the first time ever. And again. And again. And again. I had no idea what was expected or what it would accomplish, but I knew I couldn’t keep doing the same thing and assuming the results would be better.
My wife, who just wanted me to be happy and had already done what she could to get me some down time, agreed it would help to have me talk things out, as I had a tough time even explaining to her exactly what I was feeling. (“I just feel angry all the time and I don’t know why,” I remember telling her, which, considering I have so many wonderful aspects to my life, continued to make no sense on the surface.)
My therapist listened intently as I talked and talked, which, as I discovered, was the very best aspect of the sessions. How often do you get to just talk and not have someone try to give you a quick solution or interrupt or judge you? That’s therapy.
A lot had happened in recent years—a medical helicopter ride for our preemie daughter right after a NICU stay for her and her twin sister, for one thing—and I was seemingly processing it all and ignoring it to keep up with the day-to-day. My therapist didn’t try to justify things. Instead, she pointed out what should have been more obvious: that getting less than four hours of sleep a night for three years, having a daughter who almost died, having twins, regular work, and life stress had pushed me to the breaking point.
People handle that in different ways. In my case, the extreme mental and physical exhaustion had manifested in bouts of anger, which was just stuff bubbling to the surface; really, it points to mild depression, she said. And I ignored it for too long, thinking I could just ride it out until things got better … except that’s not how it works.
I had gotten to the point that, even if most people thought I was handling things well (It’s amazing what we all do to have the outside world think we’ve got our shit together, right?), I couldn’t really do it anymore. My kids needed me to have it together, and at that point, I couldn’t deliver, and in some cases I just fell apart.
Realizing there was something deeper there than just a rough patch or “typical parent stuff” made it real, which helped me come to grips with it. It also was by no stretch an excuse. Just a reality. And one I needed to figure out for my sake, for my family’s sake, and more. A rough patch shouldn’t last for weeks and months on end. Anybody can have a moment of anger after a few bad days. If you’re finding again and again that the anger doesn’t have any real, tangible source, that’s a warning sign.
While I worked through things, I laid low. I waited for answers, for some kind of breakthrough. I wanted to start to make changes to do something about it. Somehow.
I can’t tell you what exactly helped snap me out of it. I’ll never be entirely snapped, I suppose; you don’t climb out of this quickly when it was such a long spiraling process to get down, and part of it is just core to my personality and how my mind approaches the world.
But I can tell you that every day now in the years since, I haven’t been waking up angry. I don’t get as easily frustrated. I am appreciating little victories more. I don’t still feel “hollow.” I’m enjoying things more, for sure.
Some of that is just the basic reality of sleeping better, where adding just one hour more of sleep a night makes a huge difference. That's because our kids, now that they aren't infants, mostly sleep through the night and they also can play on their own more, and that means I get more space. That’s no small thing.
Some of that is using techniques to take a mental step back when I feel that old feeling. Like stepping out of a room for a minute if I need to. Like making a bigger priority out of taking care of myself or being vocal about needing some time. Like being more aware of what kind of dad I wanted my kids to have, and knowing under no circumstance would that involve my son feeling the urge to say “you have to be nice.” Those little victories add up.
One core thing that had bothered me? I had a big problem with not feeling like I was ever getting things done. I’m a “get stuff done” guy. It’s part of how I identify and feel good about myself. So when I have months and years go by where I’d constantly be thinking “How come I never ever can get everything done?” even if it was just stuff around the house, it hurt. No joke.
What changes that?
It’s something I want your partner to write down, especially if he’s a guy who loves a weekend project or who seems restless if he’s not checking things off a list. As my therapist told me, “Being a parent is a check off the list, too.” Being a parent is an actual accomplishment, in and of itself. It doesn’t need an addendum. It doesn’t need a qualifier.
That’s an entirely different mindset. I am guessing if you’ve been nodding along this whole time, maybe it’s something that can help you, too. But I’d say for men, it may be especially true that he’ll have a tough time finding a balance now that he has a new priority entering his life, one that doesn’t care what he has planned.
This excerpt was adapted from The New Mom's Guide to New Dads by Andrew Shaw. Used with permission by the author. Copyright 2020, Andrew Shaw.
Andrew Shaw is an award-winning parenting columnist and creator of Instafather, a blog dedicated to helping new parents, especially dads. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, son, and twin daughters. In between constantly getting his kids some snacks, he’s a marketing strategist and a professional improv comedian. His debut book, The New Mom’s Guide to New Dads is available on his site and through Amazon.