A few weekends ago, I was exhausted. I had a crazy week leading up to it, and by the time the weekend came, I was out of it. I was also in the middle of a very good book. One that I was really into. So, do you know what I did? I spent all morning Saturday lying on the couch, reading my book.
We have a nanny that comes and helps us because of my husband’s travel schedule, and this Saturday, I just let her take the kids and go. I didn’t use that time to clean the house, I didn’t do laundry, I didn’t make muffins or cookies or prepare dinner, and, I didn’t work out. I sat and read.
Let me tell you, it felt glorious, at first. When the kids got home for lunch, I realized that same list I just wrote out for you, and instead of feeling proud, I felt ashamed. What kind of mother does that? Who would take a whole morning alone in their house and not use it to better their home, their kids or themselves? I should have done something!
But I probably don’t have to list all the things I felt bad about; most likely, at some point, you felt that way too. Even if you are not a mom, there are a ton of articles, blogs (ahem) and funny social media memes that talk about all the guilt that surrounds moms. And I’m glad for it.. I think for a long time, we as women just lived in this feeling of constantly not feeling like enough, and that probably made us all a little bit bitter, a little bit sad and a lot angry.
Have you noticed, though, that with this age of enlightenment of Mommy Shame, we don’t talk about Daddy Shame a lot? It’s not because it doesn’t exist, because I am almost positive it does. I think it’s because our society does not like men to be too emotional. There is a pressure there to be manly, and manly means being the strong, stoic one in the family. Or getting angry. I feel like anger is a pretty socially acceptable feeling for men, one of the few that are. The thing is, these are all just guesses. I was not sure. So, I went to my husband.
I talked about that morning and all the shame and guilt I felt about it that afternoon, but added that Mom Guilt is a pretty well-talked-about subject matter nowadays. I said, “I want to know about Dad Guilt.” He snorted, his eyes got wide, and he said, “Oh, man …” So, I’m going to let him talk a little bit about it now.
Everyone, this is my husband, Matt Maher, and he is going to share a little bit about some of the Dad Guilt he feels. I think if we can understand each other’s triggers and emotional weak spots, it can help us (hopefully) to be kinder to each other. It helps us to not just assume why our spouses is doing something, but to understand the underlying motivations, and it can lead to a lot better communication. So, Matt:
Thanks, honey. Hi, everybody. Hope this finds you well.
One of the lessons I feel like I’ve been learning in life is accepting the reality that there are a lot of times when whom I want to be, or whom I perceive I’m being, isn’t actually the case. You cou
ld say that there is a continual unveiling that is happening throughout my life, where my perception of “what is” gets upended by a greater reality, a greater truth. I think one of those areas for me is around the unspoken expectations I have put on myself — especially as a dad.
When I moved to Arizona from Canada in 1995, I moved in the midst of dealing with a lot of grief. One of the big things I continued to process and come to terms with was the relationship I had with my dad. Over the course of the next 15 years, I realized that there were expectations and hopes I had with my dad to be someone he wasn’t. Some of these were realistic (in the sense that they are normal expectations a child has of their parent that come with the responsibility of parenting a child).
At the same time, I began to realize that my dad had expectations on himself and his life (apart or alongside his family) that maybe he never really communicated. He was an entrepreneurial spirit his whole life, and so much of the ambition and drive I see in myself I now realize has been informed (if not passed on) by my father. Throughout my childhood, my father wanted so badly to provide for his family (on a material level) that he often missed the moment right in front of him to provide emotionally and/or spiritually. All the way until his unexpected death, he wrestled with never “making his mark” in the world, and not being successful enough for his standards.
When I was a young boy, not a day passed that I didn’t hear my father say he loved me. But the more painful truth was I knew he said this in the midst of struggling with so much self-hatred and addiction. It’s upsetting because we never got to talk about it; talking about shame as a father has been one of the biggest things that has helped me, as a dad, grow past the cycle of self-hatred. It is in naming faceless things that we allow light to shine on them; that is when they begin to lose their power over us.
I spent most of my 20s and 30s in full-time church ministry. It was an amazing time, and it oriented my life in a positive direction. But if I’m honest, it also filled me with a lot of sentimentalized notions about what marriage and fatherhood actually look like.
Even with having a community of friends and mentors that I could talk to about these expectations, you still carry those ideals into your family life.
From stories to comic books to movies, I was bombarded with illustrations of heroism or ideal character types. You take that culture and a culture of success-driven existence, and it creates an unrealistic view of life focused so much on self-achievement. It created a view of wholeness and holiness that was more rooted in satisfying my own ego than about really learning to love with a sense of abandon and healthy attachment. When I attempted to live these out, I was often met with disillusionment and frustration.
What changed that? Humility and honesty. Humility with God and friends, and honesty with myself about my limitations. So many personal problems start as small thoughts, feelings and desires that, left unchecked, plant deep roots in our thinking and feeling and dormantly grow until they take over our patterns of being. So a willingness to be honest with ourselves and let that out is massive, because it opens the door to grace.
Over the past seven years, the balance of career and family has been an ongoing challenge. Like many parents who travel for work, the scope of what I do for a living has me away from my family a lot, and it is not uncommon in those moments when I am away from my family that the voice of shame speaks to my heart.
It is a weird feeling when you play music and sing songs in front of thousands
of people, only to walk offstage and realize you missed the dinnertime FaceTime chat with your kids for the third day in a row because you’re two time zones away from your family. Or you didn’t make birthday parties or dance recitals or something as simple as the nights when someone has a bad dream. See, the thing I understand firsthand, as a kid of a parent who struggled with achieving, is that your kids just want your time. They don’t ultimately care about anything else if they have that.
I know this because in some ways this is where my wound (and subsequently, my shame) lies. My dad had lots of time to spend with my brother and me when we were very young; then he had no time, because of his job. He ran a seafood restaurant and piano bar for several years. Then he had no time because of the old tapes running in his head, combined with the ambition to do something significant.
The funny thing is, I look back on the memories of when he was most busy in running a seafood restaurant, and those are my favorite memories of my dad when he was working. He was gone a lot, but when he was home he felt present. Later in life, when he was always hustling for another project, another idea, he was always so emotionally and mentally distant.
I know these feelings. For me, it is in the time where you fall short as a parent (specifically as a dad); you either let the memory of those moments continue to echo in your heart and mind, or you look to forgiveness — specifically, forgiving yourself for not being present in the moment. The thing about being a parent is that you can’t say, “Time out — let me work on my stuff” and stop being a parent. At the same time, your kids need you to be the healthiest you can be.
I often joke that having three young children under the age of 7 means I have no short-term memory, but the truth is there are so many moments as a parent that are forever embedded inside your heart and mind; you don’t know it, but they’re there, waiting to be triggered by the sight of a newborn, and all of a sudden the feeling of your child nuzzling up against your neck comes flooding back. Another thing that can come back is the fuzzy memory of anger you had toward them at 3 in the morning — that no matter how hard you tried to console them, nothing seemed to work. In those moments, if you already struggle with inward-focused shame, what do you think will happen? The same thing — where you interpret everything as having something to do with you, and instead of being secure in who you are and free to love, you can’t think about your child because you’re too busy thinking about yourself. These are moments and opportunities for the power of love and surrender to transform your heart and repair the past, and free the future, in the present.
The grace and mercy of God (and access to them through prayer), for some, are mere theological or moral ideas. For me, they are the grounding agents in my life as a husband and as a father. But they require the need for them. The truth is that I was born to be a father, but also that I can’t be the parent I have always wanted to be, and grace aids me and allows me the space to be honest with it.
It also is corrective and instructive. Grace is not something that just “improves” your outlook; it reshapes it, because it is shaping you. Grace is what changes the internal conversation away from yourself and outward, toward others. Toward being a father for my kids. I know my dad had a faith journey, but I also know it was complicated and never fully resolved this side of eternity. I’m not sure if he ever stopped to think about how we tend to project our parents onto God when we’re young, desperate for there to be some illustration, some picture that can fill in the blanks of such mystery. My dad was a mystery unfolding in my life, one that I miss dearly and now pray he is known deeply and eternally by the greatest mystery of all.
I’ll leave you with this thought I keep telling myself: The more present I can be as a parent, the closer I am to a love who is eternally in the moment. I believe shame is undone, and our deeper wounds healed, not by finding it, but by being “found” enough to once again get lost in the moment.
One of my favorite recent memories with my son is changing a flat tire. I was so embarrassed because I was careless in backing out of our driveway and drove into this curb so hard it pushed all the air out of the tire. My impatience got the better of me. When it came time to change the tire, my oldest son was just there, curious. At first I was so focused on my frustration that I was missing the gift being presented: the moment to be a dad, even in the midst of a mistake. Immediately I knew this was an opportunity to invite him into what I was doing.
Now, I understand the cultural forces at play — that maybe it’s just a Rockwellian picture realized — but I think with my sentiment confronted and tempered, aspiring to have transformative moments where you’re passing something on is healthy and important. They are also sacred. So there we were, changing a tire together: father and son, parent and child, and in the process of changing a flat tire, my heart got healed.
He asked a million questions, and I tried to answer every one (especially if the answer was “I don’t know. Let’s find that out.” It wasn’t specifically that I taught my 7-year-old how to change a tire; it was that we were present with each other and I made space for my son to participate in my life. It was in the participation that God repairs my past. I never anticipated the kind of moments of transformation that happen (nor do I continue to assume it will happen), but nevertheless, it keeps happening, and for this I am beyond grateful.