I must have been no more than 12 years old. Dad was in the backyard, and he had been digging for some time in hopes of finding the blockage to the septic tank. As I recall, it was a hot, sticky day, and even my youthful self could see that it was a job that no one wanted to do. After finally reaching the point near to where he thought the pipe was obstructed, he began to snake the motorized de-clogger down into the pipe. As he leaned down into the hole, suddenly the Roto-Rooter caught his hair, and it began to twist itself further into his head. He screamed at me to run up and unplug the machine, but before I could get to the outlet, he ripped the Roto-Rooter out of his hair. With it, came a huge tuft; for months, a bald spot remained where hair once grew.
Less than 3 decades later, my wife, Amy, and I walked out of St. Anthony’s hospital with two tiny babies less than 48 hours old. After a year of worries that she wouldn’t get pregnant, we found ourselves shocked one memorable day in the OBGYN office as we observed two heart beats fluttering on the sonogram screen. Less than 9 months later, we had entered into what we now call the second phase of our marriage; the one after our kids were born. Leading up to this pregnancy had been a stressful time, partly because I was finishing up my doctoral and fellowship training, but also because my fitness was no longer what it had been even 5 years before. Now, driving home with these utterly dependent little beings, who even required help to hold up their heads in their car seats, the realization was that our life had exponentially changed. Without a guidebook or an in house mentor, we were suddenly launched into the parental sphere, and the link with my father, and his father, had become real.
Growing up as a young boy, I had a reasonable awareness that my father’s life was both challenging and rewarding. As I said years ago in a eulogy to my grandfather, he taught me that life was fun and life was hard. And I certainly knew that my Dad’s life could be hard. Whether it was dealing with the financial challenges of raising 4 kids, or managing the mundane stressors of finicky cars and needy homes, or whether it was handling the unique demands that family life brings, I saw the stress that my father felt. But it wasn’t until having my own kids, and realizing the myriad of ways that fathers can be challenged each day, that I came to appreciate just how many roles and expectations come with being a dad. Often, too, it isn’t even the mundane and unusual demands that are the most challenging themselves, but rather it is the sustained energy and focus that is required to meet these incessant trials. Said another way, to be the Dad that we want to be, which ultimately means being the person we are called to be, there is a continuous degree of empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance required.
Sure, there are times when relaxation is available, and times are light and breezy. But even a cursory review of a typical Dad’s week reveals that it is not just sustained physical energy that is required, but also social and psychological endurance. And as we all know, this holistic endurance doesn’t create itself.
In my role as a psychologist, and as a father, one of the unfortunate things I have noticed is that we dads aren’t necessarily good at supporting and nurturing each other in this noble, yet challenging profession. Sure, there might be certain people or groups available to help us “blow off steam” or even grow in particular areas, such as our faith or our golf swing.
But what I would argue we dads need as much as anything are other dads, and other people, to help us grow in our wholeness―our physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health. As noted earlier in this article, for all the needs that dads have in order to flourish in their calls, it is a holistic health that provides the most for sustained endurance, emotional regulation, and empathy. It’s all nice and good for us to provide each other with “outlets” so that we can step away from the stress at times. But once these outlets are gone, we dads are no better than we were before, and are thrust right “back into the fire.” Thus, way more than outlets, what we should support and nurture for each other are inlets. By inlets, I am speaking of activities through which we can direct our energy, but also receive energy in return, often for the long-term. Through this mysterious exchange, inlets serve to help us grow and mature as a person, and improve our perspective and approach to life, including our paternal life. Inlets come in an infinite variety, such as carpentry, volunteering, birding, hiking, running, dancing or meditating. Yet I would argue that the inlets that involve movement & silence in our natural world have the greatest opportunity for continuous repayment.
Eight years ago, I started the Men’s Backpacking Weekend (MBW) group. Over the previous decade, I had grown to love the world of backpacking, not just because of the opportunity to step away from my frenetic life, but also because it afforded me an adventurous chance to experience life in a more unified, simplified way. I decided to invite other men, many of which are dads (although these days, young men of high school age and older are invited) to go on an annual, weekend trip at a nearby trail; it has now grown to other events. Every year, men who had never backpacked before joined up, and one of my greatest joys is seeing the joy on their faces as these men stepped into the woods with their fellow comrades, and engaged in the simplest of all activities: walking, talking, eating, and at times, just quieting. Year after year, it is the “newbies” that keep coming back, often inviting others to come for their own rookie appearance. Last year, in the midst of one of the most stressful periods of the past few decades, 27 men set out in the little traveled area of Shirley Creek in the Hoosier National Forest. As more than one guy remarked after the trip was over, we hadn’t laughed that much in a long, long time. Yet even more than the laughter, it was as the MBW mantra says: We are men. We lead busy, complicated lives. We work hard and love our families. But sometimes we need to go to a place where the demands and deadlines are left behind; a place where we move on our time and God’s time, where everything needed goes on our backs as we head into the forest for a renewal. Better men we vow to return. Gear up for a Men’s Backpacking Weekend.
This Father’s Day weekend, beyond all the pleasantries and pats-on-the-back, maybe consider reaching out to one or more of your fellow fathers, and seeing about how collectively, you can promote wholeness in each other. Don’t worry —- it need not involve an awkward conversation. Rather, just an invite to engage in an activity that might become an inlet for each other, and in turn, a source of strength and growth for good old dad.