Why Dads Burn Out
Updated: Jun 22
... and what to do about it.
So many of the men I know have two things in common:
They are Dads, typically highly dedicated ones.
They have experienced, or are experiencing, burnout.
Now, let me be honest about how scientific I'm being in this post. I could easily have said they are Dads and they tend not to care if their shorts match their shirt. Or that they are Dads and they often eat food directly from the container.
Those would probably also be true. But nobody really cares that much about fashion or food hygiene, am I right??? Ok, maybe it's a Dad thing...
Anyway, I've been wondering why it is that so many Dads are experiencing burnout. I have a theory, one that is based on my own experience:
Today's Dads live with modern expectations and legacy standards.
What do I mean by that? Let's break it down.
I became a Dad in 2003. Without anyone setting out a playbook for how I was supposed to be a Dad, I understood that it was far different than what I experienced from Dadding as a child. It was clear to me, at least in my slice of society, that I was expected to be an "equal share" co-parent.
The list of new duties that were laid in front of me and my partner was extensive, expected to be shared, and made up of tasks from the mundane to the profound, including:
Dressing a wiggly little human being (which is surprisingly difficult at first)
Bathing that same wiggly, giggly little human
Learning to interpret what each cry meant ... Hunger? Tiredness? Too cold? Just plain old cranky?
Weighing my partner's needs (for sleep, for support around the emotional exhaustion of being the primary caregiver, etc.) against my own (for sleep, for connection to my friends, for my own emotional exhaustion, etc.)
Developing the discipline required for teaching another human being how to be a loving, strong, independent, and kind person
And so, so much more...
To be clear, these are all things I welcomed as part of living into my goal of being a great Dad. I also see them as clear signs of the healthy shift into a world in which men and women can participate more fully, as opposed to the traditional set of expectations that limited each gender's contributions.
Yet as I began practicing fatherhood, I quickly realized that there were a bunch of new skills I was going to have to master to meet those expectations. This definitely wasn't my father's version of Dadding. It was going to take a lot of work and require lots of sacrifices. (Ummm... duh!) It was hard.
If what I described above represents the expectations of a modern Dad - and if we agree that they represent a big shift, one that should lead to a healthier, more balanced world - the next thing that I want to look at is the set of legacy standards that have long existed for men as fathers.
Foremost among those standards is what I repeatedly find to be the core identify for men is that of "The Provider". As my friend & colleague Ed Frauenheim and his co-author Ed Adams describe the role in their wonderful book, Reinventing Masculinity*:
... the provider has been the farmer, the merchant, the man who brings home the bacon and enables the good life for his family.
As a general statement, "men provide" might as well be a directive: "Men, provide."
While I implicitly understood that I was going to take on lots of new roles as I became a father, I did not for one moment consider that I could give up the standard, legacy role of being my family's Provider.
Seriously, that just wasn't on the table for me. I had to continue to produce and provide. If I didn't, I'd have to be ready to be viewed my other men as inadequate, as weak, a loser, and worse. Essentially, I felt as though I had to provide in all the same ways I could before becoming a Dad.
While there are more qualities of "traditional men" that I felt obligated to exhibit, the other standard I want to mention is around "the E word": emotions.
The world I grew up in told me it was not OK for me, as a man, to be emotionally expressive. Yeah, I could get rowdy or pissed off. But I couldn't show sadness or fear or tenderness or all sorts of other emotions.
And yet, in my role as a Dad, I was coming to understand that a huge part of the expectations of being a committed, child-rearing parent is the ability to experience and model a wide range of emotions.
The old legacy standards seemed to be both required and incongruous with my new modern expectations.
Rock Meets Hard Place
Sitting there in between those modern expectations - being more caring, nurturing, and supportive - and the legacy standards for men - being stoic, productive, and competitive - was me.
I felt stuck.
I didn't want to let down my family, or give up the joys of participating fully as a Dad to my kids. At the same time, I was afraid to rebalance my life by dialing back my professional ambitions. I thought I'd be emasculated if I acknowledged that it had become too much.
So I just did more. I took on more challenges without offloading anything challenging.
Herein lies one of the key factors that I believe contributes to burnout for Dads. Men in our society are rewarded for being busy, for their tangible accomplishments. We might even benefit from all that hard work in some ways.
Our society has an invisible "Manhood Scoreboard", for which we rack up points based on things like job titles, salaries, prestige, and possessions. Dialing it back at work to focus on being a Dad is a sure way to drop in the Manhood Rankings.
The "doing" tendencies that men thrive upon are actually well-suited to parenthood. Lord knows there's plenty of "doing" involved there, as well. Yet it also has a very different requirement. In parenting we are regularly invited to practice "being" instead of "doing".
What does that mean - the "being" aspect of parenting (or work for that matter)?
Here's an example: I was rewarded for my competitive drive in the corporate arena. It got me promoted all the way to President of the company. I could use that drive to outwork the next guy, give more to the client, engage in all of the learning.
Competitive drive has little value in the realm of raising children, though. To thrive in that arena, we need to develop all sorts of different skills, like empathy and emotional awareness. Imagine using the same energy that got you ahead in the workplace when your small child is heartbroken that their favorite stuffed animal got left on the plane. It just doesn't work.
Dads often need to develop a new range of skills to succeed at "being with" their kids. These "being" skills are also new expectations on top of the additional "doing" tasks of parenting.
So what do we give up as we face this mounting list of things that need doing? And being? What do we let go of to create the mental and emotional energy for learning all the new skills that a dedicated parent needs to learn?
I'm sure there are a variety of answers to those questions. For me, and many men with whom I've talked about burnout, the answer is, unfortunately: the things that rejuvenate me. Like other men, I gave up hobbies and friendships that used to sustain me so I could focus on family and career.
It was barely even noticeable how those slipped away. A declined invitation for a ski weekend here, not making the time to call a friend there, the everyday passing by of my old bass guitar...
Then one day, it seemed that all I was left with was work and parenting. (Yes, my burnout also impacted my connection with my spouse, ultimately to the point that we divorced.)
The consequences of trying to uphold legacy standards while meeting modern expectations were dire for me.
I'll be honest. There is no answer - no singular solution that will work for all men. Nor is there a quick answer, a "silver bullet".
No, because burnout is borne from thousands of decisions and actions taken over a long period of time. We can't undo all of that in one step. That might sound depressing. But there's actually a wonderful, hopeful irony in it, too:
We can find the way out of burnout by looking at how we got in.
As a matter of fact, that's exactly what I did. Starting with one tiny action on a Friday morning eight years ago, I began my climb out of my "burnout years". From that point onward I have made small changes, often a single move at a time, every single day until I got out.
It almost doesn't matter what those changes are, if you ask me, just that you make them. So that's my answer to ending burnout for Dads: one little step, every single day.
* - Adams, Edward M.; Frauenheim, Ed. Reinventing Masculinity (p. 28). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Jim Young is a burnout survivor, a Dad, and a coach who helps men get their lives back. When he isn't coaching, facilitating, or teaching, he can often be found Dadding his ass off, seeking out amazing chocolate, doing live improv comedy shows, and exploring the hills of New England with his partner.
Jim will be launching a new service called "From Burned Out to Balancing" in the Fall of 2021, aimed at helping thousands of men find their way back to the lives they want to lead. If you are, or know, a man who is struggling with burnout, he would love to help. To learn more about the service, please visit https://thecenteredcoach.com/balancing.