Why we suffer dad guilt (and how to shake it)

Today’s dad has never been more hands-on, but many still feel guilty they are not spending enough time with their kids. How do you make sense of this feeling?

dad and baby in nursery

The moment I found out I was going to be a father, I was gripped with fear. By the time the baby actually arrived, I was terrified. What was a less expected, and quite unwelcome, companion to that fear, was guilt.

Life as a father, I found, was a constant round of “what do I do?” followed by “should I have done that better?”

If you’d asked me, I’d have said that nobody’s perfect, but when it came to my kid, my own failure to be perfect drove me crazy.

It’s some relief to know I’m not alone in being consumed by guilt over my fathering abilities.

A joint survey by Today.com and Fatherly.com found that guilt is rife among dads. They feel guilty about not being “present” enough with their kids, working too much, or not earning enough money for the family. Many envy stay-at-home dads.

That’s guilt for you: it gets you coming and going. If you’re not guilty about not spending enough time with your kids, you’re guilty about not earning enough to give your kids everything you want to give them. And in all likelihood, you’re guilty about both. I know I am.

As a freelance writer, I find my lack of earning power disgraceful — don’t I even care about providing for my family? The only upside is that I get to work from home most of the time, which means I get to spend more time with my kids … except, I don’t spend enough, do I?

I’m at home, but when my kids really need me, I’m working, writing some frivolous think piece or other.

Don’t I even care about quality time with my children? When I worked in an office, that was even worse — imagine actually leaving the house every day. The house with my children in it.

So when you’re a father, guilt is probably the easiest emotion in the world to self-generate. Hell, I feel guilty sending my kids to school. After all I went to school and I hated it, so why would I punish my children by putting them through that?

But then, I once took the kids out of school to go on holiday and I was stricken by guilt over depriving them of education. It just never ends.

I doubt it’s possible to be guilt-free when you have kids: every minute away from them feels like a betrayal, and everything you don’t provide for them feels like a deprivation.

There’s probably an evolutionary explanation for fatherly guilt. No doubt dads who had a tendency towards guilt worked extra hard to keep guilt at bay, for instance by working extra hard to bring home a mammoth, or keeping an especially sharp eye out for sabretooths.

So the children of guilty dads were more likely to survive and thrive than the kids of dads who weren’t as fussed over what happened to the rugrats.

But dad guilt might be reaching a peak right now because of the changes in fathering that we’ve seen over the last 50 years or so.

Where traditionally the father was the provider and the mother the carer, it’s now pretty well accepted that both providing and caring can be done by father and/or mother.

This is, absolutely, an excellent development in human history. It’s opened up so many more possibilities for mums and dads, and made for a far healthier attitude towards family life in general.

But it’s certainly true that more possibilities can mean more guilt. When a father was expected not to do much except provide for his family, he couldn’t feel guilty about much else. But now, every facet of parental guilt is open to the self-doubting father (which is pretty much all of us).

Guilt over a lack of quality time, guilt over missing a pre-school concert, guilt over not having clothes washed and dried for the morning, guilt over dinner not being healthy enough, guilt over missing a first word or a first step — the list is endless.

Plus, that old guilt over not being a good enough provider? That’s still there, so you’re not getting off the hook on anything.

For me dad guilt feels even more acute because I’m so aware of the shift in traditional parenting roles, and every perceived failure seems like a lapse into outdated patterns.

I feel ashamed of myself when I’m not spending time with my kids, and even more ashamed because I feel like I’ve let the cause of modern manhood down by not working hard enough to break free of those traditional roles.

But let’s not think of dad guilt as insurmountable. It can even have its uses.

For one thing, it’s a pretty powerful spur to be the best dad you possibly can be — when you’ve felt that overpowering guilt, which most of us do within a few days of becoming a dad, you really do want to do anything you can to assuage it.

It’s also one of those great aspects of parenting that gives you a newfound respect and awe for your own parents — they lived through this too.

But most of all, what dad guilt tells you is that one way or another, you’re doing something right, because that guilt is something truly special: a manifestation of the fierce love and devotion that you filled up with the day your first child arrived.

You will probably never be completely free of dad guilt, because you’ll never be completely satisfied with what you’ve done for your kids who, after all, deserve perfection.

It’s good to remind yourself of this, because the worst thing you can do is let dad guilt cripple you, to let yourself think: ‘Ah, I’ll never be good enough, why bother trying?’ 

Remember it’s because it’s so important to try that you feel guilty in the first place.

And be kind to yourself. You’re doing the best you can at a damn hard job, and beating yourself up over the flaws in your work, while a very understandable urge, won’t help anyone.

Remember why you’re doing it, and who you’re doing it for, and take pride in just how committed you are to getting it right. And every now and then, give yourself a break from guilt — you’ve earned it.