Dad Guilt is Real — But Does It Mean Anything?

a dad looks stressed as he eats breakfast with his infant child
The moment a father meets his child, he’s overwhelmed with a range of emotions, such as joy, pride, love, fear, and more. The arrival of a bundle of joy instantly compels us to take responsibility for every element of that child’s life — and that can be a huge weight to bear. 

We frequently hear about the phenomenon of “mom guilt,” but “dad guilt” is a real issue, too. Fathers are just as prone to feeling the anxiety and panic that comes with ongoing guilt about everything from working too much or working too little, to being too strict or not strict enough. In fact, a survey conducted on over 1,200 dads found that 1 in 4 fathers is frequently overwhelmed by feelings of guilt.

Why is this? Modern fathers have countless stresses to deal with. Not only do most dads feel pressured to fulfill their traditional role as the family “breadwinner,” but a study from the Pew Research Center found that 48% of working dads felt as though they’re not spending enough time with their kids, compared to only 26% of working moms.

A Neverending Learning Curve

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about parental guilt is that it’s totally normal. Every parent will feel some guilt at some point, and in fact, that experience might be a good thing. After all, that guilt shows that you’re taking your job as a parent seriously. You’re doing your best to be the perfect role model for your child. That’s what he or she deserves.

The problem is that perfection is impossible. No father is going to jump into parenthood and get everything right without any stumbles or hurdles along the way. While most dads assume that they should be able to handle every aspect of parenting with skill and finesse, the truth is that raising a child is a learning curve. It takes some trial and error.

Take some time to look back over parenting through the ages, and you’ll notice we haven’t always taken the same approach to nurturing children. Today, you wouldn’t dream of hurting your child if they misbehaved, but flogging was a standard form of punishment in the 19th century. Collectively, parents around the world are learning together about how to parent more empathetically and effectively.

Like all learners, you’re probably going to make mistakes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The key is to forgive yourself, and keep working on it.

How to Overcome Dad Guilt

While guilt can be useful in some cases by identifying when we should change our behavior or helping us to see where we’ve gone wrong, it can also be dangerous if you allow it to run your life. As a father, it’s important to accept yourself for your mistakes and focus on being the best dad you can be.

For instance, if you feel bad because you promised to go to your child’s ball game and then didn’t turn up, then you’re feeling worthy guilt. Rather than dwelling on it, make sure that you take steps to avoid the same problem in the future. Take actionable steps to avoid your guilt.

According to studies, about 19% of dads feel as though they’re not “present” enough with their kids. A great way to minimize that problem is to schedule distraction-free bonding time. For instance, put your phone in a drawer for an hour each day while you chat with your child. You can get it back out when they go to bed.

Dads, Give Yourself a Break

When it comes to parenting, research shows that dads are much harder on themselves than moms. Among working dads who feel they’re not spending enough time with their children, only about 49% consider themselves to be doing a “good” job.

Ultimately, overcoming dad guilt means letting go of perfection. Be realistic about your ability to solve every problem that your child faces, and remember that the grass is always greener on the other side. While a dad who works constantly may feel bad about not spending enough time with his kids, a dad who works less might feel guilty about not bringing home a big enough paycheck. Parenting isn’t a competitive sport, so remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can.

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