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Dad Guilt? When “Bad Dad” Worries Bring You Down

dad guilt

photo by: Maria Fernanda

by Hugh Wilson

Between providing for your children and spending time with them, are you worried you are leaning way too far to one side or the other? Welcome to the world of ‘dad guilt’. 

What is dad guilt?

Dad guilt is a relatively recent phenomenon that has emerged as a new generation of dads has become more involved in day-to-day childcare. This new arrangement is sometimes the result of simple economics, with many families reliant on two working parents.

But it’s also true that many dads welcome the change, and want to be more involved in the lives of their children. They demonstrate it by lobbying for a more parent-friendly working week, and being prepared to jump ship for employers that provide flexible working. They are organising their time to be around for school runs and bedtimes ,and leaving their laptop at work over the weekend.

So why the guilt?

Reality doesn’t always measure up to expectations. While the situation described above is becoming more common, in many workplaces there’s still a belief that, while new mums should be at home looking after the baby, the best thing new dads can do is bring home more of the bacon.

Even in more progressive organisations, fathers feel torn between the twin roles of provider and parent, never quite giving their best to either and being left feeling a bad dad. 

A survey by America’s famed “Today Show” found that one in five fathers worried about not being present enough for their children, and 17 per cent worried about working too much. But the overarching worry was still about not being a good provider.  One in four felt ‘dad guilt’ about not making enough money to provide for their family in the way they’d like.

Sound a lot like the kind of thing working mums have been struggling with for decades? Perhaps. Conscientious dads want to be good providers and good parents, and — unlike previous generations — don’t see them as the same thing. Dad guilt is the predictable result.

 Covid-19 and parenting 

dad guilt

photo by Charles Deluvio

The pandemic can raise uncomfortable questions in a man about  his basic proficiency as a parent. Home schooling is tough, and trying to fill countless hours of isolation with fun and inspiring activities feels a thankless task. A father can feel his attempt to be teacher, confidante, friend, entertainer, carer, and also provider, have fallen flat.

Dad guilt can also be intensified by the ‘always on’ nature of remote work. Zoom calls and last-minute requests have seeped into what would otherwise be family time.

Many hardworking dads expected remote work to give them more time for their children. Too often, the opposite has been true, with working at home quickly morphing into living at work.

When children suffer, dads do too

It can be hard not to feel powerless if your child is suffering through the deprivations of lockdown.

And many have. According to England’s Mental Health of Children and Young People Survey (MHCYP), probable mental health conditions increased from 10.8% in 2017, to 16% in July 2020.

But it’s not just about diagnosable mental health conditions. Parental guilt kicks in when children show signs of feeling lonely, bored, or a bit miserable, all of which have been hugely magnified by lockdown. And then there is child anxiety about schools reopening. No parent feels anything but guilty about forcing a reluctant child back to school.

How can I manage my endless sense of being a ‘bad dad’?

dad guilt

photo by Joice Kelly

So what can dads do to reduce feelings of dad guilt?

1. Stop feeling alone in your dad guilt. 

Remember that all dads (and all parents) experience guilt. Notice how those around you are experiencing similar. For example, many parents struggled with home schooling and felt inadequate trying to be a teacher.

And give yourself credit for what has gone well. Yes, your kids might have had more screen time during lockdown than was necessarily good for them, but you made it through. 

2. Recognise your employer’s responsibility.

The amount of dad guilt you feel is often determined by your workplace. The pandemic was a litmus test for employer attitudes.

  • Did they expect you to be ‘always on’ and always available, regardless of increased childcare responsibilities?
  • Or did they make allowances for your situation? Appear keen that you get the balance between providing and parenting right?
  • Is it time to plan your next career move to a more progressive organisation? That respects a work/family balance?

3. Be honest about the opportunities you do have and take steps forward. 

Many organisations say they will offer full-time flexible working opportunities after the pandemic. ‘Hybrid’ work, spending some of the working week in the office and some at home, is likely to be the most popular option. This could be boon for dads, guaranteeing they’ll be around for school runs or bath times at least a couple of days a week.

A study in America by the Pew Research Centre found that the pandemic, and working from home, has led to a ten per cent increase in men feeling satisfied with how much time they are spending with their kids. 

If working at home has been better for you, don’t be afraid to take what’s offered, regardless of what other men in the office are or aren’t choosing or will think. If you’re not being offered a choice, be prepared to ask why.

4. Think quality, not quantity.

There’s never enough time. Mums have known it for decades, and dads increasingly know it too. Being a parent and a provider means something always falls through the cracks.

But quality trumps quantity. For your kids, an hour of your complete attention is better than three with a grumpy, distracted dad. When you’re at work, be fully at work. When you’re with your children, be fully with them. Put down your phone and step away from the laptop.  Get real family time into every week and at least some of your dad guilt will start to seep away.

Need to talk to someone confidentially about dad guilt, or feelings of inadequacy as a parent? We connect you with highly regarded talk therapists in central London locations. Or use our booking platform to find UK-wide therapists and online counsellors.


Still have a question about dad guilt and what to do about it, or want to share your tip for other readers?  Use the comment box below. Please note we are not able to offer counselling or legal advice over comments. 

Hugh WilsonHugh Wilson is a freelance journalist based in West Yorkshire. He writes about parenting, health, business, technology, and workplace issues. 

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