It is Men’s Mental Health Week this week (11 – 17 June) so I thought I would share a little of my story as a (not so newly) single Dad and the struggle with the feelings of guilt and fear that come with that.
I always have a long internal debate about publishing these kind of blogs – is it too personal, does it imply I want or need sympathy or simply that it’s seen as a vehicle to hurt or pick at an old wound. It is none of those things, these personal blogs are in some way cathartic – the act of writing them helps me sort out and get clarity on my feelings. But more than that it’s about documenting my journey for my girls, so they understand how I got here a bit better and maybe to inspire them on their own journey through life.
I started this journey – Miles for Wishes – in 2017 and it is mostly this that I talk about on Social Media. I don’t share an awful lot about my children (or my day to day personal life), just a rare photo here and there. This is not for any other reason than that I want to keep them all to myself – all the times we spend together, the photos I take, the memories we create – they are, selfishly, all for me. They are for the moments when I need their smiles to bring back mine, for the times when I miss them so much I want to simply hide myself away from the world and cry.
An important note
Before you read on I just feel it is important to also add that the mother of my children is a great role model for them, she is a strong, independent women with her own mind and I know she puts them first in everything she does – I cannot ask for more than that. I don’t want this blog to suggest I feel any different in that respect. Anyway, carry on…
My wife and I separated 2 and half years ago, when our two children were still quite young. While I drove a lot of that decision, in the end it was mutual to separate and now to end the marriage.
The day I left will be tattooed on me for a long time, I won’t go in to the reasons here but suffice to say I just couldn’t stay. I moved out and drifted between hotels and my parents spare room for a while. This meant that, initially, the time I spent with the girls was at the marital home and that was hard. It was such a seismic shift to go from being physically living at home to then visiting your children there. I remember the first time I walked away after spending the day with them – they didn’t want me to go, the questions, the tight hugs, it was torture. I shut the front door and my legs gave way, I cried so hard I could barely walk back to my car let alone drive. That initial pain does subside, but it leaves a scar and while it’s not raw pain anymore it is a host of different emotions.
After my JOGLE Challenge (cycling from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 9 days, solo and unsupported) I wrote a list of 24 things I’d learnt about cycling from the short few months I’d been doing it. I did think about writing this blog in the same way but I ended up with a ridiculously short list. Why? Well the effect of separation and how I feel about it are is summed up by two emotions;
Firstly – Guilt – An emotion that filters through pretty much every day, even two and a half years on. Every time I drop the children back to their mum it nags at me. Guilt that I getting to go home and do whatever I want with this free time. Guilt that their mum still has to do two jobs for the rest of the week, but now on her own. Guilt that I didn’t try hard enough to make it work. Guilt that I put myself first and walked away.
Guilt is an emotion that reflects the past, driven by your conscience and a feeling of what is and isn’t right. Interestingly (note what I’m doing with these challenges) guilt often prompts reparatory actions to help alleviate the negative feelings that come with it.
Where I am today – it is just hard to adjust to knowing that I won’t be there for a lot of those big and small moments in my children’s lives, and that leads to a huge sense of fear.
Fear is the one that I’ve buried deep and the one that is spoken so rarely, because by being busy I can forget that I am scared. Scared that I can’t or won’t be the father that my children need. Scared that I won’t be there when they need me most or worse that they grow up and decide that they don’t need me at all. It is that last one that keeps me awake some nights.
I know, in my heart, that I made the right decision. I was not mentally present at home and I was hurting those people I loved the most. To get better and to be happy I had to leave. So while I feel guilty, I do feel like I can give my two girls more now – more quality time, more energy and more attention – the things I felt I wasn’t giving them before. The time we have now is super concentrated, it’s not always perfect but I try to make sure they always enjoy it and want to come back.
Turning my experience in to something positive
That said, I try every day to turn those feelings in to something positive and that is part of why I am doing all of this, to seek redemption for not meeting my own high standards but as a way to process and allay this guilt. Cycling on your own for 9 days gives you a lot of time for self-reflection, it was mentally straining but at the end I felt like I had worked through a lot of the guilt and pain.
Maybe you’ve felt the same way, maybe not maybe you’ve felt something entirely different – but talking about it and being honest about how you feel is hugely important to the way you cope.
My ex-wife and I put our children first in the separation, we spent a lot of time agreeing what was reasonable and fair for both of us as parents. We set clear expectations and we have by and large stuck to them. We haven’t involved lawyers or the courts, other than to process the formality of the divorce. Every situation is different, but I know from my experience that talking, being open and honest and ultimately remembering that the children’s needs have to come first, works.
You have to find healthy ways to cope with the way you feel – I know, from experience, that there are the ‘easy’ escapes like alcohol, drugs or simply shutting yourself away and it is important to avoid these. They won’t help in the long run. I knew that I didn’t want to go back, that I wanted to use the separation to create something good and to find my happy.
My challenges have become my coping mechanism, ok they are probably at the more extreme end of the scale granted but it all started with the simple act of running. Exercise is a powerful tool
it’s free, easy to take, has an immediate effect and you don’t need a GP to get some.
Being active, even doing these challenges on my own, has helped me manage my own mental health for the better. I also have to learn not to put so much pressure on myself, to give myself a break and to realise that while life with my children will be different it doesn’t have to be worse. I’m (slowly) realising that while I may miss moments, big and small, I can derive a huge amount of joy from hearing about them from the girls, from their perspective.
Life is hard and some days it’s just plain hurts, there are moments that will break you in to a million pieces. As a parent, it is my responsibility to pick up those pieces and do something positive with them. So that’s why I’ve shared this – so that maybe someone reading this will know that it is ok not to be ok, but that it can be ok.