“4 Ways Depression Drove Me to Be a Better Dad” originally appeared on The Good Men Project, and was reprinted with permission.
As I have talked about before, I have struggled with depression and anxiety almost my entire life. In my early days, the wild mood swings of my mother were something I couldn’t understand. How she could be a loving and caring maternal figure one moment, and what I saw as a raging maniac the next. Today, of course, I understand what was going on, but that didn’t make the damage done then any less painful in my memory banks.
None of these facts are an indictment on my mother, nor does it give her a free pass. What those experiences did do was help me see in myself when I was emulating her with my own children. It didn’t always cause me to stop, but it did push me to make amends when I messed up. Have I done and said things that may have scarred my children, things that will be in their memory banks for a lifetime? Unfortunately, that answer is yes, but each mistake pushed me closer to getting treatment for my disease.
Growing up, my father wasn’t around, in fact, I didn’t meet him until after my children were born. That in itself is a whole different conversation. What I have learned and found out about him through those who knew him was that most likely he struggled with the same demons I do. The thoughts that I could have genetically passed this curse on to my kids is something I fully recognize.
Not having a steady father figure in my life made me make a lot of decisions on my own at early ages. One of those decisions is that I would always be there for my kids. That is something that I will never waiver on, and it’s something that they will need even when they are adults with children of their own.
While I view depression as an absolute curse and wouldn’t wish it on anyone, there are times that my understanding of it helped me. Times when it helped me be a better father. That very statement seems foreign and even stupid for me to say, but it is true. I think my mother’s lack of admission or understanding that there was a problem with her absolutely made my childhood more difficult. Being equipped with this knowledge and internal memories have helped me make the life of my children a little better.
1. I know when I should walk away.
When I was a kid and made a mistake, the retribution was not only vicious but also immediate and usually lengthy. My mother could scream for long blocks of time; she didn’t grow tired of throwing things, and she had zero self-control when it came to more severe punishment. I was never abused in the traditional sense, but let’s just say I remember every one of her punishments vividly.
When I recognize those traits coming out in me, there is a knowledge of where the lack of control is coming from and how far it could go. Luckily I have developed an internal switch that says basically, “Walk away!” It doesn’t always work to perfection, but knowing that my own depression could be causing a situation to be blown out of proportion helps me step back and reexamine many issues.
2. I realize when I have gone too far.
As kids, my brothers and I didn’t get apologies for overreactions. In fact, what we got most likely was a lengthy silent treatment and continued guilt trips.
When stress and anxiety make me much more stern with my children than is required for a minor situation, I almost immediately realize it. I have, more times than I like to admit, found myself apologizing to my children. Fortunately with each event, I learn more about myself and my limits. As time and treatment progresses, I find those times fewer and fewer.
3. I’m able to see signs of depression in my own kids.
I am not sure about anyone else, but for me — especially since starting treatment for my depression, I can see signs of it in others much easier. It makes me not always jump out of my skin when I get a less-than-appropriate reaction from my kids. I also see when they need to have their own quiet time, or when I need to probe more into what is eating at them. So many times my ability to know what is going on with them before they tell me has helped me handle a situation as a parent much easier.
4. I realize when my kids are on the verge of losing it.
We are a family that loves practical jokes, and endless aggravation of each other. I also know there are times when I am not in a mental state to handle such things. So when I see one of my kids on the verge of losing it over something similar, I have the ability to put the brakes on the festivities before we wind up with tears and hurt feelings.
In no way am I perfect in any of these areas, and I don’t claim that I act appropriately with each and every episode. What I do know is that every opportunity that I miss, I tell myself to be more vigilant next time. That is the only way I can ever help them end the cycle that most likely started generations ago in my family.
Fatherhood is a challenging endeavor no matter what our situations are. When you add mental illness of any kind to the mix, you only ask for more trouble. I can only say that if you are struggling with your kids, it doesn’t always have to be upsetting or adversarial. You can start today rebuilding your relationships; it isn’t too late.
There is no greater importance in the life of a father than raising his children to be better a parent than he was.