Carolyn Hax: Dad feels his life is ‘impossible’ with family and career


Dear Carolyn: My wife and I had our first child last year, and every day since, I have felt as if I’m drowning. I never wanted to be a workaholic like my dad, but my career — which I’m proud of and worked hard to achieve — simply requires 50 hours a week. At the end of the day I need several hours to myself to recharge, but that means I’m not seeing our baby and my wife is basically a single parent.

This riddles me with guilt: She has a full-time job, too. We’re hundreds of miles from our nearest family and never get a break. I do not see any possible way I can continue to be both a husband and father and a worker, but thinking of abandoning any of those roles (via divorce or a different job) leaves me filled with resentment and a sense of failure.

So I just white-knuckle it through every week, exhausted and snapping at my wife and generally hating my life.

Please help me figure out what to do. My wife thinks I’m suffering from anxiety and depression, but I don’t think so: I think we’ve created a life that is genuinely impossible for me, and it’s the circumstances that need to change, not me. So what should change?

— Dad Drowning Every Day

Dad Drowning Every Day: Your worldview. You are your circumstances. They’re not some oppressive outside force.

And with that mental change, you also change your priorities to fit how you see yourself in that world.

The priorities now making you miserable are: career; your idea of how a husband/father/worker is supposed to be; taking “several hours to myself to recharge”; not resisting the impulse to dump on your wife and ghost your child, because that upsets you less than admitting you can’t be everything you think you should be.

Speaking of misery — single-parenting while married, employed and getting snapped at is “genuinely impossible” for your wife, too.

So let’s promote that to top priority in your new world view: not being a jerk to anyone, least of all the family you chose to create.

It’s not as culturally sanctioned a role as “husband, father, breadwinner,” but it also doesn’t crush people, including those in it, under its weight.

Since a child who had no say in choosing this life stands to suffer the worst, that’s where you channel your best. Everything flows from that.

Tending to your mental health will help you achieve this top priority, so let’s put self-care in the No. 2 spot. It’ll take an update in your understanding of mental illness, though. You refer to “anxiety and depression” vs. “we’ve created a life that is genuinely impossible for me us” as if they’re separate things, but picture this cycle:

A struggle to meet impossible expectations; exhaustion; feelings of failure and self-doubt; impulses to lash out and shift blame; additional bad feelings; a deepening struggle to meet impossible expectations. Look like anyone you know?

The expectations, fatigue, and negative feelings and self-image work together. Overwhelmed people can grow resentful and anxious and depressed. And snappish.

Adjusting your workload and expectations to satisfy 1 and 2 is priority 3. What can you spare? Money? Rest time? Ambition? Either downsize strategically or lose it all — again, with your child paying the steepest price. Think of it that way and start choosing.

If it’s ambition, you look for a more forgiving career. Money, you hire caregiving help so you’re not dumping it all on your wife. Rest, you adopt streamlined decompression habits — for example, 30 minutes alone when you get home; present, engaged kid time till bedtime, then quiet time with your wife. Whichever you choose, it beats the clenched, unfilled-in blank you’re offering now.

And none of these concessions, none, is a “failure.” Each is a logical response to the reality you have, which always deviates from plans. “Wait, this is not what I signed up for!” is one of the least original thoughts ever thought.

Failure is to remain stuck in old ways as your life evolves. Failure is to reject half-measures because you want absolutes. Failure is to center your life on avoiding shame — especially when you come home, every day, to the option of nurturing love.

Abandoning the family you willingly helped create is an obvious moral calamity — but there’s a less obvious calamity of logic in considering divorce as a solution to the problem of overwork and under-parenting.

You say yourself you “never wanted to be a workaholic like my own dad,” but that’s not a plan, identity, set of values, world view. When life is manageable, you may not need these; you have the luxury of not dwelling on whats and whys. But when you’ve run aground and need to throw things overboard, you want a clear, trusted set of values to help you make tough decisions.

It’s a lot of emotional work. It’s harder to do when you’re exhausted, stressed and confused (which is where therapy comes in). But it’s the way to assume responsible leadership of your one precious life.

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