Checked Out Dad Syndrome: How and Why I’m Trying Hard to Avoid It

It’s Sunday, 6:00 AM, post-Hamilton midnight bedtime.  I’m tired.  I haven’t been spending much time with kids.  And they’re showing it.

Lot’s of mouthy, disrespectful, anxious-type behavior.

If I can manage to engage – connect in a way that’s meaningful for them, they’ll settle down, today at least.

I don’t want to.  Hanging out with kids is boring, and when I’m tired, boring is depressing.

But alas, I can at least cognitively assent to the fact that my kids’ mental and emotional health rests on whether or not they’re getting enough time with me.  And if I’m not at least functional in the way I engage them, they’ll unravel.  They get anxious, struggle at school, struggle with self control.

In short, they become “bad” kids.

So we punish them, which works until they become teenagers.  Then they pay us back with interest.

Men struggle with disengaging from their kids.  We’re there geographically, but not emotionally, not very often.  Do an internet search for “checked out dads” and you’ll get tons of stories.  Do the same with “moms” and you’ll get random articles about grocery shopping and things that moms should “check out.”

I have a friend who’s dad emotionally disappeared in her early teens.  Nobody’s sure what happened – maybe he felt like she didn’t want to spend time with him.  But it destroyed her, and has taken years for her to process and heal as an adult.

So many of my friends have the same story.

I worry that I’ll do the same.  Dadding isn’t going to get easier as they grow up.  I feel this constant urge to excuse myself, and I can imagine that it will get stronger.

At the least, when we struggle to engage our children, we send a very strong, very consistent message about their value as a person.  That would explain the anger, anxiety, and lack of self control that they exhibit when they don’t get enough of us, and the difficulties they bring into adulthood if we’re consistently AWOL.

I can articulate all of this on a cognitive level, but living it out is another story.  Again, kid time is usually boring.  I’ve tried to get them interested in interesting things, but they’re all <11 – our only mutual interest is TV and ice cream.  Engaging them is challenging.

I’m also typically running on limited emotional energy.  Turns out that in your early 50’s, you get tired easily.  If I’m not careful to get my rest, it’s super tricky to pay attention to my kids.  Parenting’s hard – how the hell am I supposed to get through my day without coffee in the morning and booze at night, which wrecks my sleep, which requires more chemicals during the day, etc., etc.

And kids don’t walk up to you and say things like, “daddy, your inattention is causing some negative feelings about myself, that’s why I’ve been so hard to deal with lately.”  Or, “daddy, I miss you, can we please spend some time (that’s meaningful to me) today?”

If they could do that, I think we’d realize how needed we are, and check in more.

While this is an area where I’d give myself a C+, I have learned a bit more about how to tell when my kids are struggling, and they each struggle differently.

My oldest will walk up and hit me, or pester me, especially when I’m working on something.  Our middle kid will get super defiant and hard to deal with.  Our youngest is still a mystery.

I’ve also learned to connect on their schedule, not mine.  For awhile I’d get really frustrated if I went out of my way to spend time with them, only to get rejected.  “OK, then, F-you too” my soul would whisper.

But I’ve learned that my oldest, for example, comes alive at night.  If I go into her room after the other two terrorists are in bed, lay next to her, snuggle and talk, she’ll do most of the work.  It’s WAY easier than planning a date, or trying to come up with something to do that doesn’t bore me out of my mind.

If any of my kids randomly walk up to me and start talking, I do my best to drop what I’m doing and engage.

But I can’t say that I always succeed.

We’ve had some bad behavior lately, and some signs of anxiety, so this AM, MY Sunday off, I’m going to spend an hour with each one of them and let the other two watch TV until it’s their turn.  That’s maybe too much TV, but it’ll be a great morning for them.

We’ll do a cat video or two, maybe a game on the iPhone, but for the rest of our time together we’ll talk, relate, connect.  I’ll do the hard work of asking them questions, maybe tell them some stories, we’ll see how it goes.  I’ll be ramped up on coffee the entire time, and completely blown up when we’re done.

Later in the day I’ll do some yard work, or take a bit of time to myself.  I’ll have earned it, and, honestly, feel a little less guilty about how I’m doing as a dad.

But the biggest payoff for me is, the more time I spend with my kids, the more I like them, the more I like spending time with them.

As I sit in the early Sunday AM hours – the calm before the wake-up-break-up-1,000-fights storm – I can’t say that I’m looking forward to spending 3 hours straight with kids.  When I’m done however, I won’t only be thinking “that wasn’t so bad,”

I’ll be thinking about how much I enjoy connecting with my kids.

4 thoughts on “Checked Out Dad Syndrome: How and Why I’m Trying Hard to Avoid It

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