When you put a load on a piece of metal you stress it. That’ s what the engineers call it. Stress. There’s actually a profession that deals only with understanding how much of a load any material can take. They’re called stress engineers.
And these folks know everything about what happens when you exert a lot of pressure on a lot of different materials.
I like to remember that when I feel stressed–there’s something unnatural about feeling like I’m about to break any minute, like I can’t take the pressure.
It’s my human nature crying out for some release from inhuman demands. It’s my body’s–and my spirit’s–response to an all too heavy load that I’m not made to support.
And becoming a father is stressful in many ways.
Knowing the early signs of stress and how to lessen our load, is hugely helpful to our children, not least in their early years. They’re constantly scanning their environment to know if it’s safe or not.
When we’re stressed, it tells our children there’s something to fear. Our stress quickly becomes theirs, and it affects how our children develop.
Our stress will affect our child’s behavior, which is always an appropriate response to his or her environment.
‘When things go wrong, don’t ask what’s wrong with the kid. Let’s look at the environment. Let’s look at what’s going on in the family, let’s look at what’s going on in the culture, let’s look at what’s going on in the community. And particularly, what’s going on in the child’s immediate relationships with the one that he or she is closest to. Which means to say we have to look at ourselves.’ –Gabor Maté
When you’re stressed, your child’s small body senses that there’s some unknown reason for her, too, to be on high alert. Her most trusted adult is wound up tight with apprehension.
The better you get at understanding your body’s response to overload–and how to lighten your load–the easier it will be for you to ease the pressures on your child as well.
That’s why one of the greatest gifts you can give your child is to deepen your understanding of your limits, and honor your true nature.
You can learn to recognize the signs of stress.
The word ‘stress’ goes all the way back to the 14th century, and is partly rooted in the word ‘distress’. When the life we lead is not the life we’re meant to lead, we become anxious, worried and immeasurably sad.
It is also related to the latin word for something that is tight, drawn together, compressed.
These are really hard feelings to be with, and most of us will do anything we can to get away from them. They’re just too uncomfortable, and we either numb out or lash out. Maybe you recognize some of these behaviors when you’re stressed:
- You can’t stop eating sweets or starch
- You’re not sleeping well
- You’re constantly checking your Iphone, Ipad or Facebook page
- Your back aches, your head hurts, your neck is sore
- You’re irritated, angry, frustrated a lot
- You have trouble concentrating and remembering
If some of these signs are familiar, chances are your body is responding to a perceived threat, something that drives you to flee, fight or freeze.
Your body releases a flood of stress hormones and you’re on high alert. Your heart pounds faster, your muscles tighten, your blood pressure rises and your breath quickens.
You’re all set to escape.
Being a father is full of stressfull pressures.
If we’ve never known stress before, we’ll most likely get a taste of it when we become fathers. It’s like we enter a new dimension where time is a rare commodity. Burnout consultants and stress managers (yes, those are sadly professions) know this as time stress.
The late Irish poet John O’Donoghue would agree to some extent. Stress, he said, is a “perverted relationship with time. So that rather than being a subject of your own time, you have become its target and victim, and time has become routine. So at the end of the day, you probably haven’t had a true moment for yourself”.
This is not surprising if you’re in a two-parent family where you and your partner work full time. Financially, you’re better off. But in terms of time, it’s often a struggle to balance all your professional obligations with being a present father. And there’s hardly any time to turn inwards, to visit with yourself, and hear what is calling you.
There are many other reasons most men find fatherhood to be stressful. Your family budget may be tight, especially if you’re a single-earner family. Your child’s behavior may trigger emotional memories in you that you’d rather not face (more stress!). Your relationship with your spouse may be strained from lack of attention or understanding, and there’s a silent distance growing between the two of you. Or you’re physically and mentally depleted, but taking care of yourself is not your top priority.
Your stress troubles your child.
When there’s too much stress on our systems, we’re battling invisible forces. One one level we’re just late for work. On another level our whole existence is under threat.
It’s hard to stay present with our children when we’re fighting for our lives.
This is why stressed dads don’t pick up on the subtle cues of our children. We miss a lot of what they’re communicating, either in words, sounds or signs. We’re what Dr. Gabor Maté calls proximally separated. Physically close but emotionally far away.
Despite the best of our intentions, we inevitably transfer our emotional stress to our kids. Not because we aren’t doing our best, not because the we aren’t dedicated or devoted, but because we’re stressed.
Children develop in immediate response to their surroundings; their physiologies and psyches are shaped by their social environments. For instance, children who grow up in stressful homes are more likely to have asthma.
A father who lives at a breathless pace is more likely to have a child who finds it hard to breathe.
Far from all levels of stress has this kind of impact. There are obviously gradations to how stressful the home environment is to a child. Stress specialists use the terms positive, tolerable and toxic stress.
Toxic stress is relentless and deeply damaging to our children’s health. This is caused by neglect, exposure to violence, physically or emotionally abusive relationships. It’s a recurring stress in the absence of adult support. It needs to stop, or the child will suffer for life.
Tolerable stress is manageable for our children if they receive loving attention and reassurance from a trusted adult. Maybe the child is injured, experiences the death of a loved one, or faces a calamity like a natural disaster. With the right support, this kind of stress is tolerable, if difficult. The child recovers.
Positive stress is to be expected in our children’s lives. A visit to the doctors. A conflict with a friend. Their hearts race for a while before coming back to baseline. Learning to handle positive stress is an essential part of our children’s healthy development.
A radical way to handle your stress
Knowing that our stress impacts our children one way or another can be hard to hear, especially if our lives are marked by stress. What makes it easier to bear is that at any moment we can take greater responsability for how we relate to stress and what we pass on to our children.
You may have heard that meditation helps. Or exercise. Or eating well. Or getting enough sleep. These are all valuable ways of calming, grounding or strengthening ourselves. But from my own experiences of stress, I’ve learned it’s really hard to meditate when my body tells me to run. It’s hard to will myself to sleep better when my body is under attack and needs to say awake. It’s hard to feed on lettuce and lentils when my body is ready to stampede across a savannah.
Stress isn’t merely a call for yet another coping strategy to help us get by. It’s a call for a radical new stance towards what are essentially inhuman pressures on us and our families.
In his wonderful book Fire in the Belly, Sam Keen takes a poetic, rather than stoic, stance for a wholehearted masculine and a new form of heroism. He speaks of a man who doesn’t try to endure overload by engaging in fortifying practices of self-improvement.
What he envisions is a man who recognizes stress as a sign that we find ourselves in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
‘Beware the once-born psychological cheerleaders, the purveyors of one-minute solutions, who assure you that all you need to do is change your diet, manage your time more efficiently, exercise more, learn to relax on the job, adjust your priorities, communiate better, learn to enjoy stress, or think positively and avoid ‘negative’ emotions. Because stress is not simply a disease; it is a symptom that you are living somebody else’s life, marching to a drumbeat that doesn’t syncopate with your personal body rhythms, playing a role you didn’t create, living a script written by an alien authority.’
When I burned out, a few years before becoming a father, it took me over a year to recover. It was a year that changed me to the core.
One of the things I learned is that our symptoms of stress can guide us towards our deeper needs and innate giftedness. Stress is a bundle of heart-sourced messages that hold a lot of wisdom for us, if we know how to listen. By kneeling down and leaning in, we learn to lovingly care for our own safety, and to accept our limitations and our profound need of others.
Soul-based stress relief.
‘There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.’ –Meister Eckhardt
Rather than managing our stress with short-term tactics, we can approach ourselves with a gentle intention of understanding what we’re able to hold with grace. This is a routine of deep listening, acceptance and joyful curiosity. Here are some gifts we might discover along the way.
Rediscovering your natural baseline.
We each have a natural rhythm at which we prefer to move, act, live. It’s different for each one of us. In the absence of overload, in a safe and peaceful environment, each of us settles in to an inborn beat. This is our baseline. Some of us are naturally ebullient. Others more prone to stillness. What is yours? Whatever it is, see to it that you can spend most of your days in baseline. Get really good at saying no to busy as a badge of self-worth. Say yes to swimming in a rollicking sea. Run barefoot through the autumnal woods. Dance naked to loud disco with your children. Or go for a solitary wander. Build relationship with the pace of your own heartbeat.
Celebrating your dependencies.
Isolation is tremendously stressful. We’re professionally mobile. We may have little or no connection to place. Our families are spread across the globe, or nuclear. We struggle to belong. You can change this, by intentionally weaving more people back into your life and cracking the shell of outmoded heroic isolation. Revel in your dependency. Create a micro-tribe of people you’re drawn to. Surround your children with adults who share your values. Take time to build relationships and a rich social ecology that supports you and your family. Reach out, share your feelings and welcome support. You will be a lot happier, and far less stressed.
Giving freely from your heart.
Mainstream culture teaches us to work or act to receive income, position, title, promotion, accolade of some form or another. If we don’t get, we don’t give. It’s a conditioning that for most of us goes back to our early school days, if not before. Our behavior is conditioned by rewards that often do not meet our deeper needs. The radical stance is to give without expecting anything in return. Give your love, your time, your finest pair of trousers. Give from your heart, give with gratitude, and graciously overflow onto those you love. Follow your excitement, and find your own way to free yourself from external motivations for your natural generosity. When you do, when you help others without expectations, when you devote time to care for your child, your life is richer, and you’ll recover a lot faster from stressful situations.
Let stress be your teacher and see it as helpful. Don’t simply cope with or manage your stress response so you can get back in the saddle again to reclaim your efficiency. Try instead to listen to your body and ask yourself what it’s telling you. Your body is your most amazing guide. Get curious and allow it to teach you. When you turn towards your discomfort rather than manage it, your strategies for evasion will become more apparent. You will understand what in your life is causing you to suffer, and you will see more clearly what needs to change. The next time you are stressed, find a tree to lean against (even if it’s on a busy street in a crowded city). Stay there one breath after another. Be with the unbearalbe discomfort and restlessness for as long as you can. One day your tension will yield to bird song, to the wind in the canopy, to the scent of warm soil. Instead of running away from the discomfort, you are now moving towards greater meaning in your life.
Stress is often our response as humans to conditions that are less than human.
We didn’t develop to be entrepreneurs in a capitalist environment. We didn’t develop to compete, profit and win over each other.
We developed to cooperate and be in wholehearted connection with ourselves, each other and nature. When we allow stress to guide us towards insight, we take another step towards our deepest needs and wants.
“Stress,” says Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “gives us access to our hearts”
And when we have greater access to our hearts, we’re more able to offer our children our wholehearted presence in a peaceful home where there’s an abundance of time for play and connection.
Here we learn to let go of “hurry up”, or “we don’t have time for that” or “we need to get going now”.
Instead we find ourselves saying “wow, look at that,” or “take your time honey” or “I’ll sit here with you until you’re done.”