When Fatherhood Is Hell

After a recent email, a reader wrote back:

“We’ve been having a very challenging time recently with our daughters – to the point where we have both acknowledged that if we had the ability to go back in time and change decisions we wouldn’t want to be parents. It’s a biggy I know, and we still love them dearly, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts in a future email on how to approach this situation.”

In other words, what do you do when the challenges of fatherhood become so crushing and so sustained that you feel your heart going dark to your children?

How do you shine the way for them when their own hellacious-ness has blown out your pilot light?

I’m no shrink. And I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to walk a mile in your shoes. But as a father of four children, here are some thoughts:

* You’re not some heartless bastard. Yes, it feels shitty to wish you’d never had kids. But don’t add the weight of guilt and self-reproach at that admission to an already difficult situation. You’ve got a job to do, and that workless shit will only get in the way.

* It’s temporary. Don’t be fooled into playing this out as some long slide into darkness. Life is rarely terminal and almost always cyclical. Nothing stays the same. Things will get better. Or worse. You will change, your daughters will change, life will shake shit up. Hold on, press in.

* It’s up to you. No one has more agency in this situation than you. You are the man, which means you are the first mover. Your daughters are responders. Fair or not, they look to you to act. YOU are the one most able to break the pattern, find the olive branch, create a new family reality.

* Don’t stop at duty. Every dad has seasons like this, where the only thing that keeps them going is obligation. But don’t let yourself stay there. Duty is the life-fuel of last resort. Double down on fire: look for ways to reboot yourself, to shock your systems into new joy.

* Do NOT leave them to their own devices. There is a lot of shitty parenting advice out there about leaving teenagers alone… that teenagers and parents are fated to estrangement and that’s “just the way it is.” Fuck that. Your daughters need you. They love you. They want you in their lives, even if they are unable to make that clear to you.

You must have the courage and faith to stick with the lunacy, the raging emotions, the shit storm of irrationality, the bloodying words, the vitriol.

You must hang in there, with the trust that all those years you’ve invested, all the love you’ve poured into them has not been lost or wasted… that their anger, withdrawal, cynicism, apathy, or whatever it is that drives your desperation is masking an invisible pleading for you to pursue them… for you to help take them out of themselves, to give them a reference point for their lives that is bigger and more hopeful and beautiful than the soupy, tyrannical, myopic world of their peers, and all the self-judgement that comes with it.

You have but a handful of years with your children.

If they are going off the rails…

If you feel your heart closing against them…

Pull out the fucking stops.

Buy three backpacks and do the Appalachian trail.

Take her to India.

Take them on that roller coaster tour.

Go to the death metal concert, buy her the T-shirt.

Whatever it takes to connect, to break through, to help her see herself in a different light.

You must find the strength to create and hold open a space of possibility for her own life when she can’t do it for herself.

It may get worse before it gets better. And there’s no guarantee it will get better at all, ever.

But if you show up, and if you love them with all the strength and imagination you can muster, then no matter what happens, you’ll know you did everything you could to love them through to the other side.


  1. Very well put Bryan,
    This is coming at a time when my 13yr old son is at that point and we have disconnect happening. This gives me that inspiration and focus on what truly is important. Thanks

Speak Your Mind