As part of our exploration of men's mental health for Men's Mental Health Week, Rob Linsdell, dad of two, kindly shares with Mindfulness for learning how anxiety has affected his approach to parenting, what he has put in place to manage it and how he has endeavoured to teach his children about mental health.
What was life like before becoming a father? What were your preconceptions of parenthood before becoming a dad?
I always thought I’d be a decent Dad because I was funny (my opinion) and I knew I’d work hard at it, but I was scared. I’ve always suffered from anxiety that that got worse in the years running up to becoming a Dad after a minor health scare in 2001. By 2006, when our daughter was born, I was already very conscious of whether I would pass on my anxieties to our child. Like most people, I also had no idea about just how difficult being a parent would be.
Would you say you were mentally healthy/mental health aware before becoming a father?
I was certainly very aware of my mental health, but I wouldn’t say I was mentally healthy. I was probably still coming to terms with the fact that I had a problem and learning about good and bad behaviours. I was certainly better than I had been a couple of years earlier, but my anxiety levels were generally high throughout the pregnancy.
Your first child is born - how was it? What were the immediate changes - physically and mentally? Challenges? Wins?
A lot of people talk about their first child being born as the best moment of their life, but I really couldn’t say that. The birth itself was traumatic for everyone and it took many weeks before the stress of that day fully subsided. Watching your partner giving birth is a unique situation – very hard to describe – particularly when you end up in theatre. From the moment we entered the hospital to the moment we left I was unable to shake the feeling that I would be leaving hospital without one or both of them.
In all honesty, we probably made a mistake in our first few weeks as parents. We locked ourselves away a bit and that didn’t help with our feeling that the walls were closing in. The first six weeks were pretty hideous, particularly for two people that like to be organised and ordered, and there was definitely a ‘what have we done?’ moment. Funnily enough, one of the turning points was when we sat down and had our ‘is it OK to say we don’t love her yet?’ conversation – that really helped relieve the stress.
What was your role at home with your newborn and how difficult was it to find it?
My wife has always been the primary carer. She is self-employed and able to manage her own work time (largely speaking) and that has been a huge boon for us as a family. I don’t know what it would have been like if we’d both been working full-time but I suspect she would still have emerged as primary carer as shared parental leave wasn’t really a thing at that point.
I felt my job was two-fold. Firstly to go and do a decent job at work to earn a living and secondly to be as much help at home as I could. I was never a part-time Dad though, and I always wanted to ensure that if my wife had to go away for a few days, I could manage the parenting perfectly well. I’m pretty sure that I’ve been able to do that on the whole over the years, although I do still get plenty ‘wrong’.
We always tried really hard to spot when the other was coming to the end of their tether and stepping in accordingly. Those little moments of heroism when you did an extra night shift or gave your partner a lie-in were actually a real boost.
How did becoming a father impact your mental health?
Long-term, there are definitely positives. Being a Dad makes me feel like I’ve achieved at least one thing in my life – made a positive mark on the world. Now I’ve reached my mid-life crisis years that sort of thing feels more important. And having other people’s well-being to worry about at least made me less self-obsessed about my own health.
That said, there’s no doubt that my anxiety has given me a rough ride since I became a parent. Perceiving every childhood illness or ailment as a sign that your child is dying can be very tiring.
How did you respond to any new needs you had?
I’d already had plenty of counselling and therapy before the kids were born, and I continued to have more after they came along. I definitely learned a few things, techniques that helped me better understand my responsibility for their well-being and other ways of thinking. I certainly have the tools to manage my anxiety better, I just don’t always use them!
What one thing have you learned since, that would have benefited your own wellbeing as a father in those early days?
Well the silver bullet is that we survived – and I’d love to go back and tell myself that. But that’s the classic mantra of the anxious – ‘tell me it will be OK and I will be fine’. Like a lot of people, having our second was easier than the first in that we knew what we were doing (sort of) but it also showed us what a fuss we’d made of just having one!
I think the headline is to try and find a way to believe everything will be OK, rather than the opposite. Obviously that’s very easy to say but I do think we could have taken a few more risks and broadened rather than narrowed our world. I think that would have helped us gain confidence quicker. The other thing I would say is that you need to allow yourself to be the parent(s) that you want to be. If that means bottle feeding before you’re supposed to, using a dummy, co-sleeping etc then so be it. Parenting is really hard, so why do we insist of climbing all the mountains at once – spread them out a bit.
Going back to work - how did you manage this? Were you able to be at home as much as you wanted? Were you able to find balance?
Being back at work was emotionally very hard. Part of me (a cowardly part I admit) was happy that I could walk out of the door and be away from the drama for a few hours but then I always felt very guilty when they were having a bad day back home. Some days I would get a constant stream of text messages telling me how awful everything was…
Our daughter is only fourteen, but it feels like a lot of time has passed in terms of co-parenting and shared parental leave. I have no doubt that if she had been born today, we would have come up with a much fairer parenting split. I’m not sure what that would have done to my anxiety, my relationship and my bond with my kids, but presumably something.
How is the world for a father now? What difficulties do you face? What has improved?
In many ways, things are much better than they were at the start. Both the kids (14 and 10) are more self-sufficient and we are now developing relationships with them as people rather than just with them as our children. There are challenges, of course, and we’re a long way from them not needing us on a daily basis but at least the problems now tend to be cerebral rather than physical!
My anxiety hasn’t changed a great deal if I’m honest. I still worry a great deal about their wellbeing and I exaggerate and catastrophise any illnesses although maybe the fact that they can explain how they are feeling helps a little.
In an ideal world - What will your children have learned from you with regards to looking after their own mental health?
Great question. There are a few mantras that we’ve tried to instil. First is to get them to talk about how they are feeling and help us to help them. This is an interesting challenge with one very open book and one very closed, but we keep trying. Another thing we say is that is something scares you then you must try it. Doesn’t always hold true of course but my wife and I have both shied away from things that frighten us and we know this isn’t always the best approach. ‘Face the fear and do it anyway’ is definitely something we try to share.
We’ve also introduced them both to meditation and yoga, hoping that they we learn the benefits of relaxation and we’ve passed on all our anxiety management tips (e.g. distraction, worry time etc.) to our eldest who is generally a pretty anxious child.
A massive thank you to Rob for being so open and sharing his experiences. Should you read this interview and feel you need support and advice you can take a look at the websites below where you can seek advice and support.