Super Dad Syndrome
While there are many fathers that qualify as 'super-hero Dads', this is not what is meant by 'Super Dads'. Comparable to the phrase 'Super Moms' that came into common use a couple of decades ago, a Super Dad is a father who feels compelled, or is placed in the position (or both) to take on multiple roles in career, family, and community. Being a Super Dad is no less difficult or wearing as it is to be a Super Mom. There have been perhaps hundreds of articles about super Moms, there is very little written about the problems that Super Dads encounter.
A Super Dad essentially carries not only traditional male roles and tasks in a family, but also takes on roles and tasks that are traditional to mothers. This means more than changing the occasional diaper or grilling dogs on the grill, it means that the man is consistently and routinely doing house cleaning as well as maintenance, doing a majority of the cooking and purchasing of groceries, views child care as more than 'sitting with the kids', and likely takes care of family finances as well. All of this in addition to continuing to be responsible for all of the traditional male roles of being a breadwinner, sports coach for the kids, landscaper and gardener, house painter, and grease monkey for the car.
The sources that create Super Dads have their roots in the cultural and social changes that took place in the late 1950's to late 1960's. This decade coincides with the tail end of the 'baby boom' that followed the second World War. But the differences between early baby boom men and late baby boom men can be quite stark in where they find themselves in family relationship when they themselves start making a family of their own.
A central problem for these men is that they were likely raised with one set of family and gender relationship rules, and found themselves in a very foreign place once they became parents. Many of us born in the late 1950's can clearly recall living in family where the parent roles were quite traditional. We might call this kind of father role model the 'John Wayne' model; when gender roles were very clear cut and encroachment of roles between genders did not happen often enough to even notice. Those of us who found ourselves early teens during the time of the rise of 'women's liberation' political and cultural movements may not have had difficulty at that time in accepting the change in women's roles, but by the time we were married, discovered the gap in what we so powerfully learned as children and the reality of sensibility of the woman we married. When we became fathers for the first time, only then did it become clear that the rules and expectations of being a father and husband had changed drastically from what we had learned growing up.
Fathers were now not only expected to be in the delivery room for the birth, but also expected to consistently change diapers, feed, nurture, and entertain their child. Not that fathers did not want to do these things, many of us treasure those experiences (yes, even diapers). The issue is not the desire to share traditional female or mothering roles, or even carrying out those roles, it is in the fact that our earliest learning did not prepare us for it. The result is what I call a 'cognitive-emotional dissonance'. What I mean by this is that many Super Dads experience ongoing struggles to reconcile their early role modeling with the realities of current expectations. This results in decades of discontent, stress, frustration, and even anger, along with possible self identity confusions.
Just like the Super Mom who can become overloaded not just with the sheer number of tasks at hand, but also exhausted by the constant emotional toll of switching roles, Super Dads can and do begin to wear down. They may not realize that they have become a Super Dad and feel the damages until they have been carrying out the duties for some time, even decades. Common initial signs of burn out may include resentment over feeling pressed to be a Super Dad, anger over a lack of help from the children's mother, a developing reactivity between the Super Dad and his spouse, and even the development of health problems related to stress and fatigue.
One common effect of being a Super Dad (just like in super Moms), is that libido may dwindle, not only from exhaustion, but from emotional overload and resentment. Having met other Super Dads, a secret complaint is when we hear so much about Super Moms, as these articles and references infer that there are no dads in similar circumstances. Many Super Dads complain not just of fatigue, but of being quite lonely.
The causes of Super Dad development, in the largest sense, can be such situations as being a single father with primary care of the children, having a partner who suffers from a debilitating illness that limits their full and equal participation in life tasks, the established couple dynamic, or even simply having a lazy partner. While the first two causes on this list are self explanatory, the latter two may need a word of clarification. Inside couple dynamics, there can develop, over time, a relationship that becomes unbalanced towards one partner taking on a role of servitude to the other partner. The reasons for this may be complex and based in interpersonal reactivity, but often have to do with the perception of the serving partner that they need to maintain this role in order to keep their partner, or that if they do not stay in this role, 'nothing will get done'. It becomes an awful, trapped feeling.
As mentioned earlier, the 'Super' parent role is destructive and unhealthy over time. The keys to recovery include learning how to become responsive to life tasks and relationship instead of being reactive to them, as well as being disciplined in gaining balance in life. Achieving this may be difficult and benefit from seeking the help of a trained counselor. Self help includes taking time (HA!) to make a list of all of the current duties and taking a hard look at what is reasonable and what can be sacrificed or delegated rightfully to someone else. It may be that some required activities that cannot be parceled out to the children's other parent need to be taken care of by a paid helper. A second list would include those things that are unapologetically needed to maintain health and make life fulfilling and happy again. Taking a close look at the different kinds of intimacy in your life may reveal those areas that have been deprived for quite some time. And when intimacy is out of balance, people begin to feel very unhappy. Remember, doing things for yourself is legitimate. If your batteries wear down and wear out, your children may not have a dad, let alone a Super Dad.
Another key to gaining balance is to address the situation with your partner. If you need help, ask your partner to help, and be specific about what tasks you need help with. Broaching the subject of equity in life tasks and parenting is often easy to think about, but frightening to do. Here too, the help of a trained counselor may be needed, as such inequities often are symbolic of deeper issues in the couple relationship. This also may include reevaluating the position of children in the family. It is modern (meaning from the time we late baby boomers were kids) trend to place children at such a high position in family that they begin to overshadow the couple relationship as well as the individual parent. This trend has a high cost to child development, the couple relationship, and is a major contributor to the development of a Super Dad.
The values and roles we learned as children, alongside the gender role changes of the 1960's that many of us fully embraced, caused us to step into the role of Super Dad. The most balanced and valid way to be a father perhaps lies in between the two extremes, but cannot for long be sustained by doing it all.
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