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Basic Dad: What Do You Do When You Realize Too Late That You’re Not Cut Out to Be a Parent?

Advice from therapists, a family studies professor, and someone who was abandoned as a child

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

I’ve been a dad for nine years, and I keep waiting for things to get easier. I feel like I’ve really tried: I put my all into it, but I just don’t enjoy, well, any of it.

I have two girls who are both in school now, and I figured that maybe once that happened, some of the anxiety and pressure I feel 24/7 would let up. I’m past the stage that everyone says is the hard part: There are no more diapers to change, I don’t have to cut up their food, put them back to sleep at the night or watch them like a hawk every waking minute (y’know, mostly).

Regardless, I’m still waiting for the part where I feel like dad, the part where it gets to feel natural and normal and not just like an endless slog — the second job that’s taken over the rest of my life. And I’ll be honest, I’m fucking scared that this will never happen.

Are some people just not meant to be parents? Am I just not patient enough, or attentive enough? What am I missing that the bad outweighs the good by so, so much? I know this is a terrible thing to say, but sometimes — very often, in fact — I wonder if it would just be better if I left. I don’t know what else to do. I just know that this isn’t right for me.

Basically: What do I do if I’ve made a huge mistake?

The Expert Advice

Melanie Greenberg PhD, clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain: People can perhaps feel like they aren’t cut out to be a parent or they aren’t good enough for their child, but these feelings are likely a cop out. There are some exceptions, like severe mental health issues or perhaps an addiction that one can’t overcome, but aside from those rare cases, when you have a kid, my value system says that you take on a responsibility to care for them.

Carrying regret about being a parent at all is a harmful emotion to have around your children, but leaving because of it would be avoiding your responsibility. It would be much better to try to work on yourself. Some of that can be going to therapy either with your partner or by yourself. Maybe you can find that you can live with some of your needs not being met.

You may also have to adjust your expectations about your life so that they aren’t unrealistic. Perhaps, too, you can find a way for you and your spouse to communicate your needs to each other without getting into negative cycles. Remember that being a parent is a balance between meeting their needs and your own: Having children is hard, but if you can come to accept some of those hardships and be happy anyway, that would be a good outcome.

Ultimately though, it will be your value system that decides whether or not you stay. If you do decide to leave, you may feel a sense of relief from the responsibility, but that will likely be coupled with some guilt over your decision, grief for the loss of your family and probably fear that you’ll lose the love of your children.

If you ever decide to return to your children, try to understand the impact of what you did. You must be genuinely sorry for it, and you have to understand that it may take them time to forgive you. Just continue to reach out and show that you’ll be there when they’re ready and that you do understand. Most children can be very forgiving, and you may be able to repair some of that relationship.

In general, as an emotion, regret can be helpful when you can do something about the situation. It can be a signal that you’ve made a mistake and it can tell you to try to make up for that mistake. But if you can’t change things, it may just extend your suffering. That’s why, again, you should try to work on yourself. Perhaps you can learn to live with — or at least forgive — yourself for those regrets.

Veronica, who has dealt with a lot of abandonment: My father and mother fought a lot, and they were on two very different pages when they were together. She wanted a family, whereas he drank and liked to hang out with the guys and still acted as though he was single. The final straw came one day when my mother found me alone in the house at just three years old. I was soaked in tears after being beaten with a belt by my father. I’d been punished for setting a potholder on fire while trying to cook for myself because I was hungry.

I was then taken away from D.C. to upstate New York to live with my aunt and my grandmother, while my mom left to try to work on what was left of her marriage. After several years, it didn’t work out and my mother returned, but by then she was a stranger to me. It was then that my grandmother encouraged my mom to step up and be a mother to me. She would, but it was a long process.

As for my father, he came up to New York a couple of times to visit, and I’d talk to him on the phone semi-regularly. He’d call me beautiful and send me lavish gifts, but the calls faded with time. To my memory, I first “met” him when I was nine years old when I visited him with my mother. He took me around D.C., and it was nice. But he was married and raising someone else’s children at the time. I distinctly remember staying in the room of his stepdaughter, who had this pink, frilly room that made me feel like it should have been my room.

I’d see him about once a year after that, which continued until I was 17, when we had a falling out. I wouldn’t see him again until I was 28, and now our relationship is much like it was then. I see him about once a year, sometimes less, and while I feel he loves me, much of our relationship is very superficial.

I think being abandoned by a father left me very vulnerable. I didn’t know what a healthy relationship looked like, and it left me yearning for the attention of a man. It’s true that a daughter looks for someone with similar traits to their father. I’ve had a lot of loss throughout my life, and I found myself in the same situations over and over again. I also didn’t have a real understanding of what was right and wrong, as I didn’t have a father who shaped that for me.

It impacted my self-worth and made me wonder if I was worthy of love. I still have a hard time connecting with people, and I still struggle keeping relationships. It also gave me lifelong resentment of any male authority, which has gotten me into trouble more than a few times.

For a long time, after I stopped seeing my dad, I was angry with him, but strangely also didn’t feel like I missed him. You don’t really miss what you don’t know. Even now, at 42, I feel as though there’s a piece of me that’s missing, but I’ve also accepted that that part will likely stay missing because a part of me doesn’t want to get any closer to him, because I don’t want to get hurt again.

Theresa Russo PhD, professor in human development and family studies: Sometimes people can get caught up in the “image” of what it is to be a dad. It’s understandable that they might think that this is hard to live up to, but when people become parents, they have a responsibility to be a parent.

Research shows that some two-parent relationships can be so problematic that they aren’t doing the kids any favors by staying together, so it may be better to separate. But to leave a child and have no contact at all would have a profound emotional impact, causing them to feel abandoned; they’ll naturally ask the question of what’s wrong with them.

For the mother, suddenly becoming a single parent will likely cause a great deal of anger, so then they’re dealing with their own issues while also trying to deal with their child’s issues. Also, the child will likely pick up on the mother’s feelings and be resentful over what the father has done to her. This can become more complicated as a child gets older, because they’ll understand more and wonder where their father is and why he left. How well the other parent compensates will make a difference, but the father’s absence will have an impact that persists throughout someone’s life.

Even opting for a reduced role in your child’s life, while not ideal, is better than nothing. If a person doesn’t think they’re cut out to be a parent, they likely can pull it together enough for a weekly visit. They may even need to leave for a short while to get themselves together and get some help, but after that, they should be back. With a reduced presence, while it can be complicated, at least the child won’t have that complete sense of abandonment they’d feel from the parent leaving outright.

A huge part of making a scenario like that work, though, is how well the parents can work together. While there may be resentment, they have to put that aside for the sake of the child. Also, there will need to be regularity. Having a schedule that the child can predict and understand is incredibly important for the child’s ability to trust. The child has to be able to count on you when they need you.

Bernadette Kovach PhD, child psychologist and psychoanalyst: Children pick up on everything, and a child will certainly recognize if a father engages with them as a burden rather than as a pleasure. If a father doesn’t want to be a father, the child is going to be asking themselves, “What’s wrong with me?”

This is always the way it goes. Always.

This feeling will only be made worse by that parent leaving because now the father will have physically rejected them, too. Part of how well a child copes with abandonment will be their own resiliency, which is impossible to measure, but having a parent leave will likely skew their interactions throughout their lifetime.

While we all worry about rejection, a fear of rejection would likely be heightened for someone who has had a parent leave. Additionally, this history will likely interfere with that person’s ability to choose a partner who isn’t also rejecting toward them. All people have something called “repetition compulsions,” where we repeat the same cycle in hopes of a different outcome. What often happens to children from homes where a parent has left is that they’ll unconsciously put themselves into a relationship with the same kind of person as their parent. Oftentimes, it won’t be until after a breakup or divorce that they’ll see those parallels — if they do at all.