Author: Alison Johnson
About two nights a week, Harre Downey takes a break from life as a stay-at-home father to let off some steam playing volleyball, dodge ball, softball or flag football.
Participating in the Tidewater Sports & Social Club is calming for Downey, a lifelong sports lover and former high school football coach. Even if his 4-month-old daughter Lianna is on the sidelines in her stroller or with her mother, the Virginia Beach dad can release pent-up stress and hang out with teammates who have turned into friends.
"It definitely gives me more patience," Downey says. "It has been an adjustment for me to be at home with a baby. I need to be around adults sometimes and do something physical and fun." His philosophy: "The first part of being a good dad is being there for your child, and the second part is taking care of yourself. If you're not healthy, then what good are you to your child?"
Fathers need that kind of "me" time just as much as mothers do, parenting experts say. But many dads aren't so good at taking it, which can involve a variety of reasons: guilt over not spending all of their off time from work with their kids, worry about upsetting a spouse, a lack of connections with other fathers and lapsed friendships with pre-baby friends.
A lack of child-free time - or even time spent on an enjoyable hobby with kids along - is damaging for men, says Will Courtenay, Ph.D., the California-based author of numerous pieces on male health and well-being, including the 2011 book "Dying to Be Men".
"It's probably even more important for fathers to take breaks than it is for mothers," Courtenay says. "That's because, in general, men cope less effectively with stress than women do. Men are more likely to try to simply avoid it - by denying it, distracting themselves or drinking alcohol. They're also less likely than women to use healthy strategies to deal with it, like talking to friends and getting help."
Men tend to be quicker to anger than women, he adds, likely because they've learned it as a socially accepted emotion for even "macho" males. "Inappropriate expressions of anger are more likely to occur when we're under stress or not well-rested," he says.
In general, fathers also aren't as good as mothers at looking to other parents for support, says Chenequa Moulds, parent education coordinator for the Healthy Families Partnership in Hampton. They may see themselves as strong providers who shouldn't need help, but those who come to the agency for parenting classes quickly learn the value of leaning on each other.
"After three or four weeks, they've turned into a brotherhood," Moulds says. "They'll go out to dinner, meet up for basketball or just talk. I think it's a little challenging for men to come out and say they need those connections, but when they see others dealing with some of the same issues and concerns it's like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders."
Mothers can help fathers take care of themselves simply by encouraging them to do it, says Greg Bishop, founder of the nationwide Boot Camp for New Dads program. Many men are afraid their partner would disapprove of guy outings, when in fact moms and dads would both benefit if they helped create "me" time for each other, along with couples' and family time.
"If a woman says, 'I know it's important for you to get out,' or 'I want you to see your old friends,' that's just huge," Bishop says. "That is going to make a man feel very loved and supported, which is going to make him want to do more so his partner can feel the same way."
Today's fathers spend significantly more time with their kids than in past generations, mostly by choice, according to time use surveys from the Department of Labor. In fact, many dads are hesitant about missing any family time after a workweek (although work, while separate from kids, doesn't count as a mental health break). In that case, Bishop says, they should involve their kids in their favorite activities, from cruising down the aisles at Home Depot to hitting baseballs at a batting cage.
Bishop's four children were backpacking with him by age 3, and his horse-loving daughter went with him to the racetrack. "If I go alone to the track, I'm a bum, but if I'm with her I'm a dad," he jokes. In seriousness, such outings accomplish much at once: dads get to recharge their batteries, moms get a break and kids get lifelong memories. "My dad took me on bike rides every Sunday afternoon," Moulds says. "Small things like that make a world of difference to a child. It's priceless."
Some combination of fun with and without kids is ideal. James Salgado of Hampton, co-founder of the Southside-based Backyard Sports Club, a coed adult sports league, often brings his 6-year-old son, Ethan, to sand wiffle ball games Sundays on the beach; he likes teaching his son about being active and a good teammate. Then he goes solo to Thursday night wiffle ball games, followed by drinks with friends, while his parents watch Ethan.
"It's completely normal to want to be around people your own age and just kick back," Salgado says. "It's also a way to consistently see my friends on a weekly basis, which becomes hard after having kids." Not to mention the biggest perk of all: "Without question," he says. "This makes me a better father."
Source: Tidewater Parent Magazine