What It Feels Like To Know You Are Failing At Fatherhood, Even When You’re Not
What does a dad do when he has no parenting role model from childhood and the self-doubt that comes with it?
How do you set a great example as a father when you didn’t have one yourself? I know I’m not the first dad to struggle with that question, but sometimes I feel like I’m in a class of my own with how much I let the fear of not being enough dominate my thoughts.
I know that to strangers, on the outside – when I’m at the playground with my kids, or even simply doing pickup at school – I probably look like a fun, attentive, confident dad. I’m quick to get silly when it’s time to play pretend, or get dirty and sweaty when it’s time to rough house or play “Daddy’s the monster and he has to catch us” (you know, that game where you’re supposed to slowly chase after them like you’re a zombie or a T-Rex). But while that is going on, my dad-brain is like that quote about a duck being calm above the water, and paddling like hell underneath. The outer image I present (or, at least I think I present) is calm and comfortable as a dad. Underneath the water, inside my head, my brain is “paddling” like hell, overthinking everything I do and screaming at me, “You are not good enough and you will never be good enough.”
I had two dads come in, and then go out of my life for good by the time I was 13. The first one, my biological father, left before I was born, so there wasn’t much time for him to set a positive example. And although the second stayed around long enough to potentially leave a positive, loving impression, the only thing he impressed upon me were his hands (and sometimes his fists). I know I’m a much better dad than both of them are/were, but the fact that that’s where I come from casts a shadow of doubt and anxiety over me every day. I literally could win Dad of the Year (that’s a real award, right?) and still question whether I’m completely failing my kids with everything I say or do.
Imposter syndrome. It’s loosely defined as doubting yourself, your abilities, and overall leaves you feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects higher- achieving people, although there are the lucky ones – like me – who suffer from it without all of that other “high achievement” nonsense. Throughout my life, no matter what “space” I’ve occupied, whether it was school classrooms, workplace settings, or even family gatherings, I’ve had a unique form of imposter syndrome where I felt like I didn’t belong or I wasn’t good enough.
Imposter Syndrome has shown up in many different areas throughout my life, with my fatherhood journey being one of the biggest. It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, No One Here Is Like Me. The book is a collection of essays about race, family, and fatherhood; the feeling that no one can relate to you, and you’ve been left to figure life out all on your own. That’s what being a father feels like for me a lot of the time – like I’m completely on my own – and with the stakes being as high as they are, that is terrifying. I’m always waiting for someone to see me, to call out the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing and that all the parental decisions I make are wrong. I think one of the reasons imposter syndrome has hit me so hard as a father is because of how desperate I am to be a better father than the ones I had growing up. Every generation is doing it differently from the last and when you’re coming into the game with an absent father, an abusive father, you stand out, you feel like everyone has a playbook but you.
For a long time I was a contributor for Fatherly (and its sister/brother company The Dad). Working for those companies allowed me to hear stories from dads all over the world sharing their individual journeys, their ups and downs, and it helped remind me that I’m not alone. In No One Here Is Like Me I talk more in detail about imposter syndrome because I wasn’t hearing or seeing a lot of other people talking about it. And although I know I’m unique in a lot of ways (hence the title of my book), I know there are many other people out there, parents especially, dealing with imposter syndrome. I want them to know that they’re not alone either, and there are ways to deal with it. For the record, I don’t provide any real actionable ways to deal with it in the book. I’m more of a “get-the-conversation-started” kind of guy. But people can find plenty of expert advice in some of the other articles here on Fatherly.
You can get Rob King’s book No One Here Is Like Me now at Scribd.com. In it, King relays formative moments in his life when being both Black and white made him feel like he didnʼt belong (“If the ʻBlack cardʼ was a real thing, mine would only work at certain stores”), and how these experiences inform his outlook on parenting.