Four years ago, I was diagnosed with depression. It was scary. I had no safe place, no castle to retreat to and regroup. That’s the thing with depression. It consumes every part of your life, sucking the joy out of everything. Six months after that diagnosis, my marriage ended.
Today, my choices are driven by one question: what is best for my son (eleven) and daughter (nine). Regardless of what happens between me and my ex-wife, my kids deserve to have a mother and a father investing in them, teaching them, supporting them, and being there for them when things go pear-shaped.
One of the choices I’ve made is not to shy away from telling my kids about my depression. As I deal with my ghosts and work toward healing, I am open and honest with my kids about my journey. I want them to know that when they face grief, anxiety, or disappointment, they don’t have to hide it. The apostle Paul told us that love in action includes rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15). But for this to happen, we have to tell each other what we’re going through.
In our society, men especially are expected to be strong and unemotional. But this cuts us off from relationships and healing. It causes us to hold things in and lash out at others, verbally and physically. It’s especially important for me, as a father and a Christian, to flip the script. I want my kids to know that Jesus freed us from patriarchal norms. He cried, he depended on women’s charity, he invited women to step out of traditional roles, and he was stripped naked and humiliated publicly on the cross. He called on those with power to surrender it for the sake of others. My son, especially, needs to know that there is a better way to be a man than what he sees at school and in the media. So I model openness and honesty.
I share when I’m not doing well. I ask for hugs, and I tell them why. Often I’ll simply say, “Can I have a hug? I’m feeling really sad at the moment.” I also apologize to both my son and daughter when I mess up. Maybe I growl too much, maybe I get too firm, maybe it’s as simple as not listening properly and making assumptions or interrupting them when they are talking. So I apologize. I say sorry and I ask for their forgiveness. I even apologize when the frustrations of dealing with their mom overwhelm me and I criticize her in front of them.
I check in with them. How are things for them? Is there anything that is worrying them? Anything they feel unsafe about? Concerned about? How are they doing emotionally? I want to create an atmosphere where they feel safe talking to me about anything, especially as my son approaches his teenage years.
Finally, I tell them that I love them. A lot. On the phone. In the car. Dropping them off to school. While I make dinner. Even after growling at them. For me, that is key. It’s so important for kids to know they are loved by their dads. And I don’t just say it. I show it. I blow kisses at them. I wink at them. I hug them.
This year, I’ve begun to see the first fruits of all that hard work.
At the beginning of the year, my ex-wife told me that she had an irreversible, degenerative condition. The kids have been in her primary care since the separation, but I will likely have to eventually be their primary caregiver. For my son, I had to step into that role sooner than either of us expected.
He struggled with what was happening to his mom. Her condition was visibly upsetting for him and he was not coping at all. He would get angry easily, yell, hit, and throw things and break other things. A couple of times, my ex-wife called and asked me to take him away for a few hours because she and my daughter were feeling unsafe. It was scary.
We took him to counseling and learned that he was holding a lot of anger in—with a considerable amount targeted at me. It hurt to see my son so consumed with anger and fear.
With the counselor’s help, we decided that my son would come into my primary care. I’ve sought to be consistently real and vulnerable with him and show him how that vulnerability positively impacts my life.
The change in my son’s life has been dramatic. People have commented on how much happier he is, and how relaxed he seems to be. He laughs more. We have more fun together and he shares more with me.
At our final session with the counselor, my son said that a previous incident that had been a flashpoint for his anger towards me was no longer that. He said his relationship with me is better. I almost burst into tears of joy and relief.
I won’t say it’s been a bed of roses since. He’s struggled with being bullied at school. He tried to hide it from me for a while, but he learned quickly that I had his back. He still has tantrums and I am firm about dealing with those, but we always reconnect, talk about what happened and how he could handle it better, and finish with hugs.
I don’t profess to have all the answers. But my journey toward openness and vulnerability has taught me and my children some lessons. Lessons that can be imparted to the next generation and which may benefit other families and individuals.
I urge parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, teachers, coaches, youth workers, pastors etc. who work with kids, and particularly boys, to encourage emotional expression and vulnerability by practicing these six principles:
1. Be real with your sons. If you’re struggling with something, be honest and up front with your boys. If they see you being vulnerable and in touch with your emotions, it normalizes it and lets them see that sharing how you are feeling is good and healthy.
2. Have the courage to say “sorry” to your kids when you mess up. It could be a small thing (that promise to grab an ice cream on the way home) or it could be big (being grumpy with your kids). It not only shows that everyone can and does make mistakes, but it shows them that making amends is important. It also lets you off the guilt hook of being the “perfect parent.”
3. Check in with your boys. Ask them open-ended questions about what they’re feeling. But also make it safe for them to say “no, mom/dad, I don’t want to talk about it.” Knowing that you aren’t going to try to interrogate them will build trust and will show your boys that you are a safe person to open up to.
4. Tell your sons you love them, and show it too. Hugs and kisses are good. Winks across the room are nice non-verbal connections to let them know you’re there for them.
5. Allow them to ask you hard questions. It’s not being truly vulnerable if the questions are only one way.
6. As you raise your sons (and daughters) in the faith, remind them that their role model is Jesus. They don’t have to be what the world around them expects.
Using these six rules, I’ve sought to show my son the importance of embracing vulnerability and emotion. I hope that he will grow up to become an emotionally healthy man who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable or to say that he’s hurting. I pray that in being transparent about my own struggle with depression, my son will know first-hand that boys do, in fact, cry.