Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better
As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.
When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.
But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.
Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.
Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.
If enthusiasm for the playful plan in the sun was the prevailing sentiment during my childhood, during my adolescence I began to interpret my dad’s alternative plans as an absence that I have in mind even today. So much so that more than 25 years later I still remember, for example, that only once in my life did my dad go to see me play soccer, which for a long time was what I did and enjoyed the most.
I have a scene recorded of that one and only time. It was an 11-a-side tournament. Other parents were outside. I had to be a substitute.
In the second half, I joined the game and a few minutes later I got the chance I wanted: I went one-on-one with the goalkeeper. “I'm going to score a great goal and my old man is going to see me,” I thought, all in a microsecond, while I imagined the ball going in and celebrating proudly with my dad.
I put my foot under the ball to lift it over the goalkeeper but a big disappointment came: the goalkeeper caught the ball in his hands as if the one who had kicked had been a three-year-old child and not a teenager.
"Even though I know that it is necessary for my well-being, I find it hard to set aside time for myself that is not for... work"
The acceptable excuse of work
Now that I am a father, I imagine and project — according to what happens to me — what I think could have happened to my father in those years: not knowing what to do or finding it boring to play with children; wanting to be alone and in silence, needing his space? Being exhausted. All that together and more things I don't know, like being worried about the economy (hello, Argentina) with a large family.
I lost count of the times that, while my mom was having a hard time seeing the unpaid school fees piling up, my dad, who worked as an architect, said: “We are in a crisis. We have to get through these three months, then things will get better.”
The thing is that what at the time seemed to me a thorn, an absence or an injustice, at my 41 years of age is no longer like that. The fact that my dad stayed at home when we were leaving, seen with today's eyes — in the skin of a son who has been an orphan for a decade and who became a father four years ago — everything that I did not like, and that I did not know how to name, now seems to me an understandable choice and not at all reprehensible. Quite the contrary.
Enjoyment is something I think about often, basically, because I suffer from its lack.
But, then, I am now faced with another conflict, which is partly born of this whole situation. Even though I know that it is necessary for my well-being, I find it hard to set aside time for myself that is not for... work, that is, the same thing my dad used to say about staying at home or in the office until late. Work is still one of those infallible multipurpose arguments (excuses), both for myself and for the outside world.
It's quite rare that someone doesn't think it's right or logical for me to be absent because of work (whatever activity I may be missing). On the other hand, if I go out to a bar or on a trip just for fun, the response changes. There are jokes (cliché) that make me uncomfortable: “what a good life you have”, “you really know how to have a good time” — you get the idea.
Although perhaps I think I don't give it importance at the time, the joke — in its own way, a way to discipline socially — touches a delicate spot: the difficulty of enjoying and thinking I deserve leisure time, in constant friction with the sense of duty, that tyrannical and heavy baggage that holds a supreme authority.
A dream of my father
A few nights ago I dreamed of my dad — we were doing things that we didn't even come close to doing in real life. We were lying on the ground looking at the tops of some trees and some other plants with different colorful flowers. That's a Bougainvillea over there, I said, pointing to some red flowers, like the ones in my current house in Greece.
In the dream I spoke with the tone of a teacher, assuming that I knew more than one of my brothers, who was also next to me. My brother, not perceiving my air of superiority, pointed to the top of a tree and said, “That's a sweetgum tree.”
Of course I had no idea of the species — I don't know about trees — but I do remember what I felt: embarrassment, not because I didn't know, but because of my teaching tone and for having underestimated my brother, believing he didn’t know anything.
A few days later, my therapist told me: “Your brother was not your brother, your brother was you. In other words, it’s you who underestimates yourself, believing that you are never enough.”
I kept thinking how right my psychologist’s observation was — she has known me for more than a decade. Why is nothing ever enough? I still don't know. But, as Sergio, a reader of this newsletter, told me, referring to a previous newsletter: “This idea of freeing oneself from the dictatorship of insufficiency is very powerful.”
"My brother, not perceiving my air of superiority, pointed to the top of a tree and said, 'That's a sweetgum tree.'"
Denial as defense
Going back to the appearance of my dad, who does not visit me very frequently in my dreams, but more so than my mom, it seems quite obvious to me that it was related to the fact that the day before the dream a friend's father had passed away and I had not managed to call him or write a message.
I could excuse myself (lie to myself), arguing that the daily demands with two small children are high. But I do think that the unconscious is an oiled machine that never takes a day off.
Denial may operate a priori as a defense mechanism (looking the other way), but in the background the water keeps running. It is quite likely that I couldn’t message my friend about his father's death because I needed to escape (in a way, it was also writing to myself).
That night, the dream had more phases. In addition to what I can remember, there are the notes I took when I woke up, and also after doing therapy: “It’s as if Dad had appeared to tell me things,” I wrote down, and then described the images I had seen with my eyes closed in the darkness of the night:
We were in a house that was not ours (in reality) but in the dream it was our house (that's how it happens in dreams, right?). The house had a sort of balcony on the first floor, at street level. The private space was delimited from the public space by planters on the sidewalk. “In the end we never enjoy the balcony,” my dad said.
“That's true,” I said.
“We don't enjoy anything,” he emphasized.
Then, I wanted to tell him that that was also true, that we don't enjoy anything, that we don't know what enjoyment is. But I couldn't find the words, I felt a lump in my throat. Next to me, my brother was looking the other way: he wasn't interested in that chat, he didn't agree, and he wasn't listening to my dad. On the other hand, I was getting more and more upset, I was choking with the words I couldn’t utter.
Being productive vs. enjoyment
Enjoyment is something I think about often, basically, because I suffer from its lack. I question not knowing or not being able to enjoy almost anything (or as much as I would like to). Many times when I do something my head is simultaneously attending to another concern or, worse, it is identifying something that is missing. What a horrendous habit, please.
If I am told that the Spanish omelet came out great (humbly, I am an omelet specialist), instead of replying "thank you" and smiling (that would be enjoying a compliment, wouldn't it?) I add that it lacked a gram of salt or that it was 10 seconds overcooked.
“The best is the enemy of the good,” Voltaire is said to have said (I liked the concept of the Nirvana Fallacy). “The perfect is the enemy of the possible,” say others. Anyway, it would be good for me to make friends with these aphorisms, which sound nice but are not easy to apply.
Work, the house, my partner, fatherhood, time with my children, going for a walk... Almost everything I do seems to obey so much to the idea of duty that the possibility of enjoyment is relegated, drowned in a corner. At times, if they do not have a “productive” objective, my actions – scrutinized to the point of exhaustion — become deflated and lose meaning.
I worry that I'm passing on the virus that it’s never enough.
Enjoyment as the only argument, in general, does not seem enough. So, I fall into unusual questions: why am I going out cycling if I am not preparing for a triathlon? Why am I going to the gym or doing pilates if I could be working or spending more time with my children? Why am I going to do nothing with everything I have pending?
All the questions, in the end, are the same question: Why should I do something for myself that, in one way or another, is not productive? Why am I going to do something that is not taking care of the children, my partner, the family, the house or... working (more).
This permanent procrastination, where does it lead me? At times, to a disconnection with myself: who am I beyond the should bes and the mandates? Do I have a mission or is life a concert of disconformity and dissatisfaction? Beyond what is due, beyond all that I am supposed to do, where am I and my interests? To whom do I owe what?
"I think also of Lorenzo, my son, when he gets in the car to go home and asks: 'Now where are we going?'"
What's wrong with comfort?
At this point, having heard enough, my therapist asked: “What are you defending yourself against?” Without thinking, I answered: “From myself, from my infinite self-demand.”
“Since I've known you, Nacho, you’ve always thought you can be much better: much more punctual, perform better, perform more, do more and better... It's an endless criticism... With one hand on your heart, Nacho, do you really think you can be better?”
“Yes, I can potentially be better. But reality shows me that I can't or that I'm not able to. If not, I would do it, wouldn't I? I mean, I do what I can, I guess.”
I know: my answer was pretty banal. But that doesn't make it less truthful. If before seeing my therapist I had read this article by Argentine psychoanalyst Alexandra Kohan, I would have told her: “I can't always want what I want, nor do I want everything I can. Wanting what I do, is that the challenge?”
In her text, Kohan questions axioms such as the one that preaches that “you have to get out of your comfort zone”. She says: “There is also a denial of comfort that is questionable: why wouldn't we want to start living, with all the difficulty that living implies, a little more comfortably?”
Kohan continues: “There is a kind of epic of sacrifice and a moralism of having a hard time; in the face of the minimum comfort that someone can find in everyday life, which is already quite uncomfortable, there is a stigmatization of those small oases that someone may have found at least to rest a little.”
The journey has to be fun too
Then, I ask myself: what else was that dream telling me? It had begun pleasantly, with my dad lying on the ground — now I see leaves all around, in an autumn lawn — and looking up at the sky, identifying flowers and naming tree tops? What was my unconscious processing (that I am unable to do in the light of day)? What unfulfilled desire is there?
I think also of Lorenzo, my son, when — after a day full of friends and packed with activities — he gets in the car to go home and asks: “Now where are we going?” And then he complains, “Why are we going home? We didn't do anything today, why don't we ever do anything?” I know he's almost four years old and always wants more, but I worry that I'm passing on the virus that it’s never enough.
But the issue isn’t him, the issue is what's wrong with me. As someone I like to listen to told me: “Try to enjoy things more. Not everything is so heavy. There’s more than one way to do things and those things take time too. The journey has to be fun too.”
*Ignacio Pereyra is an Argentine journalist and author of Recalculating, a newsletter on masculinity and fatherhood.