My fellow dads, I bring glad tidings — we have something new to worry about. It wasn’t enough that we lie awake at night worrying about money, health, that weird clicking noise in the car, or whether or not we locked the back door, now we have yet another issue to load into our fragile minds. Just think of it as being like a psychological game of Buckaroo — dangle yet another anxiety delicately upon your mind and hope that it doesn’t just snap under the weight of it all.
Our good friends at the Economic and Social Research Institute have put forth some research that suggests children who have a good relationship with their father are happier in life. I’m simplifying the findings. There is more to it than that, so don’t just go ‘well duhhhh, anyone who has watched Star Wars could tell you that’.
The ESRI report used data from their Growing Up In Ireland survey showing that children who have a good relationship with their father are happier, feel less anxious and are more engaged in physical activity. Upon reading this, I briefly looked up from my phone to stare dolefully at my three sons, thrown on the couch, shouting at each other about who ate all the Pringles.
Of course there is the fourth child, but as she is 18 now I consider her to be done and dusted in the parenting stakes. She’s out of warranty, frankly — the other three human sloths are the ones I now have to worry about.
One of them does football, the other two are what I would call eSports enthusiasts, which is a nice way of saying couch potatoes. So, based on that point alone, it would appear that I am failing 60pc of the time.
Then there is their anxiety. Obviously, a certain amount of anxiety is a good thing — it’s what stops us from doing completely stupid things like running across dual carriageways or waiting until November to try and source a PS5 for Christmas. But I am blessed with such a vast ocean of worry that I spend most of my time in a jittery stasis, like when the rabbits go tharn in Watership Down; eyes wide, heart rattling away at 300bpm, cowering in terror, covered in soft downy fur.
I’d suggest that the boffins got it all wrong and that perhaps my children would be less anxious if they didn’t spend so much time around a guy who approaches simple tasks like making phone calls with the anxiety levels normally reserved for serious medical procedures.
All three boys are anxious about one thing or another; one has a fear of the sea (he once got knocked by a rogue wave while under my care), another has a fear of woods (I repeatedly threatened to leave him in the woods if he didn’t keep up with us during one formative walk), and the eldest has just evolved to inherit my social anxiety, which isn’t ideal for someone heading into the already choppy waters of the teenage years. Their high anxiety levels are really down to me. I am anxious, so they are anxious, and not because I am off down the pub every night. I am at home almost all of the time — the only other places I frequent are work and the supermarket. Neither am I much of an outdoorsy dad, whittling in my woodshed or crafting a new flower bed. Usually, I am at the computer, or, if they beg enough, I am thrown on the couch with the boys, shouting at them about who ate all the Pringles (it was me, always me). And yet even when flopped there, I am still somewhere else; scrolling through Twitter or checking emails or anxiously reading headlines in search of something else to be anxious about. The Covid! The climate! The ESRI spying on me!
The ESRI report forces you to ask that eternal question — are my kids happy? What does happiness even look like? Will it ever feel like I am actually doing an okay job as a parent? How do we measure success as a parent? Is it something that can only be done when they are adults, or when they have kids of their own? Maybe this is how it’s meant to be. Maybe you are meant to always doubt yourself, and thus to always strive to be better, or more present. Or maybe the key to being a good parent is to simply spend less time fretting about parenting and more time knowing we are doing our best, or close enough, and that’s all we can do.