Arran on managing the stress of fatherhood

8 min

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It’s a big responsibility to have the health and happiness of one or more little people in your hands, and it can cause a significant amount of stress at certain times. We spoke to Arran Macdougall, 36, who lives in Albury in regional New South Wales with his wife and three kids aged four, two and one. It took a panic attack in a parking lot to realise he needed to get a handle on his stress, and he shares how he learned to manage it for the benefit of his whole family.  

I always wanted to be a father and I love being a dad now. It’s a huge part of my identity. I have a great relationship with my dad. I say to a lot of people, I don’t think you’re ever truly ready to have kids. And if you think you are, you might be a little bit naïve. It’s one of those things that you do as much planning as you can and then you just pull the trigger on it, and you’ll learn as you go. 

We were very lucky with our pregnancy journey; it was really beautiful and it was exciting to start a family. In terms of supporting my wife through pregnancy and parenting, I actually found that part came quite easily to me, but I know a few dads who have struggled with that. I only put that down to having a good role model with my dad, he was always very present and very supportive of my mum. I was focusing on finances and trying to make sure that we were financially stable. There’s a lot to buy before the baby comes – change tables, prams, child seats, a slightly bigger car. So, there was a lot of stress over finances. Worrying about where my career was going, if I was going to be able to provide for my family.

I never used to get stressed before I was a dad. I didn’t realise this until after I had kids. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me a bit, especially having three kids so close together. Everything was going really, really well with our firstborn, but he was about two and started having tantrums and not sleeping well when our second came along. We went from the kind of fairytale you think parenting is going to be – little family bubble, going for relaxing walks by the river, all that. To the reality of parenthood, which is not sleeping, down each other’s throats a bit, collapsing on the couch at the end of the day just like “Oh my God, what happened. I’ve got to wake up and do this all again tomorrow.”

“Oh my God, what happened. I’ve got to wake up and do this all again tomorrow.”

– Arran Macdougall

When my wife was pregnant with our third baby, we were heading to a friend’s house for a birthday barbeque and we’d just had a huge morning. Anyone who has had kids knows that leaving the house with kids is just an event in itself. The kids were up at 4:30am, my wife had been up breastfeeding all night and I’m awake for that as well and I just remember trying to get the kids dressed, they’re taking their clothes off, being really challenging. We get in the car. My mate’s place is three minutes away and we were going to go to the bottle-o to grab some beers on the way. I remember pulling into the car park and I was just shaking and really short of breath. My wife was really worried. She was like, “Are you okay?” And I was like, “No, I’m not. I don’t know what’s happening. I just need a minute.” I’m a very positive person and I think I can sometimes miss the signs I’m struggling a bit. I got to the stage where I was having a panic attack in the car park and I was just like, “What is happening? What is going on with me?” I can’t keep going on like this. This isn’t right.” Not in a shaming way, I didn’t feel bad about struggling. But I was just like, “This is feedback from my body that something’s got to change. I can’t keep this up.”

A lot of the stresses were gradual, they built up so slowly you don’t seem to notice it. Something my wife and I do really well now is that we can see when the other person is stressed before they realise it themselves. If I can see she’s at her limit with the kids I’m just like, “Go have 20 minutes I’ll take the kids to the park.” And she’ll do the same. It’s really powerful. I used to struggle to accept that help because I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a good dad. So when my wife would say, “Hey, go have 10 minutes,” I’d be like, “No, I’m good, it’s fine.” Whereas now I’m like, “Sweet, I’m out.” I’ll go and listen to a meditation in the bedroom or go for a walk around the block. Just have a bit of space from the kids. 

I knew some people from Dads Group but never got around to going. One day I was at the park with my kids and ran into a mutual friend who was there for a meet-up so I went along and said g’day. From there I just connected with a really good group of guys. It was great to have other kids for my kids to play with and I just had this tribe of blokes who were just trying to be the best dads they could be and supporting each other to do that. We might not explicitly talk about managing stress as dads but we can share stories, and offer opportunities to relieve stress like going for walks together or training in my gym. Like typical guys, we don’t call it for what it is.

Having a regular exercise routine is really important for managing my stress. I’m not someone who necessarily enjoys the gym. I train a lot, but I just see it as a healthy habit, a non-negotiable for my mental and physical health. If I’m not in the gym lifting weights and kind of getting some stress and exertion out that way, I’m a lot angrier, I’ve got a shorter fuse, and I get stressed a lot more easily. If I’m regularly exercising I notice that something can happen at home that’s absolute chaos – one of the kids has punched a hole in the wall or something and I’ll be like, “Oh okay. Come over here, mate, let’s have a chat about this.” I can parent the way I want to. If I’m not managing my stress, I’m triggered straight away, losing my temper. 

One of my biggest tips for other new dads is to exercise, whatever that looks like for you. If we’re not moving, if we’re not challenging ourselves there, we’re just going to feel like crap, and that spills over into every area of life – work, family, everything. The second bit of advice is to have a passion project or a hobby. We can so easily fall into just working and being a dad. I suffered with that a lot. It’s rare to have an extra thing in our lives that we can get excited about. I’m not saying get a hobby that has to take you away from your family a lot, I’m not saying spend a weekend on the golf course when you’re working five days a week. But for me, I love painting. It’s something I did as a kid and didn’t do for years because I was a little bit embarrassed about it. But since having kids it’s something I’ve gotten back into because I can do it for 20 minutes while the kids are playing. It gives me a chance to be creative, it’s not expensive, it doesn’t take a lot of time, it’s something I can be proud of and there’s a community of other painters around me. And it’s calming and meditative. 

I’m a huge advocate for fathers. I love being a dad. I’m obsessed with my wife. I’m so grateful that I have a family, but you need some separation. It’s really healthy to have something else as well. So, I’m a huge advocate for that because I didn’t have it for a long time, I wasn’t practicing what I preached, and I suffered for it.

It is stressful being a dad, you kind of can’t get away from it. So, if you are stressed, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. If I have a great week and I’m exercising, I’m following my passion project, I’m communicating with my wife, I’m eating well and I’m sleeping well, I still get stressed from time to time. You can’t remove stress from your life, but there are definitely some positive steps we can take to handle it better.


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