COLM BLACK talks honestly about the effect of burnout – and the everyday struggles of being a dad at home.
Exile, says the writer Eugene Peterson, is the experience of being where we do not wish to be. It can experienced at many levels: missing the last bus home, a dip in a relationship, the loss of a job, not being picked for a team. It is an experience of emotional and/or physical dislocation: I am where I do not wish to be. In exile.
Without my choosing, that’s where I found myself last August. Having been involved in couples work for a number of years and with plans to continue, I hit burnout. And I didn’t see it coming.
ANXIETY & DIS-EASE
Symptoms? Unable to function. Complete and absolute loss of interest. Anxiety. Dis-ease. An inability to look at, read, listen to, engage with anything whatsoever to do with the very area of work which I had been interested in t for years. Exile!
And the questions: am I finished? Is it over? Will I be back to it at some stage? What will I say to people? What will people think when they hear I am no longer doing this kind of work? What about my self-esteem? Am I a failure? Because I am defined, rightly or wrongly, by what I do. If I say I am concentrating on being a home dad and good husband, what will my employed friends and other people think? How will I feel about myself?
So I am in a strange land. What should I do? Exile gave me the opportunity to take stock. I had to accept where I found myself. I could do no other as I couldn’t function. But I had to take care of myself too.
The laptop was locked away. Relationship books were moved to the top shelf behind pictures. E-mails, only occasionally opened but not attended to unless absolutely necessary. I began to fill my mind and time with other things, other interests, reading novels, poetry, the Bible and watching films whilst still being a home Dad and striving to have a clear conscience when my wife asked me what I did all day.
Anything good in which we take an interest can become an idol. Important though it might be, it can take centre stage in our life and become more important than it ought to be. That’s what happened to me. My relationship work had become an idol. And it took its toll.
Notwithstanding, exile also had many positives. Physically, mentally and spiritually, it was a period of rest, refreshment and recalibration.
I’ve realised that in the normal course of events as a home Dad there will always be moments, some fleeting, some more lasting, when the experience of ‘exile’ will be very real.
- When my son crashes his bike into a car on the way to school and you have 2 hours in A&E.
- When the tea which has been diligently prepared slides off the plate on to the floor between cooker and gaping hungry mouths.
- When the pleasantness of tea table conversation begins to disintegrate into boyish vulgarity and flounder to stem the flow.
- And, at the end of what has been a good day (by my own parenting standards) World War 3 breaks out between the boys over who should have which Nerf gun.
SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN
And so on. It’s how we respond in those moments which really matters – and I often get it ‘not quite right!’ At present I am somewhere between exile and being back home, perhaps ready to engage again in relationship work. But in truth, I am not really sure.
Exile. I don’t much care for it, but it is part of daily life.