One of the cool things about publishing a book is that you get to become “book friends” with other authors in your field. A few weeks ago, Torsten Klaus and I exchanged books. I want to share some of the wisdom and perspective from his book, The Empathic Father, which I recommend. Here’s my Q&A with Torsten, focusing on his advice on fatherhood and empathy.
1. Your book covers a wide range of issues- birth plans, attachment parenting, sex after childbirth, child discipline, work-family balance, how couples argue, active listening, etc. The through-line is the importance of leading with empathy. Can you explain how empathy can influence how dads can handle such a wide range of parenting and marriage-related challenges?
Often we (that’s me included) judge things before we actually look at them closely. Our partner or our kids say or do something and in an instant we put a label on it: good, bad, annoying, funny, true, false. You name it. By doing so we easily forget to really watch and observe what’s going on around us. What is it my partner or kids want to tell me? How do they feel? What is it that makes them feel x, y or z?
Empathy to me means the ability to pause, to step back and to reflect. Then, once that’s been achieved, to really listen without judgments and labels. If your partner says things like ‘You never help cleaning the dishes’, don’t respond with ‘That’s not true’ or, even worse, ‘And you always leave all your stuff in the bathroom!’. If you carry on this way, both of you’ll just get more frustrated, angry and, in the end, disconnected. Reconnection and empathy starts with listening and forgiving.
If we as fathers make that conscious decision of having more empathy and less ego in our daily lives, then we’ll see a big shift in relationships with our children, partners, friends and colleagues.
2. In your experience as a parenting coach and counselor, do many dads have a hard time with embracing empathy and emotional openness? If so, what steps can a dad take to become more open and empathetic?
Emotional openness and empathy need to be role-modeled to us. And yes, many men and fathers struggle here, as often their own fathers were brought up as so called traditional men who don’t talk emotions. Looking back at my own childhood, I clearly remember those typical statements: ‘Boys don’t cry’, ‘Man up’ and all that crap. If you grow up like that, how can anyone expect you to be emotionally close and empathetic? It helped me a lot to acknowledge those issues first.
Then I ‘revisited’ my own childhood and looked at past issues which shaped my feelings, believes and mindset. I was surprised to see how many childhood wounds are still hurting today because I just decided to ignore them. Next step for me was to work through those issues by talking to my wife and good friends. It’s like a journey which I started ten or so years ago. I’m still on it. And it has been helping me a great deal in becoming a more empathetic and kind man.
3. In your book, you state that so much attention is given to fathers either as heroes or as losers, with not much acknowledgement of the messy middle in which most of us live. What do you think the state of fatherhood is in 2015, and what do we need to do to better recognize this?
Fatherhood is about to redefine itself. The last ten years have brought a new generation of men and fathers who really want to make a change. Fathers who are involved, hands-on and confident in raising their children. There are more stay-at-home or part-time dads than ever and we’re on the way to more parenting equality. But I wish for three important things:
- The way many media present fathers is still so 20th Century. They either make fun of the guy who is turning his house into a total chaos when being left in charge of the kids for one hour, or they stick to the classic family scenario where he works 70+ hours as a CEO and she is the perfect mum. Stop that.
- Politics and governments must change their attitude towards parental leaves, work-and-family balance and family support. Impossible? Look at Sweden or Germany. They do it already.
- Parents who decide to spend more time with their children often get labelled as work-shy. Why is that? Let’s change the culture of judging and prejudice! Let’s support those parents the same way as the ones who decide to work more hours. They both deserve our deepest respect and support.
4. Many of my readers are dads interested in achieving a better balance between work and family. What advice do you have for them?
I tried many work-family-models: I worked full time, I worked part time, I worked from home, I was a stay-at-home dad. My advice from my experience? Make sure you schedule enough time for your children, your partner and yourself. The first five years is probably the most important time for a close attachment and bonding between your children and you. Use that time as it will never come back. If it works for you and your family, try to work less in those years and catch up with your career when they’re a little older and more independent. If you can’t make it work this way, then ensure your kids know that you’re there for them when they need you.
5. Can you share with us two more pieces of advice on how we can be more empathic (or, as we tend to say in the US, empathetic) fathers?
Start talking and listening to your children and partner tonight. Schedule a Listening Evening with your partner for one of the coming evenings. Find half an hour where you take turns in talking while the other listens. Tell her/him all about your most inner feelings and emotions. Let it out. Cry, laugh, hug, be vulnerable, be yourself.
Before bedtime, do an evening check-in with your kid(s). My eldest, who is seven, and I spend almost every night ten or so minutes where we talk about the day. I make sure I really listen to him, to his emotions, dreams, hopes, fears… his life. I don’t interrupt him, I don’t judge him. And I tell him about me. Being authentic, being real.
Thank you, Torsten!
What do you think about fatherhood and empathy? Any stories to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.
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Torsten Klaus is a father to two boys and a girl, Parenting Coach and Author. He has been working with children and families for more than a decade. As the founder of www.dadstalkcommunity.org, Torsten runs successful online and in person support groups for Dads and Grandads. He also teaches Developmental Baby Massage in his local community. He loves storytelling and is currently working on his second book for children. Torsten lives with his family in the south-west of England, and stayed at home to care for his children between 2012 and 2014.