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uni-life 4 min read

Dealing with Dad guilt

By Jeremy 17 Dec 2019
Father holding his daughter outside.

Being a studying dad and not working full-time can lead to the emotion called guilt. Or at least it did for me. As a father of two young kids, quitting my full-time job and taking on full-time study was a fairly difficult decision to make. My desire as a husband and parent is to give my family the very best life I can, so any decision that would mean I couldn’t do that or could do that to a lesser extent, even temporarily, was always going to be a huge one.

Anthropologists might say that the guilt I feel is due to cultural expectations and archaic constructions of gender roles about men being the bread winner. All I know is, however this dad guilt exists or for whatever reason it exists, there it is. It arrived during the decision making process and reared its head many times over the course of my degree.

I don’t think that much can be done about stopping these feelings of guilt … it just isn’t responsive to the rational thinking you might use in other situations. I told myself over and over ‘The whole reason I am studying is to be able to provide a better future for my family than I would have been able to do without a qualification’, but my mind just wouldn’t respond to reason. Of course, being able to recognise this guilt as being illogical is a victory in itself. The guilt isn’t real, it is just an emotional response to the situation, and often an irrational response.

When I lay awake at night (due to kids and doing assignments and, of course, the ever-present guilt), I would tell myself that I was studying to set an example for my children and that this was the best way to influence them. If I didn’t bother studying, but encouraged my children to study in the future, I wouldn’t have as strong a case to make. I want my kids to take risks in pursuit of their goals and I saw my study as setting an example of doing just that. I’d chosen to forgo immediate monies now in the hope of having a greater choice of career options after my degree. Short term pain for long term gain. Present guilt for future... goodies. Or something like that.

The positive of guilt is that it can be harnessed as a driving force for success. Yep, for sure there were times late at night in front of a computer and pile of books when I indulged my feelings of guilt and wallowed in sorrow, but there were also times when I took it captive and used it to drive me towards some of my best academic achievements. I think the worst thing you can do with guilt is to dismiss it with indifference. There’s a reason that you feel it. Guilt can highlight your deepest desires and where your true priorities lie. For me, my desire is to provide for my family. My guilt arose as my subconscious recognised the fact that earning more money was possible at that very moment but that I was choosing not to grab it. I didn’t like the feeling itself, but I did like what it highlighted in me.

So yes, dad guilt exists and there is no point denying it. When I was frustrated with study or having ‘Bah! Just drop out!’ thoughts, guilt was always quick to jump in and say ‘Just go get a job!’ It was at these moments though that I had to be resolute in my decision, stick to my path and steer my guilt toward success and achievement, rather than letting it steer me away from my ultimate goals. I knew in my heart that I was working for a brighter future, sacrificing present wealth for rewards to come. As dads we want to make our children proud and be the best men we can be and that sometimes requires sacrifice in the short term. That’s what I’d tell myself every day as I got out of bed after a couple hours sleep to face hungry kids and eat oats, yet again (because they’re both cheap and healthy).

If, like me, you’ve made the choice to forego current opportunities for the goal of better long-term outcomes, all I can say is this; you can’t remove the guilt, so relish that fact that you feel it in the first place. It shows how deeply you love and care for those you provide for and how much you want the very best for them in life. So tuck away the suit and tie for now. Pull out your jeans and your T-shirt and go get that degree knowing you’re doing the best you can for your family not just for now, but for the long term. You might be feeling like a guilty dad, but you should be a very proud one too.

Picture of Jeremy with his family
Me, with my beautiful family

If you enjoyed this blog and are looking for more words of support (and wisdom) from a fellow studying dad, make sure you check out Shane’s blog about the ups and down of studying with a new baby.

Author profile image of Jeremy.