Tym Rourke, a well known New Hampshire advocate for recognizing substance use disorder, offers parenting advice on this Father’s Day and encourages each of us to be resilient. Challenged by a cancer diagnosis and COVID, the Rourke family bounced back. Tym shares his experience to show us that when kids and caregivers have positive connections to schools and community, a strong social network of support – especially when things are stressful, and have hope for the future, they become resilient. Individuals and families are able to build on their strengths and weather difficult situations.
My daughter just finished 4th grade. On the last day of school, she marched triumphantly into the house, dropped her school bag, and with a look of overwhelming gratitude said through watery eyes, “this has been the best year of my life.”
For our family – like so many – the last few years have brought unprecedented challenges. Health risks for both my son and I forced us to remain in our house until vaccines were available. Education became a fully remote affair that entire time – and while my son could nimbly manage to be fully isolated, my daughter struggled with isolation from classmates and friends. The simple act of getting groceries turned into a strategic and carefully orchestrated undertaking, sending the healthiest (in our case, my wife) out into a world of risks while navigating the uncertainty around what was safe and the anxiety and worry around how long we may have to endure such disruption to daily life.
These challenges made our daughter’s pronouncement even more meaningful, as both of our children completed their first full year of in-person learning since the pandemic began. It was a moment of reprieve and celebration that some level of normality has, perhaps, returned.
However – “some level” is the operative phrase there. The pandemic, once perceived as perhaps a short-term disruption, now marches towards three years of impacting the lives of almost everyone. Over a million Americans have died, and countless more continue to live with the long-term effects of exposure to COVID-19 or have been negatively impacted by the economic fallout and other pressures the pandemic exacerbated. Continued financial fragility, a rise in hate speech and acts of violence, toxic political and community discourse, and polarizing policy debates make one wonder if the very nature of our reality will ever come close to what it was “in the time before.”
We are now firmly in a “new normal.” Such terminology is common among those impacted by sudden, life-changing events. Even in my family, COVID-19 turning our world upside down was not the first time we faced life changes beyond our control. On Father’s Day of 2006, my son was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. As my wife and I knew it, the world stopped that day. Though my son will celebrate 16 years cancer-free this year, we live daily with the ongoing impacts of his diagnosis and treatment. His diagnosis changed the trajectory of our lives as a family – and while it has brought new learnings and many moments of “silver lining,” it has not been easy.
So, after having more than one go at adapting to the new normal, here’s my advice to all those dads who are still trying to make sense of navigating these times.
Foster, Sustain, and Nurture Your Care Team
Men are notoriously bad at cultivating and sustaining intimate friendships and support networks. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has written and spoken extensively on the epidemic of loneliness and its health impacts. Reporter and author Billy Baker has noted that as men age, social isolation often increases as demands of work and family take precedence over personal connections.
Recently I spent time in person with my best friend for the first time since the pandemic began. He lives in another part of the country but had come back to New Hampshire to visit his parents. We had barely spoken during the pandemic, both wrestling with significant personal challenges and stressors with the lockdown. As we walked in the woods, we opened ourselves up to each other – what the last couple of years had been like, how we had made it through, what we were still struggling with, and the sense that now more than ever, we needed each other. We committed to be more intentional in staying connected and to the closeness that had been a central tenet of our relationship for the past 30+ years.
As buildings, offices, and other spaces reopen, I encourage dads to reopen those closed connections. Bring more intention to the relationships that sustain you, and prioritize it. This is not only a benefit to you but to your whole extended community – family systems, marriages, parenting relationships, and ultimately, your children.
Embrace Radical Acceptance of Life As It Is
The first time we met with my son’s oncologist, they asked what we hoped for in our son’s treatment. My answer was quick and straightforward: “I want my Father’s Day back.” In that instance, I was not just asking for any Father’s Day – I wanted the day I expected before my son’s seizure changed everything. It took time to recognize that such a request was impossible. Don’t get me wrong – every Father’s Day has enormous meaning, and I am unbelievably grateful for each. But our lives are not what they would have been had my son not had cancer – and nothing will change that.
Similarly, part of navigating COVID-19 is recognizing that the world will never go back to “the time before.” As I’ve written elsewhere, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the pandemic has exposed health care inequities and other injustice that demands change. But with change comes loss, which must be tended to. Acceptance involves feelings of grief, anger, sadness, and frustration. Working through those feelings – whether through your social network, family connections, or mental health supports – is critical if we are to move forward.
On this Father’s Day, I wish all dads the space to contemplate where you’ve been, how you made it through, and what tomorrow holds.
Commit yourself to ways of being that bring joy and light in times of darkness and uncertainty. Be kind and patient with yourself. Reconnect with someone who knows you even more than you do – and once you do, reconnect with several more. Ask for help when you need it, and take in the moments of beauty and grace that prove how far you’ve come.
Happy Father’s Day.
Tym Rourke is a Senior Director at Third Horizon Strategies, a Chicago-based health care advisory firm. Tym previously served as Director of New Hampshire Tomorrow at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and served eight years as the Chair of the New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Substance Use. Tym lives with his wife and two children in Bedford, New Hampshire.
Stressors can negatively impact our mental health and that of our children.
As caretakers of children, we can feel isolated in how to address these hard times and struggles with the young people we care for. Positive experiences and strong connections to caring adults are protective factors that can make youth more resilient in times of stress, likewise, parenthood plays an integral role in the lives of men.