I had to walk away from my marriage and job to be a better dad

Married with a young family and a great job, JC Clapham thought he had ticked all the boxes for a good life. Then he nearly lost it all, and himself.

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On paper, I had the perfect life. Married with three kids, a seemingly great job that paid very well, a mortgage in the suburbs, and a partner who could work part-time to be home a lot with our young children. I was #winning at life.

But then I nearly lost it all, and I nearly lost myself.

My parents had me when they were teenagers, just 18 and 19. Given I was the unplanned result of an Easter long weekend home alone, you might say the benchmark for a ‘successful’ life has been not-so-lofty for me. Hard to expect too much of a child whose existence is a reminder of being carefree.

While true to some extent, I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to ‘do things properly’ in the life milestone sense. The right things in the proper order, to be the model of responsibility and achievement.

My parents split up when I was 11, and my father then took his own life five years later, and I placed even more emphasis on ticking off the ‘proper’ boxes and doing it properly.

So there I was at 34, with the boxes ticked.

Degree, wife, kids, career, mortgage … but it was a house of cards, with me at the top, and a gathering hurricane around me.

In the space of a few months it had all fallen over. And so had I. My marriage ended, I moved out of the family home, had a mental breakdown, and walked away from my corporate career without knowing what was next.

Boom. Crash. Over.

It probably won’t be a surprise to learn I hadn’t really come to terms with my father’s suicide and its impact on me.

I’m not blaming his sudden death for the way things unfolded for me at all; I don’t blame anything or anyone. But it sure as hell left me with some issues of inadequacy and abandonment.

If my own father chose to leave me forever, how could I possibly hope to be a ‘real man’ myself?

Dad’s death scarred me. I became incredibly paranoid about being a shit father.

I swore along the way that I’d never allow my marriage to crumble like my parents had. That I’d never move away from my kids. That I’d always be there for them and ‘right’ the ship of fatherhood in my own family.

In the lead-up to my own marriage ending, the writing was on the wall for a few years, if I’m honest. My then-wife and I had gradually grown apart and we weren’t able to bridge that divide that had grown between us.

We both bear responsibility for that — again, this isn’t a blame-apportioning exercise; it’s about sharing and acknowledging the pressures I put on myself and accepted as my lot.

As my marriage slowly died, I too was slowly falling apart.

I chose to focus on work and bringing in the great salary. I chose to place that at the top of the list, and as I did well and was offered more opportunities, my jobs took me interstate every couple of weeks, sometimes for a week at a time, and sometimes encroaching on my weekend — my family time.

“Most days when I did get home from work, I’d sit in the car in despair for up to half an hour before I stopped crying.”

At the time I was beginning to make my way in the job that came before the fall, my sons Leo and Gus were 5 and 4, and my daughter Ada was just 1.

They’re critical ages in a child’s life where (hopefully) their parents are around, involved and nurturing. I am (and was then) a very loving and nurturing father, but my time both being around and positively useful were far less than ideal.

In working so hard and being so frequently away, I exhausted myself to the point of collapse. Work became a 60 to 70 hour-a-week thing, and when I was physically home, I wasn’t much chop as a father or husband.

Out the door by 7am, back between 7 to 10pm, and often away interstate. Most days when I did get home from work, I’d sit in the car in despair for up to half an hour before I stopped crying.

Nights and weekends when I was there, I slept and cried and collapsed either on the couch or around the side of the house.

I was too scared to let me kids see me as the mess I was. If my role in the family at that stage was to work hard and be the provider, I felt I should look happy and successful at it — a blubbering mess doesn’t give that impression, and isn’t a positive role model for young children to see and perceive as ‘normal’.

I didn’t realise at the time, but I’d become the absent father I loathed mine for being. I might have still been alive (just … I had some dark days and nights), but I wasn’t actively present, emotionally available or much good company at all.

My mental state deteriorated and though I was openly seeking some support, I wasn’t addressing the lifestyle influences. I took the meds, but I didn’t take control of me.

A couple of weeks after my now ex-wife and I both agreed we should separate, my GP forced me to take a month off work so I could alleviate some of the pressure on myself.

I didn’t want to, but they could see I was probably only one more bad day away from being permanently absent. I agree now that I was.

I found a place to live and moved out. And it was then I fell apart completely, and sought the full gamut of professional support a suicidal person needs. GP, psychologist, psychiatrist, some close family/friends to sit/watch when I needed it, and the time and space to cry and wail and mope and rant and cry even more.

Another month off work followed, and another. Eventually I resigned, with my only focus then on staying alive, recovering no matter how long or hard that would be.

That was two years ago. I’m a lot better now, a good father again and I have new hopes and dreams. Realistic ones, even better.

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