PERSONAL
01/06/2020 16:07 EST

For All The Stuff Dads Can't Say Over Beers, There's A Group Chat Waiting

Chat apps create a safe space for dads to open up about parenting challenges.

I’m standing in the kitchen with the lights off. I pick up my phone and press the blue and white Telegram app icon with my thumb.

It’s been one of those chaotic evenings with my kids where my spirit fluctuates between rage and defeat. When I worry if I’m failing at being a dad or if my kids are failing at being kids.

I type: “Nobody prepares us for this shit.”

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Facebook groups and Instagram posts can't match the support of an instant connection with fellow dads.

I crack open a well-deserved beer. The screen glows off my fingers. Within seconds, a good friend now living in Asia responds: “which one is after you” – he’s referring to my two kids (aged seven and five). He shares a story about his nine-year-old daughter. Another friend a few hundred kilometres east on the 401 highway divulges that he’s frustrated sitting in a hotel room with both his daughters fighting sleep.

Other dads — guys I know well from my university days — are coming to my rescue. They’re embracing me with an instant virtual hug. Their responses are providing a soothing feeling the beer can’t compete with. It’s a digital connection a curated Instagram or Facebook post can’t match.

It’s reassuring and comforting knowing other dads I trust sometimes struggle, too.

On most days, I exchange dozens of messages with friends I used to see regularly over chat apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. My chats were born years ago to organize reunions, but have morphed over the years into much more than a scheduling tool.

More than 300 million people will log in and use WhatsApp today — checking the app on average 23 times a day. I participate in two fantasy sports chats, a chat group with my university friends and one with the guys I went to high school with. In an age where we can all stand to put our phones down and be more present, I’m often embracing this technology after hours when the kids are tucked away. The platforms are providing an outlet where I connect with other dads I know and trust to discuss the mundane day-to-day, but also compare notes, vent and learn.

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It's comforting to know that other dads struggle with the same issues.

The chat helps me be a better dad and stronger partner. Many of the conversations have validated insecure feelings about my own life, such as parenting decisions and conflict. It’s reassuring and comforting knowing other dads I trust sometimes struggle, too.

‘I relish these authentic moments’

Much of the banter is sharing humour, weird GIFs, improper jokes and incessant, but entirely innocent, mocking of each other about stories from sometimes decades ago. We’ve gotten carried away at times, but it can be very interesting. I’ve joined other dads’ travels around the world, accompanied hunting trips, sat front row at sporting events, and endlessly debated politics, sports, news and beer. An all-time highlight was helping a friend stay focused while he was trapped inside Parliament during the tragic 2014 shooting. He was sending messages about hearing gunshots.

Yet, it’s the rich, personal sharing that always shines through making my time investment genuine and rewarding.

One dad broke his divorce news in one of the chat groups.

On another occasion, a friend’s son had a fever north of 103 for three days. He panicked and raced to the hospital after another fever spike. He broke down in tears at triage, totally exhausted and powerless. He logged into our chat group from the waiting room and shared the story. He says the support, advice and understanding he got back made him cry even more.

Chat apps permit in-the-moment engagement with immediate reactions, when the emotion is raw.

Another close friend with a special needs son was once at his wit’s end about toilet training his then eight-year-old. He shared a detailed story in our group about the clean-up, the frustration and ongoing effort he makes to help his boy. He says it’s cathartic to release information in a safe way with people who care. It allows him an escape.

I relish these authentic moments because they’re raw and bring to life the realities dads battle.

When we do get together — and there are some people in the chat groups I may not see for years — I find we rarely share in person the vulnerabilities we discuss online. I’ve certainly found it easier at times to just laugh and watch the Leafs, as opposed to drag the group down. Besides, our increasingly rare in-person get-togethers are supposed to be escapes.

A campfire is nostalgic and relaxing. The bar stool is fun. But chat apps permit in-the-moment engagement with immediate reactions, when the emotion is raw. I also feel safer alone, behind the screen where I can simply “go dark” or not engage when I’m not interested in the conversation.

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It can be easier to open up and be vulnerable online than in real life.

Our Baby Boomer parents have mostly aged without the friends they grew up with. Word of mouth is pretty much how they stayed in touch, and that’s about as effective as shovelling snow with a rake. They didn’t have other dads just a thumb swipe away that newer dads like me have today. 

It impacted them. 

Research shows that dads are at risk of aging alone and it impacts mental health. 

2016 survey by U.K.’s Movember organization stated that over half of men reported having two friends or less that they would discuss a serious topic with. The survey found one in 10 men couldn’t recall the last time they contacted their friends.

That stat is from more than three years ago. I hope the rise of chat apps will change these findings.

It has been an hour since I posted the message on that particularly frustrating Friday night. The beer is now mostly warm, but the conversation is flowing. We’ve covered sibling violence, noisy hotel rooms, managing emotions, lack of patience, one dad’s son’s surprising brute strength and, well, animals.

I feel calmer.

Tomorrow will be better.

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