When I was a Navy SEAL, Father’s Day often came with a lot of guilt. It was another holiday I would spend away from my four kids. Of course, I was happy and grateful that they recognized it—with phone calls or gifts. But I always felt like a bit of a fraud. I was spending so much time away from them. Father’s Day was for good fathers, and good fathers didn’t leave their kids for months at a time. Right?
The time before a deployment or a training trip was always the worst. I’d fall into a nasty funk. I self-diagnosed those periods as “pre-trip anxiety.” My wife Belisa called them the times I’d act like a jackass. I was short-tempered, critical of everything, and sometimes just mean. And the longer I’d plan to be gone, the longer the pre-trip anxiety would be. By the time I finally did leave, we were all glad that I was gone. Not exactly Father of the Year material.
When I came home—eventually to stay—I found I could not avoid the difficult situations my job had created. Between intense training schedules and long deployments filled with secret missions, I forever altered how my family operated. We coped. But that was not enough. I needed to figure out how we could thrive. I was in a Special Operations job, and I’d need to create a Special Operations family to deal with it. It was time to strategize. Here’s what I did.
1. Struggle: Being on the team, but not part of it.
While I was away, we all got used to turning off the part of our hearts that depended upon each other. It became our default way of being. In a way, seeing them not depend on me when I was home made me feel better about being gone. But deep down it cut twice—once when they didn’t care if I was leaving, and the second time when I didn’t either. “When Dad gets home” needed to excite them more than “When Dad has to leave” crushed them. I needed to produce a very special type of relationship with them. An impactful place in their life. Something more like a brotherhood.
Strategy: Extreme activities reactivate relationships broken by time and distance.
The difficult conditions under which my SEAL Teammates and I formed our relationships made us brothers. We can go over a decade without seeing one-another, and then when we get together, we can pick up right where we left off. Zero discomfort or momentum lost.
So I worked to form the same relationships with my kids under similar conditions. We backpack, do underwater work (knot-tying, drown-proofing, ocean swims and the like), and climb—often in treacherous conditions. I intentionally put my kids in situations where they were uncomfortable, where they had to look to me for help and leadership. By doing this we formed a special bond—one that has endured time and distance. By teaching them special life skills and high levels of confidence, they not only became prepared to deal with dangerous situations, but they learned to look to me when they get in over their heads. This relationship has continued to serve us well into their twenties and pre-teen years. This role of being their SEAL instructor, father and brother became my place on the team. The position that only I could fill.
2. Struggle: Integrating humans into a SEAL habitat.
A large source of joy (or so I’ve heard) as a parent can come from doing things with other parents. You know—hanging out, going to the beach, participating in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.
Sadly, that has never been my family’s world. For me, “normal” outings were grating and boring—having been off at schools learning how to track and target terrorists, I couldn’t give a damn about sports scores or politics—and that often leaves me little in common with most of the people around me. Don’t get me wrong. I desperately want to care about these things so I can join in. But I’ve yet to make the jump. When I hear about families hanging out together all of the time and going on trips together, I get jealous for us. It all sounds like so much fun and what life should be about. It’s the very lifestyle I was out there trying to protect, but the very one I couldn’t seem to be a part of. It can get lonely.
It always felt like I was living two lives—deep inside a third-world country surrounded by people carrying AK-47s one day and at a friend’s barbecue the next. How do you continuously reconcile that? To this day, I struggle to make and keep friends, and that not only affects my relationships, but those of my children.
Strategy: Winning hearts and minds.
Instead of trying to fit into others’ ideas of fun, I created my own. I put together a group called SEAL Pups, which is a Navy SEAL-inspired activity for parents and kids that teaches specialized survival skills and how to master fear and build confidence. I teach the kids how to build sniper hides, survive underwater knot-tying drills, and even how to install grommets in swim fins so they can connect them on their backs to sneak up on a beach and conduct amphibious reconnaissance missions. It’s basically a dangerous version of the Boy Scouts that both boys and girls do together.
Once I started sharing the idea with other parents, they got fired up. Common ground was found, and more importantly, I found something in my life that I could share and talk about with them. Turns out, there are a lot of people out there who like the idea of learning how to train themselves and their kids in the art of badassery.
3. My Greatest Struggle: The pain of staying home.
One of the hardest things about a job where you’re either gone, trying to get used to being back home, or stressing about being gone again is that you never settle into a normal life. It’s near impossible to produce and maintain the healthy habits and activities that make life fun and enjoyable.
When I came home from the SEAL Teams permanently I thought those days were behind me. But even years later I continued to suffer serious guilt from leaving my family, even if it was only for a few hours, to do the activities I loved to do—surf, run, play poker with the fellas. So I forced myself to stay home. I thought it was the right thing to do, but it left me feeling stranded, bored and depressed. It seemed my own happiness wasn’t enough to push me out the door. Being a father was all about sacrifice, right?
Strategy: Walking point.
I remember being at a low spot in regards to my own personal happiness when it hit me. “How can I lead and teach my kids to live a happy and healthy life if I myself wasn’t able to do it?”
I realized I needed to again hold the role of a point man—the one who walks, climbs or crawls ahead of the rest, who plans the routes to and from the target, then leads the platoon there. A point man’s job is to break new ground and see what lies ahead, so that he can bring the other members of his team safely past any threats and to their objective. We call this “leading from the front.”
If I wanted my kids to live a happy and healthy life, I’d have to live one myself. And to do that, I’d have to allow myself to spend time away from my family. Men like me struggle with that. They hamster into their home lives or burrow into work, and claim a level of sacrifice that borders on martyrdom. Being home is valuable and important when it comes to raising children. However, it’s not the mission objective.
The truth is that parents need to be whole and complete if they are to teach their kids to be the same. If that means a few hours of poker on a Friday, or a couple of days in the mountains with the guys from time to time, then so be it. For me, the real mission of being a father is to live a good life so that I can lead and teach my kids to do the same. The moment I took this mission on was the moment I became the father I always wanted to be.