Father’s Day can be a really difficult time for many people for a variety of different reasons. Here, Elliott Rae, who works to support and champion families, shares his experience of fatherhood, mental health challenges and helping men to be more vulnerable
Elliott Rae, founder of MusicFootballFatherhood and curator of the book, ‘Dad: Untold stories of fatherhood, love, mental health and masculinity’, has been featured in numerous newspapers and magazines, appeared on ITV’s ‘Loose Women’ and presented a documentary about fathers for the BBC. The United Nations recently recognised Elliott’s work and awarded him the UN Women UK’s #HeForShe ‘Changemaker of the Year’ award and he even had one of his articles shared by Dwayne Johnson, aka ‘The Rock!’.
Ruth Jackson: You’ve been quite honest about some of your mental health struggles after the birth of your daughter, would you mind just saying a little bit about that?
Elliott Rae: Me and my wife had a very difficult start to parenting – my daughter was quite sick, she had an infection called Group B strep, which is a very serious infection. We weren’t sure whether she was going to you make it. So we spent two weeks in the hospital in intensive care. We left the hospital and I went straight back to work because my paternity leave had finished.
I think I realised that, as humans, we’re really good at masking how we feel, we can put on a brave face. I definitely did that for the first 18 months of my daughter’s life. But inside I was going through very difficult periods – insomnia, panic attacks, just very, very anxious and emotional. Eventually, I was diagnosed with PTSD and that experience changed my life.
In a way I look back with gratitude, because I’ve learned so much from it and I definitely wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now without it. My wife says: “Your mess is your message.” I definitely agree with that.
RJ: How were you and your wife able to keep seeking God in the midst of all those struggles?
ER: I think it’s sometimes the easiest time to seek God actually and I don’t know if that’s a good thing if I’m honest. I think it’s easier when we are weak and tired and we haven’t got anything left to give and we don’t know where we’re going and we need help. In those times, reaching out to God and saying: “Hey, we need you. We don’t know what else to do.”
There was one moment in the hospital when they’d noticed a bump on the back of my daughter’s head and we had to go for an MRI scan the next day. Me, my wife and a midwife called Nagmeh, who came to join us in our room, prayed and cried for hours, all night. The tears were just coming out. We knew the news we were going to get the next day was going to change our lives in one way or another. I hadn’t cried as an adult up until then for years – I actually can’t remember the last time I cried before that. I can’t remember the last time I prayed as heavily and as deep as that.
I feel like what I try to do now is not just turn to God in the difficult times, but also in the good times, and just give thanks every day even if it’s a great day, especially if it’s a great day. So, for me, I think it’s easier. And maybe I’ve learned lessons through that process.
My faith was a prop during that period. It has to be; I think it’s where we turn to. Having that direction, that faith, that belief, really helps you to understand that you don’t have to do this life on your own. We are very small fragments of the Universe and sometimes we feel pressure that we have to solve all of our problems and conquer all of the issues we have in our lives by ourselves. And that’s just not feasible. We weren’t born that way. We don’t have to do that.
We can lean on God, we can lean on each other. We lean on our church and our ministers. My wife and I lean on each other and on our friends and our parents. So, it’s about keeping God at the centre, but understanding that you don’t have to do things by yourself.
I think for me, for many people, for many men, that can be something that we’re maybe not growing up being told and taught. But as we get older, hopefully we can come to the place of understanding that leaning in with God really, really helps, especially through those difficult times.
RJ: How do we encourage men to begin to be a little bit more vulnerable, to open up, to ask for help?
For me, I think the core is that it’s a good thing for us to be vulnerable. Stepping outside of gender stereotypes, and stepping outside of the norms that we’ve been told makes up a man is really important for our mental and physical health. It’s really important for our relationships, and our success and progression in life.
I think the ability for men to go to the doctors is really important. We know prostate cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the UK right now. Often, it’s diagnosed quite late, because we don’t go to the doctors. When we feel a pain in our body, we ignore it, we put it off.
We know that three out of four suicides are men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. But only 1/3 of calls to the NHS talking therapies are from men. We are more likely to take our own life and less likely to reach out for help and support.
The ONS found that one in five men have no close friendships. And we know friendship is a really important part of a healthy and happy life, and a well mentally well life.
It’s in our best interests to be able to talk about the challenges we’re going through. Unfortunately, as humans, we will have ups – I’ve had some amazing ups in my life – but we’re all going to face loss, difficulties and challenges. That’s just the human experience. So, I think it’s really important for men to be able to, yes, be strong, be stoic, be a provider, be a protector, but also be protected. And be sensitive and communicate and be looked after, as well. That’s really important. It’s fundamental to our wellbeing.
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RJ: Do you feel like becoming a dad has changed the way you view God at all?
ER: Yes, definitely. I think it actually helps me to be more trusting of God. And to probably believe more, because when you become a father, you understand the miracle of a new life. When you see a baby being born, that is an incredible experience and you understand that must be God. How does that happen? How can this life be created and formed, and this child grows up and looks like you and acts a little bit like you and you have such a love for them. That must be God.
I think me witnessing that has really heightened my belief that God is real, God is acting and is a massive part of everything we do.
RJ: There’s a line in your book, in regards to the MRI scan story, where you say “I just handed control over to God and just hoped for the best”. Thankfully, the scan was clear and you were all able to go home. But do you think that’s good advice, generally, for parenting – to just hand over control to God?
ER: I’m a big believer in action. I think we need to take action, because when we want something in life – we want to create something or be something – we have to do the steps to get there. I believe God has given us our thoughts and our intelligence to be able to put those things in action. I’m a big believer in action and planning and being intentional about what we do.
But once we’ve done that, then we give it to God, because we can’t always affect the outcomes. We can do the work, we can do the actions, but we can’t control the outcomes. And so for me, when it comes to parenting and work and everything in my life, I try my best to do the work as best I can, but then sit back and give the outcome to God and see where that goes, because that’s beyond our control.
Elliott Rae, founder of MusicFootballFatherhood and curator of the book, ‘Dad: Untold stories of fatherhood, love, mental health and masculinity’, has been featured in numerous newspapers and magazines, appeared on ITV’s ‘Loose Women’ and presented a documentary about fathers for the BBC. The United Nations recently recognised Elliott’s work and awarded him the UN Women UK’s #HeForShe ‘Changemaker of the Year’ award and he even had one of his articles shared by Dwayne Johnson, aka ‘The Rock’.