The George Bailey Syndrome: Why Parents Get Discouraged and How They Can Find Joy

Remember that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey loses it in his home?

George: You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids? Janie, will you stop playing that lousy piano?! Now, cut it out! Stop it!

Janie: Oh Daddy! (starts crying)

Mary: George, for heaven’s sake, what’s wrong with you?

It’s a Wonderful Life

That happens to me sometimes. I call it “George Bailey Syndrome or “GBS” for short. All the stresses of life build up, and you just snap. You snap hard.

george bailey syndrome

This morning, I started looking at old family pictures. You know, it’s funny. By looking at the photographs, I could read the years: “Yeah, that was a good year. 2009. Look at us. We were so happy” Or conversely, “Oh man, that was a bad year. 2011. Look at me. Look at Joy. Yikes. That was a rough one.”

You can really read it all when you look at the faces of Joy and me. We’re smiling, but there is also a tiredness in our eyes.

After the children were at school today, Joy and I talked about the years. Why were some good times and others so tough?  We just had our seventh baby, so we are starting to understand it better and see the patterns. Here’s what we discovered. These are our personal reflections. They are not meant to be universal stereotypes.

Why Parents Get Discouraged:

  1. Lack of Sleep. 5-9 months after the birth of a baby is hard on the body and mind. Lack of sleep really takes a toll on happiness. Patience is short. For me, 2007 (after our fourth baby) and 2011 (after our sixth baby) were really hard on me.
  2. Uncertainty. When I left the Episcopalian ‘priesthood’ and became Catholic, it came with uncertainty. I slumped into discouragement. My darkest years were 2007 (new baby and new job, new city, became Catholic) and, once again 2011 (new baby, trying to finish PhD, uncertainty about employment).
  3. Financial Fears. Nothing gets you depressed and discouraged like watching a checking account run to $0.00. Even worse, the accumulation of debt is full-out slavery. When I talk to men all over the country, their number 1 fear against having a large family is financial. (For mom’s its emotional fatigue – probably related to lack of sleep and total exhaustion.)
  4. Advice (and Mockery) from Family and Friends. I hear sad stories about this all the time. Strangers, friends, (and worst of all family) will question the prudence and responsibility of parents. Not just on family size, but on every detail: children’s’ diet, children’s’ entertainment, children’s’ education, children’s religion, children’s schedule, etc. On and on. Everyone has an opinion and they lump it on the shoulders of parents.
  5. Criticism. We live in a neighborhood without many kids. The police were at our house yesterday because the neighbors called 911 (again). Why? What was the crime? Our children were playing in the cul-de-sac. The police officer: “It’s technically illegal to play in the street. But yeah, I know. I grew up playing in the street.” You just want to throw your hands in the air. “Oh, okay, officer. I’ll lock the kids inside the house from now on, and I’ll have them play video games all day – you know those video games where they go around shooting people. Would that be better?” It comes in other forms. The priest or parishioners criticizing your for your children’s behavior in Mass. Or just the “look” some give which is worse than anything they could say.

I don’t experience these things all the time, but often. These factors cluster with the birth of a baby. Like I said, with the birth of a baby you get:

  1. lack of sleep
  2. uncertainty
  3. financial instability
  4. lots of unsolicited advice
  5. criticism (from others and sometimes from your spouse)

George Bailey Syndrome: So how do you pull out of it?

Well, my temptation is to turn inward, become gloomy, and become agitated with my wife and children. It’s horrible. I regret it. Even more I repent of it.

When were having baby number 5 (for me this was 2009), I had coffee with a Catholic man I respected. Tom Spence. He has 10 children. He’s amazing. After talking to him I left Starbucks that day with two lessons:

1) I must cultivate a deep interior life of prayer, penance, spiritual reading. It has to become deep like the Grand Canyon.

2) I need to be intentional with my life: sleep, fitness, marriage, emotional life, etc.

Practical Advice for Fathers

In a sense, my reflections on parenting and living on this blog and in the podcasts are merely a summary of these 2 lessons. And let me tell you, I write this blog and record podcasts as a kind of therapy for myself. I’m giving advice to myself so I don’t keep forgetting it.

If you and I were having coffee together and talking about parenting and GBS, here’s what I’d tell every dad. (I’ll have to leave it to Joy to give the wife-mommy version at some time – maybe a guest post.)

  1. Write Down Personal Goals in three categories: I want to own, I want to do, I want to be. Fill out each category and be 100% honest with yourself. If you want a silk suit, a Harley, or season tickets, don’t lie to yourself and not write it down. Write it down. Write everything down. It should only take you you 5 minutes. If it takes you longer, you’re over-analyzing it all.
  2. Now create a hierarchy of those goals so that you can live an intentional life. As I explained in my post on creating goals, begin with God, your soul, your body, your wife, you children, finances, etc. I believe spiritual goals are first, and then personal goals (soul and body) come next followed by family. You may disagree. My defense of that order can be found here.
  3. Three things. Supernatural joy in this life, comes to me when I do the following daily:
    1. fulfillment of my spiritual goals: mental prayer, Scripture reading, Rosary
    2. fulfillment of physical exercise – usually jogging or lifting weights
    3. creative mental work that completes pre-planned goals

If all three get checked off, I’m a great man for my wife and children. If not, I’m not.

Conclusion: Revisiting George Bailey

Look, if you don’t set up intentions or goals, life will happen and it will stretch you so that you snap. You must plan. We cannot foresee everything. I still get blind-sided. But life is too short and my family is too precious to get knocked down and stay down.

If you are discouraged and knocked down. Don’t worry. Don’t feel lost. God is with you. Emmanuel. He will help you even if no one else will. Draw close to Him. If you really need encouragement, please read these 12 attributes that God has given you in Christ.

And guys. Find your vigor and swagger again. Write a note to your wife. Go home and give her a big kiss in front of the kids. Let her know (and the kids know) that you love her and them and that you are the hero of their home. If you need to, dress up like this:

george bailey in uniform

Question: I’ve been a little vulnerable. I’d love to hear from you. How do you struggle. What are your goals and preventions to pick yourself back up and keep on moving in Christ? I look forward to reading and engaging with your comments. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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