When being perfect is just too much: Britain's superdads start to blow a fuse

Men who hold down demanding jobs while trying to be perfect parents could be at risk of Atlas Syndrome. Jonathan Thompson on the perils of trying to have it all
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Indy Lifestyle Online

They've all been labelled "superdads": David Beckham, Bob Geldof, Jamie Oliver, even Tony Blair. For years the phenomenon of the devoted, hands-on father, as epitomised in Tony Parsons's novel Man and Boy, has been held up as the pinnacle of male parenting.

But now the pressure is starting to show. Thirty- and forty-something males, it appears, are increasingly struggling to cope with the daily grind of trying to be perfect - not just at work but also at home.

A leading British psychiatrist at the Priory Clinic, the highly respected hospital favoured by celebrities needing treatment for addictions, has identified a disturbing condition afflicting thousands of men - the Atlas Syndrome.

While a generation ago, fathers simply had to focus on being breadwinners, modern dads have to cook, do the washing up and change nappies as well. And for many, the strain is becoming too great.

The illness has been diagnosed by Dr Tim Cantopher, one of the medical directors at the Priory. He named the condition after Atlas, the titan of Greek mythology who was forced by Zeus to support the sky on his shoulders. "Atlas Syndrome is a physical condition caused by too much stress," he said. "It's a blown fuse which happens to people who are too strong in the face of adversity."

According to Dr Cantopher, Atlas Syndrome strikes men who are trying to "work the unworkable", leaving victims feeling exhausted, anxious, unfulfilled and depressed. It is, in his words, "the curse of the strong". Dr Cantopher is treating 34 GPs suffering from the syndrome, as well as men across all manner of professions, including police officers and teachers.

"Depression is normally thought of as an illness that runs in families, but this is a specific type of condition which was once very rare, but is now very common," said Dr Cantopher. "It is affecting people who wouldn't otherwise suffer from any kind of stress-related illness.

"It is a modern condition, caused by social and political changes affecting the role of men in society."

While women are not immune to Atlas Syndrome, says Dr Cantopher, it is successful men who are most at risk.

"I'm not saying that women don't get this, but men - particularly men in important positions - are starting to fall like flies," he said. "There are too many balls being kept in the air by these people. The weaker men will moan, groan, delegate or give up before they get ill: it is the best ones that are going under."

Dr Cantopher's findings struck a chord with Jack O'Sullivan, co-founder of Fathers Direct and editor of Dad magazine. "There are a lot of very tired men out there," said Mr O'Sullivan, himself the father of two young children. "This generation of fathers is living out a huge social change. They're working just as hard, or even harder, than ever, but at the same time they're committed to doing a great deal more at home - so they're inevitably very stressed out.

"The majority of men will actually increase their working hours after becoming fathers, because there is another mouth to feed, and income will be lower if their partner is out of work for a while. Combine this with trying to be a hands-on father, and the result is exhaustion."

Sanjay Sehgal, 37, and Stephen Harvey, 44, are both fathers with high-pressure jobs who recognise the problems many men face.

Mr Sehgal, an advertising director at Emap, which publishes magazines including FHM, Arena, Q and Smash Hits, said: "I sometimes feel like I have to be a multi-tasking plate-spinner."

Mr Sehgal, from Walthamstow, east London, who is married with a two-year-old son, added: "Sometimes it can be overwhelming - you need to take a deep breath and go into the garden to get your head together. The work-life balance is difficult to maintain, especially when your child's at an age where you need to give them a lot of attention. You can liken it to a mouse continually running on a wheel that doesn't go anywhere."

Stephen Harvey, a director at Microsoft, claims to have recognised and beaten symptoms similar to those described as Atlas Syndrome. He has five children, including 11-month-old twins and lives near Henley-on-Thames with his wife Helen. "The Atlas syndrome makes huge sense to me - it's a good way of describing things," said Mr Harvey, who also breeds labradors, and currently has more than 40 dogs to look after as well as his responsibilities at home and work. "When some bits of your life aren't exactly how you wanted them, you can end up chasing your tail.

"I think I've been a victim of it before, but I'm trying to get it right now," he continued. "I finally realised that I'd lost it in terms of my overall balance, sleep and use of hours in the day about five months ago. I had a turning point one morning on the way to work when I accidentally filled my diesel car up with petrol. I got half-way up the road before it started misfiring. That's when I knew I had to do something - I realised there was only one of me and things had to change."

In the last five months, said Mr Harvey, he has addressed the issue on his own terms - making an effort to go into the office later, leave at a set time, and work from home one day a week. "I think the Atlas Syndrome is here and for many people it's very real," said Mr Harvey. "But if you recognise it, it's also manageable."

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