By Casey Neill
Hugh van Cuylenburg has always wanted to be a dad.
“I never even questioned it,” the Resilience Project founder said.
“It was always something I was definitely going to do.
“From a young age, I remember Mum telling me I’d be a really good dad.
“I wanted to have that unconditional love for my own kids.”
Fast forward to today and the teacher, author and podcaster has three children with wife Penny Moodie – Benji, 6, Elsie, 3, and Patrick, 1.
Hugh thought he had fatherhood in the bag before welcoming his first child.
After all, he’s known for championing resilience. Surely being a parent was a role he could weather?
“I felt very confident until the moment we brought him (Benji) home,” Hugh said.
“Until the reality of a screaming baby at 1am then 2am then 3am set in. The realisation that ‘this is it for the next however long’.
“I was 36 when we had Benji. So since leaving school, basically, life was completely on my terms.
“For the first time in a very long time, it absolutely wasn’t about me anymore.”
Spending time with other parents and children in his life hadn’t opened his eyes quite wide enough to see what he was in for.
“People are very keen to put on a front that they’ve got everything sorted and life’s great,” he said.
“I have noticed that pressure among people I hang out with.
“I often think, ‘Surely you’re not flying through this, surely I’m not the only one struggling right now?’”
Early in his parenting journey, Hugh felt huge pressure to live up to his profile as the ‘Resilience Project guy’.
“Especially in public,” he said.
Volunteering in India in 2008, he was blown away by how happy everyone was despite living in poverty.
He learned the value of practicing gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness for a more fulfilling life, so devised a program to share in schools.
The Resilience Project today works with thousands of students, parents, workplaces, and sporting clubs.
Hugh recalled toddler-aged Benji having a meltdown outside a cafe, and a comment from a passer-by: “He’s not very resilient, is he?”
“I kind of laughed but it made me quite angry,” he said.
“From then on, I felt enormous pressure to have everything under control.”
That is until he spoke vulnerably about his parenting journey – and other aspects of his life – on his podcast.
Hugh launched The Imperfects in 2019 with his brother, Josh, and comedian Ryan Shelton.
They chat with well-known Australians and experts in various mental health fields about embracing imperfection.
“It’s very liberating,” he said.
“Now I feel very comfortable. If the kids have a meltdown in public, I don’t care.”
Elsie was two and a half when Penny suggested the family add a third child to the mix.
“I remember saying to her, ‘Are you serious? We’re nearly out of the woods here’,” Hugh laughed.
“I could see light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in six years.
“I thought, ‘I just don’t understand this’.”
He said he’d accepted the reality of parenting three children more often than not, but there were times he caught himself picturing an alternative reality with a little more freedom.
“Last week I got asked last-minute to go to the footy in a corporate box,” he said.
“I couldn’t because I had the three kids with me. It wasn’t fair to Penny. I had to say no.
“I’m trying to practice acceptance.”
That applies to his career, as well.
“I’ve been less able to do the work that I want to do,” he said.
“I feel like every time a child came along I was able to put a bit less effort into it.”
He likened combining work and parenthood to a scene in the movie Gladiator.
Joaquin Phoenix’s character drives a knife into the back of Maximus, played by Russell Crowe.
Maximus fights on, concealing his pain.
“No one knows how exhausted I am,” Hugh said.
Benji and Elsie continue to be “terrible sleepers”, waking multiple times a night.
“It’s affected how much I can put into the Resilience Project,” he said.
“I’m very happy being vulnerable with how much I’m struggling.
“It connects you to the audience, rather than pretending you’re fine and giving a lacklustre performance.”
Hugh wrangles the older kids upstairs at night while Penny handles Patrick.
“I already know he’s just going to be so much more resilient than the other two because he’s already had to fend for himself so often,” he said.
“The amount of times I’ve forgotten where he is…”
He said the hardest part of parenting was seeing his kids struggle.
In his two books and a recent appearance on ABC’s Australian Story, Hugh has shared his sister Georgia’s struggle with an eating disorder and trauma from a man abusing her as a toddler.
“I think my background, with my sister being sick, I’ve always been very finely attuned to unhappiness in the household. I find that extremely difficult,” he said.
The best part of parenting?
“When they smile and laugh, that’s just my favourite thing,” he said.
“It’s just the greatest thing in the world.”
Heading into parenthood, Hugh wanted to be a really fun dad. He said he’s succeeding – possibly too much so.
“I think I need to be a bit more firm with setting boundaries and sticking to them,” he said.
“Whatever makes them happy is my philosophy. I don’t have the right balance yet.”
Hugh is experiencing parenthood alongside Josh.
“It’s the dream for me,” he said.
“I never thought it would happen because I’m six years older than Josh. I always thought my kids would be much older.
“It just turned out that his first and our second were born five days apart.”
There are only 23 hours between Hugh’s third and Josh’s second. Their wives were put up in the same hotel to recover post-birth – very convenient for grandparent visits.
Hugh loves the idea that the cousins might one day listen to the podcast.
“I hope it finds its way into their life at a time they need it,” he said.
“I just know from the feedback we’re getting that it’s helping so many people.
“I’d love for it to help them one day, too.
“If my dad had done a podcast with his brother, I would be listening to it and I would just love that.”
Guests on The Imperfects have included respected educator and speaker Lael Stone and in-demand developmental paediatrican Billy Garvey.
How does it feel to have parenting experts at his fingertips?
“It’s been great, it’s incredible and I feel very lucky,” Hugh said.
“But not everything works. Every child is so different.
“You can give general advice but there’s no guarantee everything’s going to work for you.”
The Resilience Project is touring kids’ show 3 Happy Tricks around in Victoria this September school holidays.
The high-energy Martin Heppell uses music, storytelling and laughs to provide primary school-aged children and their parents some practical strategies for being happier and more resilient.