All too often it seems that the burden of juggling a family and work falls on mum alone and poor dad gets forgotten about. But fathers also struggle to achieve a work/life balance so Parental Choice spoke to one working father, Ian Walker, about his top ten tips to achieve the impossible! This one is for all those fathers out there – we would appreciate your feedback too.
“When my wife Sarah and I discovered that we were expecting our first child, there was something of a realisation that things were about to change, but there was still a boatload of denial. To be sure, there was less drinking, there were fewer rounds of golf and less clubbing, but nothing really changed, in spite of the ante-natal classes…
Then it happens that further denial is no longer possible. In the form of a small, but oh-so-perfectly-formed bundle of humanity. But whereas the majority of humanity expresses itself through reason, behaves discreetly at the dinner table and takes itself off to a small room to do its business, this little specimen eschewed such civilised behaviour. Indeed, when it was not sleeping, it was feeding and when it was not feeding it was filling nappies. And the inconvenient truth was that it often chose not to sleep when the rest of the world wanted to. What is more, it did all this without any hint at gratitude or consideration.
So how do you continue to function normally when life has become distinctly, well, not normal? How do you go to work on four hours of interrupted sleep? How do you also support your wife when she is suffering the effects of her own sleep-deprivation and the unceasing attentions of a ravenous infant?
I remember frequently sneaking off to the loo in the middle of the day and snatching 20 minutes of much-needed shut-eye before sidling back to my desk in the hope that no one had noticed my absence; I worked from home more frequently than before, minding the baby during conference calls and allowing Sarah to snatch much-needed naps; I attempted to reassure her that things would improve, even though I had not a shred of evidence that there was a basis of fact behind my reassurance.
At the same time, there was an immense sense of joy and a feeling that not much else mattered than the well-being and happiness of this new arrival in our lives. Although there were nights spent pushing the pram along deserted streets at three in the morning, this seemed like part of the plan. Everything that had happened previously in my life now had a new, sharpened perspective. Fatherhood was here, it was real and it was not quite as mind-bendingly scary as I had feared. Indeed, in many ways it was hugely exhilarating to watch this new life grow and flourish in front of our eyes.
But it did introduce a whole range of complexity into decision-making. This new dimension in our lives superseded all other motivations: the desire to be intricately involved in raising your own child is supremely, wonderfully, maddeningly distracting. How then do you go to work and commit yourself to the tasks at hand when in reality, you’re worried about whether your baby’s temperature is ever going to come down? How do you deal with the choice of whether to agree to a three week business trip to the Far East when your wife is coping with a month-old infant for the first time in her life? What do you do when the school calls to say that your child is feeling unwell, and you’re about to step into a meeting which you’re meant to be leading?
As with many things in life, there is no such thing as a 100% right answer – whatever course of action you choose will always involve a trade-off. So, given that, and that we are all individuals with different perspectives, preferences and prejudices, what learnings can I share which might help other working fathers? Here are a few thoughts:
Learning #1: There is one unalterable truth: your family must always be the first priority. Business decisions can always wait. Meetings can be rescheduled. Flights can be changed. You’ll learn that one very quickly if it’s not innate.
Learning #2: Trust your own judgment: you are the only one who truly understands your own drivers and motivators. There are mothers I know who chose to return to work only days after delivering their children. Equally, there are fathers who have taken a year or more of paternity leave because they felt it so important to be fully present in the formative months. Find and follow your own path.
Learning #3: Ask the advice of others who have trodden the same path before. We have a tendency with many things to think that we’re the only ones ever to have experienced fears and indecisions. The reality is that other parents will frequently be able to give you their reassuring guidance. This may seem to contradict Learning 2, but the key is to complement your own instincts with the wisdom of trusted family and friends.
Learning #4: If your child has a temperature/tummy-ache/head-ache, although the gremlin sitting on your shoulder will be convincing you that it’s likely to be caused by a life-threatening illness, the likelihood is that it’s just a 24 hour infection and will go away as quickly as it came. This comes down to experience, and if you have more than one child, you will know it as a truism that you’re far more relaxed second time around.
Learning #5: Make time for each other. Consciously engage your partner in discussing your fears, decisions and doubts. Equally importantly though is to ensure that you are actively engaged in understanding your partner’s wishes. It seems like simple, easy advice, but children can very quickly become a replacement for real conversation, particularly when you’re both exhausted. Get babysitters, go out to dinner and remind yourselves that you were a couple before you had children.
Learning #6: If you’re planning to take a lengthy business trip, don’t keep it on the back-burner until the week before you’re due to leave. Talk about it early and plan for it early. Frequently the initial panic that your partner expresses gives way to a more rational response, and planning can kick in.
Learning #7: I had spent many years living and working abroad, and the wanderlust has not disappeared. However, I had done this before marriage and children. Ex-pat assignments fail most frequently not due to the working partner’s failure to acclimatise, but as a result of the non-working partner’s unhappiness. Be very clear that if you’re considering a move to another country it has to be one that stands a strong chance of success not only for you, but equally for your partner and your children. Also, it’s never a good idea to uproot teenage children, but younger kids tend to be more flexible.
Learning #8: Proactively take on housework and child-care duties. Even if your partner isn’t working, spending time doing ironing, hoovering and washing will give some blessed relief and earn massive brownie points. Looking after the kid(s) for an evening or better still a weekend while your partner goes away with her mates not only ensures you get some unforgettable one-on-one time with your offspring, but allows her the chance to boost depleted batteries.
Learning #9: Try to fit your work routine around your child’s routine. If possible, fit in drop-offs to nurseries and schools around your own journey to work. In the summer, I love to cycle to work via my son’s school. Although I run the gauntlet of being ridiculed as a mamil amongst the glam mums in the playground, the chance to bond on a bike is priceless.
Learning #10: There is a whole load more that could be written, and indeed has been written, on the topic. The list is far from exhaustive, and my knowledge continues to grow on a daily basis even though our kids are now 7 and 9. Most important of all is to enjoy the experience, and take advantage of any and all opportunity to spend time with your kid(s) as their childhood will slip through your fingers like water.”
Ian is a Senior Director in the software industry. He has a passion for introducing greater consciousness into leadership, and believes in the criticality of authenticity to building trust and moral authority in teams. He is somewhat potty about his two sons, and equally smitten with his wife of some ten years. A sometime golfer, regular cyclist, and Park runner he remains passionate about sustainability in all its forms.