I’ve been on eight business trips in recent months. I’m away so much that my wife, Susan, searches for my photo on the backs of milk cartons, and I’ve been told my kids are looking to Elmo as a father figure.
It isn’t just the business trips. No matter what happens, I always feel like I’m coming up short — never spending quite enough time with my children and never being where I need to be with my career as a freelance writer. I knew it would be a delicate dance, balancing work and family, but I was surprised at just how hard it can be. While I know working moms have it tough because they usually end up doing the bulk of the childcare on top of their jobs, I can speak only for the working dads. And I have to say, for us, too, it’s really tough.
The difficulty hit me the very day that our first child, Isabelle, was born. Since I’m self-employed, I didn’t feel I could take off much time from work. In fact, I mentioned to Susan that it might be handy for me to have a laptop in the delivery room, to check e-mail during “downtime.” She replied that I should be grateful we were having our baby in a hospital because if I tried to work while she was in labor, I might need medical aid myself.
So, ahem, I completely threw myself into the delivery process. But Susan was chagrined — to say the least — that I allowed myself only about 24 hours of parental leave after we brought Isabelle home. I just didn’t feel comfortable taking any more time off. Two weeks later, though, I attempted to give Susan a break by bringing Isabelle on an interview with me. I was scheduled to talk to a lawyer who specialized in representing bicyclists. I thought it would make a nice, offbeat story and sold it to a regional business magazine. I suggested to the lawyer that we meet at a bike path because it would fit well with the story. Then I casually mentioned bringing Isabelle. “She’s always sleeping — you’ll hardly notice her,” I promised.
Except that it rained that day, and we had to do the interview in my car. The attorney held Isabelle while I scribbled his answers to my questions in a notebook. When Isabelle spit up on him, he didn’t complain. When she cried, he even helped diaper her. And he didn’t bill me — much.
Another daughter (Lorelei) later, balancing work and family hasn’t gotten any easier. Susan will never let me forget that one of the baby’s first words was — I swear — “work.” Some of it’s my own fault. I probably needn’t bother trying to interest Lorelei in the articles I’m working on, as I often do. She can’t even speak in two-word sentences, and there I am at dinner telling her about a story I’m writing on retaining good employees. And because my home office is located near the girls’ rooms, I’ve had a lot of phone conversations where the person I’m talking to suddenly asks, “Is that a baby crying?” “Sorry about that,” I say. “I’m in a crowded airport terminal. Very loud, very crazy here.”
Usually, the caller has kids as well and totally understands. But it’s amazing how many people in the corporate world still aren’t sympathetic to parents, particularly dads.
Geoff Williams is a Babytalk contributing editor.
A double standard for dadsFrom what I’ve observed, if a mom leaves the office in time to be home for dinner, she’s seen as an equally good mom and employee. But if a dad doesn’t want to stay late, he’s viewed as lazy or not a team player. I’m not saying women have it easy; we all know the statistics about the number of men in higher positions versus the number of women. But just as the glass ceiling hasn’t yet been completely shattered, neither has the 1950s model of dads as detached providers who demand a martini when they get home. Men are still expected, in large part, to put in the hours and keep the “my-baby-smiled-for-the-first-time” talk to a minimum.
I went on two business trips with male colleagues earlier this year, and whenever I talked about missing my kids, or asked if they had seen a mailbox so I could send off a postcard to my girls (never mind that they can’t read yet), I was met with baffled stares — the sort of stares I got from the boys in my fifth-grade gym class, when we were picking sides for dodgeball and I was the last to be chosen. It was the look that said, “Wow, what a wuss.”
Of course, it can’t all be society’s fault. Blame has to lie, at least in part, somewhere else. And it does. Some of my problems are…my wife’s fault.
Hear me out. There is a side of me that resents it when Susan chastises me for thinking too much about work. I mean, I was 12 when I got my first rejection letter from a publisher. In other words, I was a writer long before I was a parent. My career is part of my identity, and even when Susan’s right about the times that I need to stop and smell the roses — without trying to interview the gardener first — I can’t help but feel she’s rejecting a part of who I am.
But passion doesn’t excuse a dad from neglecting his family. I once interviewed a father who owned a company during the dot-com craze. He bragged that despite the 24/7 nature of his work, he always managed to get home in time to kiss his kids good night. I thought, “You want a medal because you fit your kids into your life for two minutes a day?”
As one of my female friends pointed out, my struggles are nothing new. The push and pull of family, work, and personal identity has been dizzying women for decades. Now it’s our turn as fathers to figure it all out. So far, the only thing I’ve learned is that if my kids and my career ever do mesh seamlessly, I’ll be close to some sort of nirvana. That’s why I’ll still send postcards from my business trips, why I’ll keep telling Lorelei about the articles I write, and why I’m even pondering how another baby would fit into the mix. After all, Susan’s first labor lasted 36 hours — more than enough time to discreetly check e-mail. So if we do go for a third, I just may sneak a laptop into the delivery room.