As a member of the “Latchkey Generation,” I spent much of my adolescence fending for myself at the end of the school day. Like many of the families of my generation, our family relied on the income of two working parents to keep the bills paid and the retirement account funded. In many ways, the latchkey life was a good dynamic for me, as my parents believed in teaching kids work ethic.
At the sound of the dismissal bell, I jumped on my bicycle and peddled home to an empty house. Entering through the kitchen door, I grabbed a snack and started to work through the significant list of chores I was to accomplish over the next few hours: sweeping, mopping, laundry, and yardwork. Mom and dad insisted that I initial the tasks on the “list” as I completed them, an administrative expectation that taught me how to be accountable for the jobs and the quality of the work. I knew the work would be inspected before bedtime; good performance meant a weekly allowance. When the housework was done, I shifted to homework.
Make Quality Time Together a Priority
While this pattern meant hectic afternoons for me, I recognized that I was learning valuable skills that I would need to deploy after I made the transition into adulthood. I also realized that I wouldn’t be home alone forever. My parents, both hardworking people, modeled a balance between family and professional life. Dad, a police officer, was typically home by 8 pm. Mom, a small business manager, always walked through the door in time to put a hot meal on the table.
When dad’s work kept him away beyond the regular shifts, he would schedule time for an afternoon fishing trip or “boys’ weekend” camping. Together, mom and dad espoused a “work hard and play hard” posture for family life. We traveled frequently, always took a summer vacation, and created ample space for celebrations and holidays. Looking back, I recognize that we lived a very middle-class existence. Our home was simple, as was our lifestyle, but we were wealthy in one particular facet of family life: quality time together. When the demands of work and family were at odds with one another, family won the day.
Love Your Family More Than Your Work
As a father of three, I often struggle with how to balance work and family life. Similarly, I never want my partner to sense that she is married to a workaholic. Despite the amazing modeling of my parents, I admit that there are times I really struggle with the work/family balance. I love to work. I really love to work! Like many of the males of former generations, I stake a lot of my identity in providing a strong income for the good functioning of our family. In the workplace, I want to be viewed as competent, creative, and determined to move the organization forward. As a manager of a team of colleagues, I always want to be the hardest working of the bunch in the expectation that the team will match and potentially exceed my work ethic.
These interconnected drivers sometimes compel me to work far beyond the typical 40-hour week. I loathe unfinished work, poor workmanship, and coworkers who put their career trajectory ahead of the success of the organization. In fact, I view “lazy” as the nastiest work in the dictionary. All that said, I’ve had to train myself to be a present, engaged, and healthy on the home front. Kids need a father who cherishes family far more than work. Our partners desire a companion who will never sacrifice relationship on the altar of employment.
Let your NO mean NO
Like me, you may be the kind of father who has to create some intention in balancing commitment to the job with the commitment to family life. If this balance is a struggle for you, begin with this simple step: Let your NO mean NO. For those of us who earn the unsavory title “workaholic,” our biggest challenge on the job is creating healthy boundaries. When tasks are unfinished or new job-related challenges arise, we may be quick to say “Yes” to additional responsibilities and/or projects even though our calendars are full and our personal capacity is taxed. While the YES may be delivered as a function of duty to the job and our desire to work hard, the YES can create burnout that impacts everyone in our circle.
If we give everything we have – and more – to the job, what stores of energy will be available when we return to our homes at the end of the workday? Very little! Saying NO to additional tasks and hours on the job is not an act of laziness or disregard for the work; it is an investment in self-care. And with this investment in self-care, we have enhanced ability to invest in our most important relationships – family. When you begin to say NO to the add-ons in the workplace, hold fast to your decision to say NO. This may be especially difficult to do if you have garnered a reputation for always saying YES when asked to take on more. A NO at work is a YES for the people you love.
Ok, dad, now that you’ve mastered the “Art of NO,” use your reclaimed time and energy to be the partner and Father you agreed to be. As my dad taught me, carving quality time for family adventures, projects, meals, exercise, entertainment, and the like is always time well spent. If the demands of work require additional outputs of time and energy in the short term, be the kind of partner and father who always recoups the loss of time when the pace of work life returns to the historic norm. When you are with your family, eliminate work distractions so that you can be fully present. Creating space means closing the laptop and silencing the cell phone.
Remember, your kids are watching you. The patterns you establish as a worker, as a parent, and as a partner are modeled for the ones you love. Model balance and remember your kids aren’t kids forever.