When someone asks you what you do what do you answer? Most men reply by stating what their job is. We answer, “Plumber, Accountant, Pilot, Teacher, Salesman.”
However, if you ask most men (at least those with kids) what is the most important thing in their life the will answer, “My children”.
Why is it then that we define ourselves by our career and not by our family and our relationships?
I used to be somebody. I had an important job, I flew around the world, I had lots of people working for me. I even used to earn good money. For the next 8 months whilst on my leave of absence, I’m just a Dad. However, I’m as happy as I can ever remember. I lead a hectic life that essentially involves running around after my two kids. From the moment I had children, I knew that I had to change my life and place more of an emphasis on family rather than work. I got the bit about prioritising family really easily – it was the letting go of work bit that took me time to learn how to do.
I think every father faces this sort of dilemma. In my case the situation was more extreme because my young son has cerebral palsy but the basics of the scenario are very familiar. How could I let go enough at work to give my family the time it needed?
At first, I naively thought that I could do both. I tried to carry on full tilt with my career whilst still being there at every important family moment. However, for me this was impossible. Arun’s disabilities meant that he was frequently ill and in hospital. When he was well, he had almost daily therapy and medical appointments. I simply couldn’t do justice to both and slowly but surely it dawned on me that I was going to have to make a choice. I decided that I needed to work part-time and agreed with my employer to go to a three day week.
This was a major step. Whether I admitted it or not, like most career men, I defined a large part of who I was by my work. In the end though, it was an easy decision. In my heart of hearts I also knew that I was doing myself a disservice by trying to battle on at work under such trying conditions. Those people who knew about my personal circumstances made allowances but I could see that that my bank of goodwill built up over many years was starting to run dry. Those people who were not aware of my circumstances just saw a fall off in commitment and performance. In short, my stock at work was falling. It was clear to me that for both personal and professional reasons, the right thing to do was to call a time out and reposition my career.
From a personal point of view I found the shift to working part time easy. The extra time at home with my family was tremendous. It allowed me to engage in my son’s development and therapies in a way that few other fathers could. I was an active participant in all aspects of his life. At work I continued to do long hours but for only three days a week.
However, there were compromises that I had to make at work. I found I was less engaged than I had been previously. It is only when I stepped away that I realised how much of my personal energy I was putting into my work. It was not just the hours, it was also the “headspace”. Previously I would often spend an hour in the evening reviewing work papers for the next day whilst “relaxing” with a glass of wine. I was not only better prepared but found that I thought more clearly about how to solve problems, manage relationships and develop staff whilst away from the hurley burley of the office. In my new life I no longer had the time to do this, instead my wife and I would spend the time reviewing Arun’s day and planning his therapies and discussing his development. As a result, I was less well prepared for work. My decisions were more instinctive and less thoughtful and I was no longer as well informed. Whilst I was at work I stuck to getting the job done. I became very task focused and stopped spending time on some of the important things like networking, relationship management and teambuilding. The result was that whilst I was still hitting my deadlines and producing good work I was doing so in more and more of a vacuum. I was focused on getting the job done and not on developing my career.
Slowly but surely I came to terms with this. I learnt to let go and not care so much about what happens in the office. It is still important and I will always endeavor to do an excellent job but I no longer spent my evenings thinking about the next day. It was only when I learnt to truly let go and enjoy my time outside of work that I enjoyed my time in work again. I stopped stressing about work when I wasn’t there.
I finally got the joke. Now when someone asks me what I do I say, “I’m a Dad” and I feel proud.