One spring break when his sons were young, Surrey, B.C., recreational consultant Tom Watson took a quick break to have lunch and was asked if he would play with them in the afternoon. He answered as many parents do when they have competing pressures: "We'll see."
He then headed to his basement office, but halfway down the stairs realized he had left his cellphone on the kitchen counter and turned back. When he reached the hallway, he heard one son tell the other, "Dad isn't coming out to play, Brad. He always says 'We'll see,' but all that means is he's not coming out. Dad's too busy to play with us any more. Besides, even when he does play with us, he's always mad. He's no fun any more."
Mr. Watson returned to his office, heart aching. Born to wandering and neglectful parents, he had been taken into foster care at the age of one and was then shuffled through 12 temporary homes before finding a loving family who adopted him. And now he realized he was failing his own children – and wife. He realized it had been months since he had last spent time with them with no strings attached. "Yes, my work was important, but surely it was not more important than spending time with my children and my wife. It was obvious I needed to find a better balance," he writes in his book, Man Shoes: The Journey to Becoming a Better Man, Husband and Father.
He also realized they were right that playing with him was no fun. He would dominate the games they played, reprimanding them if they didn't match his opinion of how they should be playing. He wasn't building positive bonds. He decided to start making amends that day, and gave up his afternoon at work for ball hockey. He kept his mouth shut and gave no instructions on what to do. He just played with them, they all laughed a lot, and they had a good time together. He vowed he wouldn't miss out on being with his sons again.
Family and work balance is a tricky issue for both genders. But women come to parenthood with a childhood that often included playing family with dolls and nine months with the coming child making itself vividly known in the body. By contrast, Mr. Watson observes that for him and most men, being a husband and father is a vague concept when growing up. So marriage and fatherhood is entered without a plan.
"It just happens, which is an awful way to get into it," he says in an interview. "And we move into this stage often just when our careers are taking off. We now have to get up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning so our wife can sleep in, or rock the baby in the middle of the night when it awakens, all while there's this great pressure to be something at work and make more money."
He believes most men identify themselves more with work than their family life, and feel more comfortable in their job relationships than their family relationships, but now the demands on the home front are escalating and they may feel ill-equipped to respond. "I went to university for several years to do my job. But the most important job is being a husband and a father. We're not very well trained for that," he says.
Men have to grow into their new shoes. He uses that metaphor for his book title, taken from when he was a child and his parents always bought shoes a little big for him, knowing he would grow into them. At about age 18, his feet stopped growing, and his actual shoe size was determined for life. But over the years, he has felt his metaphorical man shoes – what he needs to be successful as a man in this world – are continually bigger than what he actually is, and he needs to grow to fit them.
He believes readdressing the balance between work and family for men starts with a schedule to address the weekly challenge and a change in one's frame of mind. Write down your commitments for the week, but make sure you insert time with family. And don't mark that down with the all-too-common, negative cast: You must spend time with family, as if you are being forced into it. He urges you to view it as sharing time with family, something positive that you should look forward to.
Then, he advises, "Be there – physically and also in mind. The mind is the toughest part to deal with when we have cellphones, and Twitter, and TV. We can be there physically but not there, distracted. Only when we shut off our cellphones and laptops, and stop texting, will we be there. So share time, be there in body and mind."
Remember that a little time with the family is better than none. If you're juggling two jobs or working out of town and commuting home on the weekends, they will understand if you don't have a lot of time to spend. Even if you can only block out a couple of hours every week, that can be enough.
Also, don't plan big. Parents who work a lot sometimes feel guilty about neglecting their kids, and then feel that doing something lavish and expensive will somehow be seen as a payback. He says the pitfall is that the bigger the plan, the bigger the expectation, when the truth is the kids are happy with simple things like going to the park to fly kites or eating a brown bag lunch together.
And if you're struggling, he says, talk to other men. Too often men get together and never inquire about each other's lives, preferring to chat about sports or current affairs. If you reveal some of the problems you are having with family-work balance, it will open a wellspring from other men, and the sharing will help everyone. He tries to "leave no man behind," probing how his friends are doing, so no one is left alone, isolated in their struggles.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life balance column.
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