It’s tough being a Dad in today’s world.
In many case Dads are still expected to be primary providers in most families, but at the same time have expanded what they do in terms of everything else that’s needed to be done to run a household. This expansion in household labour by men is in part because so many families are now dual-earner couples. Recent research showed that three quarters of women with dependent children were working.
A generational shift
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It’s very different from the environment that many modern dads grew up in. The gender role modelling we saw and experienced growing up was very traditional. But expectations have changed and with it the complexity of what it means to be a great dad.
Scott Behson, author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide describes the expansion of dads into homelife responsibilities as “the echo” of women becoming more involved in the workplace. The pressure and tension mounts when we consider that both sexes expected to maintain their primary role and then add the extra on top.
No wonder there is tension when you are juggling work, family, your own needs and trying to be a “perfect” partner.
Trying to do the right thing for everyone is a tough process, tougher yet if we neglect to communicate honestly with both ourselves and our partners.
What do we mean by “work life balance?”
Make no mistake it’s a divisive term both in its definition and it’s the plausibility or desirability to achieve.
You will hear and read plenty of content that says to be successful in the business world (and hence, implicitly, in life) you need to make sacrifices, to put aside any sense that home or personal life is anything other a fleeting distraction. That narrative will be reinforced by the classical male breadwinner attitude, culminating in a view that you are in some way letting down your family if you aren’t “all in” for work.
Equally it can be problematic to seek ‘balance’ because it can create pressure in families to reach some sort of nirvana that my always feel like you are failing to achieve.
I think it helps to think of work life balance not as a balance beam or scales but as Scott Behson discusses, as a balanced diet. If all you ate was broccoli then you wouldn’t be very healthy, despite the benefits of eating broccoli. All your food groups need to be balance with each other and the same goes for the concept of work life balance.
The term work life balance is an easy shorthand that covers ideas about juggling, seeking harmony or struggling with lots of responsibilities and expectations, as a result I’m not going to ditch the term yet but it’s worth considering what factors drive your ability to get the balance “right” for you.
How do you get “balance”?
At its heart, balance is very personal – rooted in a combination of values, your family objectives and the practical and financial constraints that your face.
It can be a complex topic but from a personal development perspective it starts with being truly honest with yourself about your values, your objectives and your vision of the future.
You need to ask yourself:
- What the ideal working week looks like for you.
- How many hours do you work, where you work, what are your family routines?
- What times and events are non-negotiable and what are nice to haves.
- Think about the short term and the long term. What are you able to tolerate now that is merely short term pain?
Once you have this straight in your own mind and you need to open up the conversation to include the important people around you – partner, children etc.
It’s really important to create family goals and objectives that support everyone’s needs and desires. If you neglect this step life tends to default to traditional gendered roles in the family, where the dad is actually working more than he would want to while the mum may remain outside the workforce, neither happy with the arrangement and frustration and conflict building.
A personal reflection
In our family we have gone through this process many times, my wife has always earned significantly more than I have an I have taken extended leave from the workplace on a couple of occasions. We have needed a strong sense of family objectives to ‘survive’ my wife’s long hours and my variable income.
A French author called Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote these wise words:
“Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction.”
Practical and Financial considerations matter too. Your family goals will often cost money to achieve, or become a cost, if for instance you want to reduce your working hours to spend more time doing something else. While you may want work from home one day a week, if you’re a firefighter I’m not sure how that would work.
Open and honest conversations are the cornerstone of successful “balance.” Defining what is healthy for you and your family is so important.
It’s the kind of vision and values that underpinned Dom’s move to work part time.
It’s not an instant fix but a constant conversation.
By taking a view of what you actually want, sharing that openly and creating a plan that addresses the trade-offs will make a big difference to what you define as “balance” and how likely you are to achieve it.
What balance actually is and how to achieve it will be personal, but you’ll probably find my top tips guide useful as a starting point.
What happens if you don’t get it “right?”
Unmet needs are a sure way to create stress, tension and mental health challenges. Not only do you need to be aware of your own needs as an active father but also the needs of those close to you. The cultural drive to provide for your family through work and the importance of status that work gives us, can be both a source of comfort and stability and source of pressure.
A focus on work to the detriment of all other aspects of your life is unlikely to lead to long term happiness as these men so poignantly describe.
So if you are facing work life balance challenges it’s no good thinking “I wish they understood they are my primary motivator” you need to open up those lines of communication and also consider “Is it right and fair to those around me to pursue me goals?”
Because at the end of the day you want to build the right kind of memories.
“My childhood memories are of my Dad being absent during the week. For our kids, they’ll remember their Dad being present & that is very precious”
It might not take a lot to “fix” your balance, but it will take open and honest communication and that can be the hardest part of all.
So, is it work life balance a myth?
I don’t think so.
If you and your family are happy with how your life is structured and you know, understand and are comfortable with the trade-offs involved, then it’s not a myth.
The real myth is pretending that our choices as to how to structure our working lives don’t come with consequences and trade-offs and then ignoring the unmet needs or resentment that this can create.
In short “work” and “life” are only in conflict if we allow them to be, “balance” is really all about personal honesty, family communications and shared direction. As such perhaps work life blend or work life integration are more appropriate terms.