by Bruce Linton, Ph.D
I have found it most difficult to get the time I needed to write this essay! When our children were little, it was obvious why it was impossible to get much "private" time. With small children the day to day tasks are like "digging a hole in the sand on the beach," no matter what size the hole, the water will fill it up. The demands to be both physically and emotionally present for infants and young children is pretty much a full-time work for both parents.
I have been surprised, even as our children have grown, (they are now 12 and 16), that parenting responsibilities are still a major focus of our day-to-day lives. I have found, with each year of fatherhood, I have had to ask myself, "What kind of father do my children need this year?" I have been lucky in that my personal interest and professional career have been interwoven. I have focused in my career on "coaching" and counseling parents with young children on how to balance parenting and being a couple with working at jobs and careers. This is also an issue I constantly struggle with myself. And I am not always satisfied with my own results.
As parents, time is our most valuable resource, our most precious commodity. Think about it: we work all our lives so we can retire; in other words, so we can do what we want with our time. The way we define, or spend our time, defines who we are and what we value. Our society sets values on what we do with our time. I have always been offended by the policy in the United States that if you work and put your kids in childcare, you get a tax credit. But, if you stay at home with your children or work part time there is no tax credit. What we say in the U.S. is that we value only your "time" spent working. How deep the message is in our country that parenting is not a priority.
We do not need to be locked in a battle between time spent working or time spent parenting. Both work time and family time sustain us in very important ways. We gain unique satisfactions from both. And there are practical matters to consider as well: we need money to live and our children are only little for such a short time. How will we prioritize our choices?
As fathers how we choose to prioritize our time is very difficult. The undercurrent in our society is still that our identity as men is linked to our work. Although this is changing, the esteem men feel around their careers is still rewarded financially and in status more than their time spent parenting. Also it is still accepted that the money a man makes is the way he is "supportive" to his family.
Most of the expectant and new fathers I work with are terribly conflicted by wanting to spend time with their young children and the financial pressures. Even when both parents work, dads, as well as moms want more time with their young children. I think we have a much larger social problem then we are aware of in terms of the emotional cost to both parents and young children when it comes to "time" in the early years of parenthood.
From my perspective as a Family Therapist, it is easy to understand that the changes couples and babies go through in the first year of life depends on having the necessary "time" to form the attachments that will normally occur. Yet, we do little as a society to "protect" this time for parents or children. Pressures mount quickly for parents to get back to work. I am not saying that every couple should stay home with their new baby. What I am proposing is that, especially in the early years, there is a need for flexibility in regards to time, so that fathers, mothers and baby can feel they have enough time to get to know each other. It takes time to come to a personal understanding of what parenthood and family life means for each of us as individuals.
In some ways the public problem we have-that we don't provide supporting families in our country-must be resolved in a "private" way. Each of us, as a couple and as parents, needs to find the way to create the work-family balance that can sustain our families emotionally as well as financially. For us as fathers, we need to support each other in parenthood. We dads must give each other the encouragement to take the risks both emotionally and financially to be more integrated in our families.