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.
In choosing our priorities we make sacrifices. If we recognize the gain, the sacrifice is easy. Father's have been "sold a bill of goods," when we have been told that our "work" will give us all the fulfillment we need in life. We are now discovering that we need to feel connected with our children and families to truly be content with life. No father on his deathbed has ever said, " I wish I had spent more time at work." It is coming to understand as fathers that our relationships with the important people in our lives, especially our children, is of paramount importance to our feeling good about ourselves and to feeling our lives have meaning.
When I asked my children what they think makes a good parent they gave me the following responses: Our 12-year-old daughter said that taking your kids to school and picking them up, (on time) and having time to play with them and help them with their homework was important. She also commented that young children should spend more time with the parents than a baby sitter.
I asked our 16-year-old son about what he thought it took to be a good dad. He summed it up by saying it just takes time to spend with your kids. He said people should not be prejudiced against teenage fathers, if they can have the time to be with their kids they can be good fathers too. It all comes down to time.
I know from the dads and new parents I work with, as well as my own wife and me, balancing our many needs and desires and finding the time it is often overwhelming. I encourage you not to give up the struggle. Most important, when it comes to your children, finding the time for them will not only benefit their development but, particularly for us fathers, can make all the difference about how we feel about what is of real value and meaning in life.
Like the season's of the year, our lives as parents, as fathers, go through transitions. Look at the time you spend with your children in relationship to the season of their life. Getting your son or daughter off to a good start often takes more time and is very intense. I can't remember how many times I've heard, "They are only little for such a short time." I can't remember any days (and nights) that were longer than when our son and daughter where between birth and two years old. And today I can already feel they have one foot out of our house and into lives of their own. And I could not be prouder of each of them, for how wonderful and difficult our life has been. But more than a few times I wish we could go back in time, and my children could be our babies once again.
For Further self-reflection and discussion:
1. What do you spend the majority of your time doing?
2. How have (or if you are expecting a baby, how will you) your "routines" changed once you had a child?
3. How did your father prioritize his time? What was most important to your father?
Bruce Linton, Ph.D. is founder and director of the Fathers' Forum programs for expectant and new fathers. He is a former contributing editor to "Full-Time-Dads" magazines, and columnist for Parents' News in San Francisco, California. He is the author of Finding Time for Fatherhood (Berkeley Hills Books, 2000). Bruce is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapists and received his doctorate for his research on men's development as fathers.
Copyright © Bruce Linton. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.