The mid-week dash home for bath and bedtime is one working parents know only too well. I ran it for years, and still do because I refuse to be a ‘weekend dad’. For a long time I’d get home on time but it wasn’t worth it. I was frustrated because my kids were moving too slowly. I turned into a nag, and often got angry. Half my mind was still at work. Getting the kids to bed brought feelings of guilt and regret. After years of trial and error, that short time is now good time. Here’s what I learnt.
Weekday time is more important than you realise
The average full-timer works about 225 days a year. If you’re a weekend dad, or mum, that only leaves 140 days a year to build a relationship with your children if you see them every single day you’re not at work. You’re only there for 38% of their young lives. Little more than a third.
I knew that in my gut, but confronting the hard reality of the stats really made me stop and think. If I’m only there for such a short time, how do I make the most of it, and how do I get more?
That feeling of regret
Bursting through the door on time is not the end of the race. It’s the start of a different event that runs on a completely different tempo. Before I recognised this, I would rush home, try and connect with my children, but couldn’t. I found myself nagging and frustrated. My mind just wouldn’t stop whirring with the next thing we needed to do, and I was always partly distracted by a thought about something at work.
At the time, I was familiar with a particular type of regret. When the children were in bed and the house was quiet, I realised I was a crap parent: too naggy, too impatient, and often angry. Despite not wanting to be a weekend dad, I was beginning to think it would be better if I wasn’t there during the week.
The right mindset for the right place
Work is fast, focused on getting things done. Home is slower, focused on creating connections and the conditions for learning and fun. It’s a different tempo. You fail when you bring the work mindset home. I learnt to see the journey home as a time to transition between the two, instead of a race to get home.
This realisation made the biggest difference. Making the transition is easy once you know how, but it took me years of messing up to work out. It’s all about intentionally turning off work and turning on parenting.
There’s a little trick to turning off work. Once you’ve done tomorrow’s to-do list, take it with you and let your mind wander on the way home. Something always pops up because your brain knows all the loose ends, you just need to slow down enough for it to tell you. Giving your brain the space to bring them up before you get home ensures you don’t get distracted when you’re at home.
Turning on parenting requires conscious effort too. It’s as easy as asking a question.
‘What kind of dad, or mum, am I going to be?’
I found asking myself this on the short path up to the front door worked best. I let my mind fill with images of me having fun with my kids, of staying calm in the face of tantrums, of being playful in the face of a stubborn six-year-old refusing to eat dinner.
This question has been so helpful to me that I have it printed on a postcard by my bed so that I ask myself it every morning.
Making a real connection
Connect physically with your kids by hugging, holding hands, getting down to their level, looking them in the eyes. Your actions show them you’re really there and force you to actually be.
Connect mentally by giving them your undivided attention to make them feel positive emotions as a result. You might ask them about their day and tell them about yours. You might share something you’ve seen, heard or thought of, or something that will make them laugh. Sometimes this is hard, so give yourself a time limit, 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus, then you can go and sort out dinner.
If it’s still not working, you might need to change more
In one job, I realised none of this was working. The job was too demanding. I could see my stress was coming out in my children’s behaviour. I tried to renegotiate with that employer, but flexibility wasn’t an option. It’s a shame, and perhaps now, a few years on, things would be different. But, back then they weren’t. Sometimes in life you’re forced to make a choice about what’s really important. I changed jobs because I don’t want to be a weekend dad. Ever.
Written by David Willans. David is Dad to two boys, aged seven and nine. He runs BeingDads, a blog he started four years ago after he realised he was stressed out with work and an angry dad, not the dad he wanted to be. BeingDads explores what it means to be a great dad and how to do it. David runs the blog and workshops for dads one day a week while working a ‘proper job’, advising companies on how to build competitive advantage through culture.