work life balance

Work and Family: The Ongoing Tug-of War

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Every month or so, we hear about someone else “retiring” to spend more time with his children. We applaud him and perhaps even hold him up as an example for all fathers. But in reality, these people are usually politicians, professional athletes or business CEOs. Not all of us are in a position to choose outright between work and family, but must somehow reconcile these often-opposing forces. You want to do your best at home and at work. Providing for your family is a significant part of being a good father, and you can’t deny that much of your identity and sense of accomplishment come from your career.

Surely you’ve faced the questions of how to balance work and family: Do I put in more time at work to pursue career advancement? Do I drop what I’m doing and head home to be with the family? Should I begin looking for a more father-friendly job? However, John Snarey of Emory University found that, in the long run, involved fathers “went just as far in their work as comparable men did who were less involved with their kids.” Here are 3 ways to do it.

A Hard Look at Priorities

In our culture, it’s easier for men to seek their identity in the workplace rather than the home. We’re under pressure to perform regardless of the hours or number of business trips it takes to prove ourselves. When we do our jobs well, there are fairly quick and tangible rewards: bonuses, raises, new titles, congratulatory memos. Job rewards feed men’s desires for recognition and power, offering fast food for a starving ego. In comparison, the rewards of fathering are much less immediate and obvious. No matter how important something may be, it’s difficult to invest yourself in it when you aren’t likely to see a “pay off” for months, or years, or not at all especially when there are pressing deadlines today at work. Several recent studies have concluded that success at home and at work is far from an “either-or” situation.

Job rewards feed men's desires for recognition and power, offering fast food for a starving ego. Click To Tweet

A New Perspective

Instead of seeing one fast track and one daddy track diverging in different directions, try viewing your career and your family as separate rails which make up one set of tracks. Normally, a man begins his career with little reference to anyone else. He was likely unmarried when he chose his college major and career direction, thinking only of what would best fulfill him. Now that he’s been joined by a wife and children, a career is a means to an end: supplying for the physical and emotional well-being of his family. Consequently, he is able to make decisions about promotions, transfers, and work schedules based on how it will affect his family. Furthermore, he views his work as one more aspect of his fathering, providing opportunities to model a healthy work ethic and demonstrate leadership skills for his children.

Making Daily Choices

What actions can you take? Try asking your wife and children, “Is my work consuming me?” Put birthdays, recitals, soccer games, plays, etc. on your work calendar. Tell co-workers that you wouldn’t miss those events for the world, and ask them to help remind you. Look over your career goals for the next few years. Can you realistically accomplish all of them? Is your family’s budget based on realistic needs, or on some culture-driven idea about earning power, upward mobility, and keeping up social appearances? Can you afford to make some changes in your work schedule for the sake of your family?

Short of making drastic changes, there are other daily steps dads can take to balance work and family, such as those suggested by Jim Levine in his book Working Fathers:

  • Discuss your priorities with your boss. Be candid with him or her about times when you need to flex your schedule for family events. Make it clear that you are dedicated to doing your best at work, but that family is also very important to you. Suggest your own “win-win” solutions or ask for his ideas to help reach a workable balance.
  • If it’s feasible in your situation, learn to turn down or delay extra projects that you can’t handle without compromising your family’s needs.
  • Proactively strengthen your relationship with your spouse. You’ll be better prepared to handle the stresses of work confidently and as a team. Have her keep you informed of your kids’ day, so you can ask them specific questions and let them know you’re thinking about them.
  • Create regular rituals to connect with your wife and kids such as phone calls from the office, special “daddy” time when you walk in the door, or other weekly events that keep you in touch.
  • Block out time for your own rejuvenation, whether you use the time to exercise, take a walk, or wind down a little before going home.


  • Catch up with your children before you leave, so you’ll know what they’re up to while you’re gone.
  • Put notes of affirmation and “I miss you” in your kids’ school books or lunch boxes.
  • Tell your kids where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. Give them a sense of what you’ll be accomplishing on this trip.
  • Call home every day. Ask questions about the spelling test, basketball tryout or strained relationship.
  • Give your kids a calendar and trip itinerary so they know exactly where you are.
  • Take care of the lawn, leaky faucet, car problem, etc. before you leave.
  • Have someone videotape the game or performance that you miss, then make a big event out of watching the tape.
  • Agree with your wife that, when you return, you save daily details and problems until later. Spend time just enjoying your kids.