work life balance

Work and Family: The Ongoing Tug-of-War

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 comes 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.

Job rewards feed men’s desires for recognition and power, offering fast food for a starving ego.

1. Take 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 payoff for months or years, if at all, especially when there are pressing deadlines today at work. But several recent studies have concluded that success at home and at work is far from an “either-or” situation.

2. Adopt a new perspective.

Instead of seeing one fast track and one fatherhood track diverging in different directions, try viewing your career and your family as separate rails that 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 or career path, thinking only of what would best fulfill him. Now that he has a family, 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.

3. Make daily choices.

What actions can you take? Try asking your children, “Is my work consuming me?” Put birthdays, recitals, soccer games, plays on your work calendar. Tell coworkers 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 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.
  • Create regular rituals to connect with your 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 video record the game or performance that you miss and then make a big event out of watching the footage.

Sound off: As we think about how to balance work and family, what are the most important action points for you to focus on?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What is most important in your life right now?”