At the moment, I’m obsessed with the TV show Breaking Bad.
In a nutshell, it’s about a regular guy named Walter White who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. He’s 50 with a wife and 16-year-old son who has cerebral palsy, and his 40-year-old wife is pregnant. He’s a brilliant chemist who did groundbreaking research years ago, but was screwed over by his partners. Now he’s living in New Mexico and working as the most overqualified high school chemistry teacher on the planet. And because teachers make dick, he also works a second job at a car wash where he suffers daily indignities.
But everything changes when Walt finds out he has terminal lung cancer. Already behind in bills and now facing the proposition of chemo and other expensive medical treatments not covered by insurance, Walt is petrified not about dying, but of leaving his family in a pile of debt.
One day he does a ride-along with his brother-in-law, a DEA agent. While the cops are busting a meth lab, Walt sees one of his fuck-up former students escaping. But instead of telling the police, Walt blackmails this kid Jesse go into going into business together. With Walt’s chemistry background he’s able to cook up the purest methamphetamine around. And eventually the most unlikely of drug kingpins is born.
But as you might imagine, balancing life as the Southwest’s top crystal meth dealer with that of husband and father is challenging to say the least. And indeed, much of the show centers around that dichotomy. But the crux of the whole thing, the main question at the center of everything, is simple.
What are you willing to do to provide for your family?
As any regular reader of these pages knows, that is a question near and dear to my heart recently. But moreover, it’s something I think a lot of dads (and moms too) are struggling with. As the economy continues to sink while foreclosures and bankruptcies spike, many families are in dire straits. So what do you do?
As fathers, we’re programmed to provide at all costs. Or at least that’s how it was with me. So if your family is in trouble, I always thought we should spring into action. If you’re not working then get a job. If you’re working full-time, get a second job. Or a third one if necessary. Work 90 hours a week if you have to. Whatever it takes and whatever you have to do to ensure your family’s well being, you do it. Because you’re a man and that’s what men do.
That’s what Walt did. He even resorted to illegal means to make it happen. He made millions and millions of dollars and made sure that his family would never want for anything. Mortgage payments, medical bills and college tuition for two kids. He flat out provided.
But he also lost his family in the process. He was working so much and for so long he grew estranged from them. Eventually he came to a crossroads where he could either stop making all that money and go back to life as he once knew it, or continue on his path. He chose to keep bringing in the dough, even though he knew his wife wouldn’t take him back because of it. Even though he knew it would harm his relationship with his son and newborn daughter. For Walt, providing for his family was paramount. And he did it even though his family didn’t love him anymore, because “that’s what men do.”
I won’t lie, a part of me really respects Walt. What I wouldn’t give to plop down a duffel bag full of money on the kitchen table and tell my MJ “don’t worry about anything anymore because I’ve got this.” To feel like a “real man.” While I wouldn’t do anything illegal to earn money, I could get a second or third job in addition to the newspaper and my freelance gigs. I could work 90 hours a week like a dog to pay off our bills for a few years. It makes sense.
Except for a few things.
Time spent at these hypothetical jobs is time I don’t get to spend with my wife and child. I work 40+ hours a week as it is. My wife’s hours are even worse. Will is already in daycare full-time. Any further absence on my part or MJ’s would mean either increased time at daycare or with other babysitters. And I have to tell you, I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.
Will amazes me every single day. His progress at this age is so rapid and intriguing, I literally shake my head every day in wonder and amusement. He sings songs, he talks in complete sentences. He’s grasping jokes and humor. I worked Saturday and Sunday this weekend, and as a result I barely saw him at all. And I miss him something fierce. I just can’t imagine that feeling of missing him on an ongoing basis.
Providing for one’s family is a good and noble thing. Kids need food, clothes and shelter. And it takes money to do that. But there are more ways to provide than simply earning a paycheck. Will needs two parents who are there as much as possible.
I have great memories of my father, but most of them are from when I was pre-teen and older. And that’s because he was building a business from scratch. My memories from early childhood are almost exclusively of my mother. I’m not bitter or angry about that. I understand why it was that way. And because of my dad’s hard work we moved into a nice house, had decent cars and my brother and I could play sports. I’m incredibly appreciative.
But at the same time, my dad has told me one of his biggest regrets is not being around as much when we were young. And I think that’s why he’s constantly foaming at the mouth to get Will, because he’s making up for lost time. And doing a helluva job I might add.
The point is I don’t think I’m willing to work 90 hours a week if it means missing out on Will’s childhood. That probably means I’m not a real man to a lot of people. Hell, I have a hard time swallowing it myself to an extent. But do these people realize that part of being a real man is spending time with your kids? Being there for them. Guiding them and helping them at every turn. All the money in the world isn’t going to help when you find yourself a stranger to your own kids.
Just ask Walt.