The irony is rich.
When I accepted a new job as a director of a PR agency in Boston a couple of months ago, I was worried about a lot of things. Could I do the work? Would I fit in with the people there? Will the learning curve be too steep? Will I be able to hack it in the city? As it turns out, those fears were unwarranted. I can do the work, I love the people, I’m contributing as I learn, and I’ve come to really enjoy the city. I’m out of the creative rut I was in at IBM, I’m back with a smaller company which is more my style, and I get to do something different just about every single day. It’s fantastic.
The problem I have isn’t at work, it’s at home.
I used to work from home three days a week, which meant I saw my kids all the time. I was still connected if not always available. I could do things like put my son on the bus and volunteer in his classroom every Friday. I was home for dinner almost every night. I was plugged in.
Now I commute into Boston five days a week. I’m out the door by 6:30 am and I don’t get home for another 12 hours. Sometimes the kids are awake when I leave, sometimes they aren’t, and I get home half an hour before Sam goes to bed. I miss every dinner. I have just enough time to scarf down some food, put Sam to bed, ask Will how his day was, put Will to bed, and gaze at Tommy as he drifts off to sleep.
Occasionally my wife and I even say hello to one another before falling into bed exhausted.
That means MJ is basically a single mom for 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday. She handles everything at home because I’m not there, and she does it well. I married a fiercely independent woman, and even before I started my job she was preparing herself for when I was gone. That means developing routines predicated on being a one-woman show, maximizing individual effectiveness, and strategically adapting to life as a solo, on-the-go mom.
I was prepared for all of that. What I wasn’t ready for was what happens when I am finally there.
MJ scrambles to get by with three kids in tow on a daily basis and she’s developed certain routines. But when I’m home, my strategies are a little different. We’ve always differed in our approaches to just about everything, but now that she has the bulk of the parenting responsibilities during the week, it’s all her way. Needless to say, the weekends are full of clashes.
She and the kids are used to one thing, I’m bringing something else to the table. Neither of us is right or wrong, it’s just a matter of familiarity. Being unfamiliar with their regimen, I feel like I’m gumming up the works. Mainly because my oldest has no qualms telling me “you’re doing it wrong, dad” when I’m upending their routines.
I feel a little bit like an outsider or a fish out of water. I watch my family operate — accustomed to life without me during the week — and I get a little sad. I feel like I don’t fit in, and worse than that, I feel like a hindrance. I’m unnecessary drag on their sailboat as I struggle to figure out what my crew is doing.
MJ would never say this and she denies it, but I’m confident I see it at times. I don’t blame her, she’s doing what she has to do to get by on a daily basis. But still, I feel so — removed.
I used to eyeball Will’s homework and work with him on his spelling every morning over breakfast. I used to be the go-to person for his teacher and I was a familiar face in the classroom thanks to volunteering. Working at home allowed me to see Sam grow up and become awesome on a near daily basis, as I was the first to hear new words and watch him meet milestones. I was still working at home so I couldn’t always play, but I could take five minutes and snuggle with him. And I could discuss things with my wife and give her a hand when necessary.
Now? I’m a ship passing my family in the night. Sam sings the alphabet and counts to 15, and I didn’t know right away. A girl has a crush on Will at school, and I found out days later because it had already been discussed. And Tommy seems to age 6 months every time I come home from work. I try to plug back in on weekends between emails and sponsored blog posts for my second job, but I never feel like I’m on the same page. Nothing feels like it fits anymore, and sometimes I wonder if all my kids will remember of me is the guy who left when it was dark and got home when it was darker.
Kids don’t care that the lights need to be kept on, rent needs to be paid, and down payments need to be saved for a house. Stay-at-home parents are amazing and keep the world turning, but working parents are forced to give up life’s most precious commodity — time. We worry every single day our contributions — while completely necessary — aren’t enough. We worry we’re more of a hindrance than a help, and an annoyance patiently endured until Monday morning when things get back to normal.
This tightrope we walk is so perilous, not because of the fall, but because success isn’t even guaranteed should we make it across.
It’s time to find my fit and focus on quality time versus quantity. Oh, and single parents — I have no freaking idea how you do it!