I work…a lot, not out of choice, but necessity. I do love my job, it is mentally challenging, professionally satisfying, and it pays the bills. My wife and 4 children: they have sacrificed much for this career, my career, but not so much as this year. Work this year has taken me to a place that is just too far from home for regular commuting to be possible and too close that a full move (only for a year) is not sensible.
We have been managing with me commuting some days and relying on the hospitality of family to make to travel more manageable. Work is no busier than usual, but a job with long hours, combined with tyranny of distance does not a happy family make. It has been a slow fade. It is something that I have become more recently aware of, and that growing disquiet within me has now crystalised into this truth: my family is under serious strain; what am I going to do about it? I’ve been reflecting on this, and below are the things I’ve personally been working on which has enriched the relationship I have with my children.
1. Make the most of every moment
I don’t win any awards as the doting Dad who is present for all of my children’s triumphs, concerts, parent’s days and sporting events, but when there is an opportunity to be involved, I grasp it with both hands. I throw myself into family life at any and every opportunity I can. Don’t underestimate the joy it will bring to your child having you there as a part of their lives, no matter how infrequent.
2. Learn about your kids (and love them as individuals)
Even with my rather limited emotional capacity, I have discovered my children aren’t mass produced units that require identical input to grow and flourish. This presents me with a challenge, but to see them growing and developing after some considered input into their lives to humbling and profoundly joyful.
For example, Miss 13 and I have very similar personalities so an immediate connection is easy, but what she really values is one on one time, usually ‘nerding out’ over a good sci-fi movie! Miss 11 more self-contained, is confident and doesn’t seem to need a lot of input at times, but she loves basketball and plays at a representative level. Making the effort to be present at the games is obvious, what I have found is that the league maintains a great stats page, so I do a bit of homework on the teams and players she will face that week. “Watch out for number 14!” Even if I’m away at work, I’ll send a quick SMS to my wife with a message for my daughter so I can be part of her day, even if I’m not physically there.
Miss 9 and I are a work in progress. Our personalities are very different so there is the potential to clash. I’ve realised the fault there is mine, as is the remedy. What she needs is acceptance, protection and patience coupled with genuine interest in the small things that she does from day to day, and just by investing in these areas, I’ve seen our relationship grow. Mr 7 and I are also very different, his personality is much more like my wife’s (lucky him). I have found that he needs security of relationship to flourish, when this is on song, we get on like a house on fire.
3. Avoid family fatal mindsets
Honestly, there is nothing that I would like more sometimes than to come home, curl up into a ball and sleep. However, that mentality for me is what I call a ‘family fatal’ mindset. It’s easy to fall into. The mindset I bring to the table when I get home is such an important weapon in the fight for my family, but it can also cripple me. Generally, I am an easy going person who likes to ‘wing it’ at times, but if I don’t have some sort of a plan of action, coupled with a difficult day and unrealistic expectations, things can spiral quickly out of control and turn what could be a constructive family moment into a mess with lasting consequences.
I could have been the hero at work that day, or had a stinker, I could be stressed, frustrated or in a good place; never-the-less my children are there when I walk through the door, each with their own challenges and needs. It is in this moment when sacrifice is required, and I’ve learned to push aside the accumulated rubbish of the day, interact, meet their needs; this can turn into a moment of genuine connection with my children. And it counts.
4. Cherish the beauty in everyday family life
This point ties in with the first but is subtly different, and is something that I have certainly been missing, much to the detriment of my children and myself. There is so much beauty in the ‘moment’ but it is so easy to miss. A Polish proverb says “You have a lifetime to work, but children are only young once”. I have a job which at times is all encompassing; it can take up a lot of mind space at home which can tend to crowd out these seemingly incidental but pivotal relationship moments. The impromptu puppet show, the school letter your son wants you to read, an interesting fact Ms 9 learnt at school, a party invitation, a new Lego construction, Miss 13’s new young adult fiction novel she is excited about; all of these are individually important to the children, but if I am not consciously choosing to acknowledge them they can be so easily glossed over. The next step for me is learning not only to acknowledge these moments but to take them as opportunities to connect with my kids on a more profound level, using these seemingly incidental moments to deepen and strengthen our relationships. There is so much beauty in these moments and I am challenging myself to see them afresh.
Being my children’s Dad, from afar or not, is about loving them, being willing to learn and making the most of every opportunity. It is these little things that are bringing us back together, I’m excited about the year ahead and about what my children will teach me next.