Leaning on the Scale: 5 Tips for Dads Wrestling with Work / Family Balance

by Jeff Jaynes

“So you’re babysitting tonight, huh?”

If you’re a dad and your wife is away on a trip, I’m guessing you’ve been asked this question. I know I have. Sometimes I laugh it off, but recently I’ve taken to a different response:

“No,” I say, “I’m DAD-ing tonight. Just part of being a parent.”

Now, I’m no Mr. Mom—although I do know several stay-at-home dads who are amazing parents (and more and more dads are making the same choice).

But I also don’t want to be the dad from “Cats in the Cradle”: “When you coming home, dad? I don’t know when. We’ll get together then, son. You know we’ll have a good time then.” Spoiler alert: when dad finally has time, the son doesn’t.

Bummer, right? Unfortunately, the same environment that haunts Chapin’s song is still common today. Work is busy. There are bills to pay. Air travel allows us to have meetings halfway across the country—or the globe—but it keeps us away from home.

And it’s not just a problem for men. In the last few years, there has been a great deal of controversy and conversation about the issue of work/family balance for professional women. This controversy heated up when Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, wrote a book called Lean In to challenge why women would “give up” their way up the career ladder in favor of motherhood—why they would step back to spend more time at home (or step away from their career entirely). A simple Google search brings up millions of responses to Sandberg’s book—for, against, and more.

It’s an important conversation as more and more women face this issue, and while women have debated work/family balance, men have seemingly maintained the status quo. But times have changed for men too. The world portrayed in shows like Mad Men simply doesn’t exist anymore. Studies have shown time and again that it is important for men to be involved at home—that kids who spend time with their dads have more positive outcomes. For men to focus solely on career growth while women take care of things at home seems out of place in the twenty-first century. It’s unfair at best, and at worst, it’s harmful to a child’s development.

So how do we find the balance between Mad Men and Mr. Mom? How do we climb the corporate ladder by day AND have time for Chutes and Ladders at night? The scales of work and family have been heavily weighted on the work side for so long that balance seems unachievable. Maybe it’s time to lean on the scale a little bit.

Before we go any further, a disclaimer: I’m no expert at work/family balance, and given my schedule sometimes, even the fact that I’m writing this article is laughable. I’ve been interrupted several times while writing by my sons wanting to play (I said yes). That said, having a good work/family balance is something I’ve been working on since before I had kids, and I think there are some tools that can be helpful in getting a little more family in the work/family balance.

Be home for dinner (most nights)

Like the studies on the importance of fatherhood, the evidence on the impact of families sharing meals together is overwhelmingly clear. It has an impact on health. One study in the journal Pediatrics found that this one factor, shared family mealtimes, made kids 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24% more likely to eat healthier foods, and 12% less likely to be overweight. Other studies have found that shared meals lead to fewer symptoms of depression, less delinquency and greater academic achievement. A Cornell University study checked all of these studies and found them to be valid and reiterated the value of this seemingly simple act. Getting the family together for a meal can be hard. But it is important. The Cornell study recommends setting a goal of a family meal at least three times a week. That’s doable, right? They also recommend it be consistent, screen-free and interactive. That’s a bit harder, but the payoff (check the list above of positive outcomes) is worth it.

Memorize this phrase: “Let me check my calendar and I’ll get back with you.”

I’ve used a version of this line for years now: “Let me ask my wife first.” Mostly what I mean by this is that she’s important. In fact, she’s important enough—and so are my kids—that if someone wants me to take time away from my family for, say, a night meeting or a weekend event, I should do her the courtesy of asking first. I’ve made this a practice for nearly nine years now, and rarely have there been times that the matter was so urgent that this slight delay made much difference.

Where it does make a difference, though, is in making my wife and kids feel important—because they are important. And it often allows extra time for perspective. Maybe I’ve already scheduled other events in the evening that week, which will get in the way of family mealtimes. Maybe it means that every weekend that month will be taken over by activities away from family. That extra time adds perspective, and that’s important too.

Be intentional about setting time aside for family

I think we lose this perspective sometimes when it comes to work. I understand that making money is important for paying bills, buying stuff, etc.—I do it too—but all those things pale in comparison to the importance of family. So how do we keep our priorities in line?

Here’s what I do: I block off time for my family on my calendar. I make sure at least two weekends a month are more family-focused than work-focused. If someone tries to schedule something on one of those weekends, I already have an easy out: sorry, that time’s booked. (Side note: if you’re someone who works nearly every weekend, you may need to block off a weekend-sized block.) Just do it. Whatever other thing you have isn’t as important. I’ve been doing this for three years now and it hasn’t hurt my career—but it has helped my family. When I asked my wife what things I’ve done to help my work/family balance, she cited this first. It has made that much of a difference in our family life.

Finally, if your job occasionally takes you away from family during important events—holidays, special occasions, etc.—you need to be even more intentional about setting time aside. A pastor friend of mine gave me great wisdom before I started in ministry. He said, “Yeah, sometimes I have missed special occasions because of a death in the church or some emergency that has come up. But I’ve been able to pick up my son from school every day for years.” Make time. You’ll be thankful later.

Take your vacation time

Take your vacation time if you have it. That’s what it’s there for. No, there’s never a good time to be away. Yes, getting ready to go on vacation can be a pain in the neck (coming back is no picnic, either), but at least you were on vacation. You don’t need to go to some exotic place or spend tons of money. You can take a vacation at home, go to a state park nearby, go on a random road trip (maybe the topic of a future article). Just go. Mastercard has a great commercial about this. Over 400 million vacation days go unused every year; that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Go.

When you’redad at home, be at home.

This is directed at me as much as anyone. When I’m at home, I sometimes have a tendency to check my phone for texts, see what’s on Twitter, etc. That screen is not one of my family members, and, thanks to planned obsolescence, it will probably be gone before I know it. So too will the time I could have been spending focused on my wife or my kids (or both).  Like the very wise ad campaign about texting and driving says, “It can wait.” We shouldn’t text and drive—nor should we text and parent, or text and husband. We should parent. We should husband. We can text later.

I’m not perfect at following these rules, but I can say that using them has helped my marriage, my parenting, and my career. See if they work for you.

And the next time my wife is out of town on business and you have the urge to check in “just to see how you’re doing….” I’ll be fine. I’m a dad. It’s what I do.

Rev. Jeff Jaynes is the Executive Director of Restore Hope Ministries, a United Methodist outreach to families in need. He is the father to two young boys and is also active in helping the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, a group working toward unity for all Tulsans through a variety of avenues.

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