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How to be a Happy Working Dad, Part Two

By Jeremy Adam Smith | March 28, 2013 | 0 comments

Jeremy Adam Smith offers five more tips to help men find a happy fit between paid work and family responsibilities.

In part one, I offered five tips for how to be a happy working dad, including killing your commute and embracing flexible gender roles. Here are five more tips, drawn from a combination of scientific studies and personal experience.

6. Focus on quality, not quantity, of time with kids.

When the Families and Work Institute asked 1,000 children what they would change about their parents’ work and how it affects family life, only 10 percent of kids wished their mothers would stay home more and 15 percent wanted that from their fathers.

What did kids really want? For moms and dads “to be less stressed and tired”—which tells me that a) parents need to get a grip; and b) it’s the quality, not quantity, of time with parents that matters most to children.

But kids are different, and you don’t have to take the word of the Family and Work Institute. Have you ever asked your kids what’s most important to them? They might not care if you’re in the bleachers for every track meet—but they may want you to be home for dinner every night. Listening to your kids will help you prioritize and improve your time with them.

There’s another way to jack up quality of time: do stuff that you like or need to do. If you sit in front of a computer all day, make it a point to ride bikes or play sports with your kids. If you work with your hands, play mind-stimulating games or take the kids to museums.

7. Make time for your spouse—not just for your kids.

The cumulative stress of commuting, working, and fathering will ultimately kill you. But first, it will kill your erections—a fate that is, debatably, worse than death. And here is a scientist to explain the impact of stress on your sex life:


I am aware that there’s more to marriage than sex. There’s also mowing the lawn, bickering about the dishes, and watching 30 Rock re-runs. But isn’t it funny how, in long-term marriages, those stupid things can seem more important than grabbing a moment of pleasure and intimacy with each other?

For even when arousal is no problem—I mean, I know erections aren’t a problem for you; it’s those other guys I’m worried about—many working parents struggle to find the time for nookie.

A study by the UCLA Sloan Center on Everyday Lives and Families, published this month in the book Fast-Forward Family, found that while both moms and dads were spending more time with kids, they were spending far less time with each other—three fewer hours per week since 1975, according to one survey. This trend wreaks hell on marriages.

Welcome to the world of scheduled sex, if you don’t already live there. Of course, there’s more going on here than intercourse. Sex is an opportunity is to stare into each other’s eyes and build up some of that hot “positivity resonance” that psychologist Barbara Fredrickson talks about.

You know all this, I’m sure. This is just a friendly reminder that there’s more to life than working and parenting.

8. Wherever you are, be there—be present.

“This one a long time have I watched,” says Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, which I recently re-watched with my son. “All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was.”

Yoda’s talking about Luke Skywalker, but working fathers should take his advice to heart. I’m certainly no Jedi master. Wherever I am, my mind is almost always somewhere else. I know it leads me to the dark side—and I also know I’m not alone there. That scattered, preoccupied feeling is the bane of many, many working parents.


As it happens, science agrees with Yoda. Allow me to quote my colleague Christine Carter on a recent study about mindfulness—non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness that emerges through deliberately paying attention:

Practicing mindfulness doesn’t just lead to decreased stress and increased pleasure in parenting, but it also brings profound benefits to kids. Parents who practiced mindful parenting for a year were more satisfied with their parenting skills and their interactions with their children… Amazingly, over the course of the year-long study, the behavior of these mindful parents’ kids also changed for the better: they got along better with their siblings, were less aggressive, and their social skills improved. All their parents did was practice mindfulness!

Simply put, this is about being at work when you’re at work and being at home when you’re at home—which breaks out into specific parenting skills, like listening with full attention; nonjudgmentally accepting yourself and the people in your life; and cultivating compassion for yourself, your spouse, and your child.

Benefits extend to work, by the way: One study published this month in the journal Psychological Science found that just two weeks of mindfulness training “improves reading ability, working memory, and task-focus.”

I encourage you to read more about the practice—and then give it a try.

9. Give yourself a little credit—and say “thanks” to your spouse.

As psychologist Jeff Cookston writes, “Men need to appreciate and value what they are doing—not beat themselves up over what they can’t do! Couples need to define what ‘involved’ means to them given their circumstances, so that fathers can try to live up to the right ideals.”

So when you’re feeling down and ragged, take just a moment to list your contributions to the household and to the world, whatever they may be. If you approach it with honesty, you’ll likely find this exercise reassuring. During particularly bad periods, you might even consider starting a journal.

And while you’re at it, try giving other people some credit as well, especially your spouse. Because it is very, very easy for working parents to take each other for granted—and that, my friends, is the road to marital hell. As we never tire of mentioning here at the Greater Good Science Center, gratitude improves your relationships as well as your mental and physical health.

It’s not hard to figure out why gratitude can make working parents happier. Your spouse needs you to serve as witness to his or her life—and your gratitude tells them that their work is visible and honored. Researchers Jess Alberts and Angela Threthewey have found that expressing gratitude can have a feedback effect in couples—the more you appreciate someone, the more they appreciate you in turn, which makes everyone happier.

10. Make your choices and own the consequences.

Traditional masculinity? In general, I’m not a fan. But there are virtues I’d like to preserve, with the caveat that they are not the exclusive property of men.

First among them is a sense of responsibility for our choices and a willingness to live with the consequences. I don’t have any science to throw at you for this item. But I believe that owning the consequences of your choices will bring you piece of mind.

Most grown-ups understand that you can’t “have it all”—you have to decide what’s most important to your family and then make the necessary trade-offs. It could fall to you to support a partner and children, in which case you’re just not going to make every soccer game. You could also end up becoming the primary caregiver—which will sidetrack your career. In a world of choices, it’s inevitable for us to be haunted by the roads we didn’t take.

The trick is to love the one we’re walking—and keep going. But accepting your own choices isn’t enough: It’s also critical for you to accept your partner’s choices, and for your partner to be content with yours. That’s no magic formula for making that happen—just a constant process of communication, negotiation, and empathy.

As I look back on these ten items, it occurs to me that they might stress you out. I’m supposed to make time for my kids AND my wife AND myself—AND I’m supposed to get the perfect job?! So let me end with this note: It’s OK to fail. It’s OK to not be perfect. We’re going to be OK, and so will our kids. Forgive yourself, and give yourself a little compassion.

I think most parents know this. The same Pew report that showed dads were stressed out also found that both moms and dads thought they were doing a pretty good job as parents. Speaking of which, I have to stop writing. It’s time for me to pick up my son at school!

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith is producer and editor of the Greater Good Science Center ‘s website. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Rad Dad, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!

  

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