Miriam McCaleb pens an open letter to dads who wish they could spend more time with their children.
To whom it may concern,
Ngā mihi ki a koe,
May I begin by saying what a treat it is to hear from you. Too many of the dads who get in touch with me are seeking advice about how to spend less time with their children. “How do I get the little blighters to play on their own? To pipe down? To quit the early morning wake-ups? To manage more (and more) of their own care? Hurry up and learn to get your own drink of water, already!”
So you can imagine my delight that, instead, I've been asked to write for the dads who are craving connection with their kids. The fathers who are fighting for time together. You are the men who are recognising that a rush to independence is unhelpful, and that a healthy family sees interdependence as a far wiser end goal. Kia ora, daddies. I see you.
This is a conversation worth having, and may I begin by offering a heart full of empathy to you. It is a rare kind of pain, the yearning to be with our offspring, and it is made even more sharp and pointy when we experience it in the context of our current complex societal landscape. Even when we're snuggled within the comfort of our own four walls, there are contradictory social messages falling over one another to muddle our minds. For example, back in the day, women and men had clear roles and defined expectations.
men: hunt women: gather
men: earn women: nurture
men: rubbish women: cooking
But, humans being humans, we don’t like having our paths dictated to us, whether by spouses, bosses, or by the invisible forces of our culture. All people appreciate having the freedom to decide how they will balance the professional and domestic, and all of us have the right to choose how we will form our parenting partnerships and family arrangements.
Some men want to work full time, as do some women. Some mothers would prefer to take on the lion’s share (lioness’ share?) of the childcare, some dads would relish that role themselves. Not many, though. According to the “State of the World's Fathers" report published by MenCare – a global fatherhood campaign active in more than 35 countries: “There is no country in the world where men and boys share the unpaid domestic and care work equally with women and girls”. Just sayin', guys. So maybe there is some wiggle room to pick up a bit more of that role?
Meanwhile, as we contemplate the roles within our home/work lives, it might not surprise you to learn that the research points toward a great many of us wanting to do some work, some domestic stuff, and some childcare. A bit of a mixture of each. This is true for both women and men.
And gentlemen, this has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. It's certainly wonderful to be in charge of one's own reality, but as you might have read, research into decision making suggests that people are most satisfied when they are making choices between a limited range of options. This current climate of 'whatever works for you' can be a daunting place to start, and is likelier to leave us with feelings of dissatisfaction. In a world where 'anything goes', surely something else might always be better? After all, there are as many possible ways of organising family life as there are families!
So move forward with an awareness of that. Just know that a free-form dissatisfaction around the intensely personal and relentlessly practical decisions of how to divide the labour inside (and outside!) your house can possibly be attributed to society-at-large. Thanks a lot, modern world!
But let's dare to imagine, dear Dad, that all in your home have hashed out a mutually agreeable division of paid employment, childcare, and domestic tasks. Somehow, even with your personal best-case scenario, you may find yourself longing for more time with your children. As popular parenting educator Nathan Mikaere-Wallis asked me to remind you, “If you think you need more time with your kids, you're probably right.”. He also wonders if more dads don't just need to grant themselves permission to go for it in finding more ways to share time with their children. Nathan gives an example of a specific dad in a small town who came to hear Nathan speak. At the end of the talk, the dad expressed his dissatisfaction in his relationship with his youngest child. In his ever-busier life, the man could tell that this connection was suffering. Nathan suggested he start by taking responsibility for the kindergarten run one morning a week. The dad's work role as a plumber gave him the flexibility to ensure that Tuesday's workday didn't start till 9am. It was an ongoing appointment with his kid.
Nathan returned to this town several months later. The dad was back, and this time he told Nathan how blown away he was by how these shared experiences had built something they could stand on together, and how much warmer and easier the relationship now seemed. Two important things happened here: the dad's action communicated to the child that time together was important. Also, dropping the kid to kindy meant Dad got to know the routine, teachers and friends at kindergarten. Research tells us that this is likely to help with continuity between home and the educational facility, which is associated with positive outcomes all round.
Let's summarise. Look for opportunities to walk the kids to the bus, or drive them where they need to go. Take it further and have a transportation ritual. Whether or not you live in the same house as your child — heck, even if you're a shift worker with an unpredictable schedule — by making sure you're aware of the comings and goings of your whānau, you can look for opportunities to accompany each person to something during the week.
The best of times
It can be helpful to observe what you view as 'time with your child'. It's incredibly valuable to realise that care routines are the foundation of a relationship. While it can be tempting to frame nappy changes or meal times as 'the annoying stuff to burn through in order to get to the fun part', the truth is care routines are where it's at. Notice if you're rushing through the process of putting on socks and gumboots because you're busting to get to the playground (where the 'real' play and relationship stuff happens). Instead, realise there's as much learning in putting on socks and gummies as there is in whooping it up on the slide.
Neuroscience confirms that patterned behaviours build the strongest brain pathways. For baby's brain, having positive experiences when Dad helps her into her pyjamas each day is every bit as valuable as the things we typically think of as 'quality time'. These repetitive caregiving experiences have real power in myelinating the neural networks that will associate Dad with safety, reliability and kindness. The bonus is that, while it can be quite a mission to organise picnics, pyjamas offer a connection opportunity every day. Think about what routines you could accept responsibility for. Some dads bathe their kids, others are in charge of breakfast.
Allow yourself to indulge in what infant expert, the late Magda Gerber, called “wants-something quality time”. Take ten minutes to really focus your attention on your child and the thing you're doing together. Put the phone down, move away from the telly, ask other family members to wait for your attention until the routine is over. Explain what you're up to. Ask your child to assist. Sing goofy songs. You're teaching so much about life, relationships, and the mana associated with genuine care. You'll exponentially multiply the value of your ten minutes.
Practising this skill with babies will help you maintain awareness as your family gets older and needs change. Chores can then be viewed as a chance for connection, even enjoyment. Back to Nathan Wallis: “Don't do jobs, then have fun. Instead, make jobs fun!”. Nathan's a tea-towel flick kinda guy. Do what works (so long as nobody breaks hearts, bones, or dishes!).
This habit will make us more willing to let a child's play enter the task. As a dad keen to find more time with his children, you'll get more bang for your buck, in terms of feeling connected, if you can play along with your kiddo's interests. This might mean you chat about the All Blacks while you fold laundry or gallop like ponies on the way to the letterbox. My four-year-old's current obsession with Scooby Doo just had us stack a load of firewood while doing the voices of the various characters. I'm getting good at Shaggy, my husband does a fine Fred.
If you still feel you're missing out on time with your young 'uns, see if you can trade housework tasks with your co-parent. Some jobs aren't conducive to simultaneously parenting, but others are a natural extension of a humming domestic scene. Perhaps you can trade stripping the spare-room wallpaper for cooking the dinner, mopping the kitchen, and folding the washing, all of which are an organic opportunity for child chats.
While recognising the need for time to ourselves, I also suggest looking for ways to involve your child in your interests. You might find that you can share your cherished alone-in-the-garage time, even if just for a focussed ten minutes. Your toddler can muck around with a brush and shovel and feel like they're sweeping up; a four-year-old could sort screws from nails. I promise you, some day the house will be empty and you will have an effortless relationship with 'me-time'. Consider hitting pause on that concept, at least for a while. Controversial, or utterly pragmatic?
Let your kids surprise you in the ways they enjoy sharing time. Your pink-clad little girl might be an enthusiastic attendee of the muscle-car show, while your blokey little boy is much keener to help wrap Christmas presents. You may find more opportunities for connection if you observe your children with brand new eyes.
In closing, may I thank you dads anew for having reached out for back-up around this important topic. It is my profound hope that you will find more moments for connection in your every day.
With love, your friend,
Miriam McCaleb has been a kindy teacher, a university lecturer and is a certified trainer for PITC. She parents, gardens and writes at home in North Canterbury.