Fathering When You’re not Home Very Much

In today’s world of family life, it is not just men who may be working exceptionally long hours outside the home. However, it is men who have historically found it more difficult to build strong relationships with each of their family members. For many husbands and fathers, being dedicated to creating a successful career is still what they consider to be the main way of expressing their caring. But in these times of shifting marital roles and new realizations that relationship intimacy is a significant factor in one’s physical health, men are being urged to become more “connected” to their wives and children. Of course, some have found this much easier than others. In this column, I want to address a specific subgroup of fathers, those whose work demands long hours outside the home, and make some suggestions as to how to still be able to have a meaningful presence in the lives of their children.

The men I’m referring to are not just “workaholics.” Many are simply in the early stages of careers that require exceptional time commitments while others are working two jobs or lots of overtime in order to keep ahead of the bills. Some also do shift work and the hours take them out of the home at the main time when their children are awake. I want to emphasize that in my conversations with many of these men, they are distressed about their absence but see themselves as having little choice other than giving up important, lifelong career aspirations or being unable to provide their share of the income that husband and wife have aspired to. Unfortunately, the corporate world still only gives lip service to “family values” and few offer the flexibility that allows either working parent the opportunity to spend valuable time with their children.

So what can fathers do when they leave early and/or come home late, or are on the road for days or weeks at a time? In a word, be creative. Add a second word, bond. Delete a third word, control. The main error many fathers make is walking into the house and feeling pressure to make up for their absence by trying to “fix” their children. Wives and children react very negatively to what I call “re-entry criticism.” To begin with, men tend to feel like they are on the periphery of the family. Mothers are the “experts” when it comes to parenting. This hierarchical thinking gets exaggerated when fathers are not around a lot. But fathers feel they need to assert their influence. Since even “good parents” of either sex have been shown to make 15-20 critical comments to their child for every positive one (Children do have a lot to learn!), it’s not surprising that fathers would try to teach “values” to their children in their compacted time to interact, resulting in an intensifying of critical comments.

“I want to make sure he’s trying his best.” “It’s a tough world out there. It’s important for her to be willing to try new things and be assertive.” Unfortunately, the critiquing that comes from these concerns, in the context of a limited father-child relationship, is often painful to the child and results in less influence because the child begins to shut the father out. Instead of trying to “mold” their children, fathers should use their limited contact to create a stronger bond with the child. This may consist of rolling on the floor with a preschooler, taking one child whenever you go out to do errands, focusing on the successful aspects of schoolwork and being more interested in what a child is learning than the actual grades, or learning about the musical interests of your teenager. It doesn’t preclude being a disciplinarian, but that should be reserved for things that happen when you are at home, unless it is a very serious problem that both parents need to address with the child.

Being creative doesn’t mean buying gifts to make up for lost time. It refers to finding ways to connect with each child when you are home for limited time or away when your children are awake. It may mean reading a bedtime story over the phone. It could be having a fax machine in your home and being able to send notes/drawings to a young child. This can be especially helpful to fathers who are on the road a lot. Sending a daily picture depicting local weather conditions helps a child to better imagine where you are. With the capacity of the Internet, it becomes possible to not only send emails but pictures. Thus, even from time zones that have you out of sync with your child’s schedule, there can be a picture or message or piece of paper from daddy to look at before going to bed or when getting up in the morning.

Being creative could also mean once a week you take a child out to breakfast on the way to school and work. It means having mom take a video of an event you have to miss and watching it with your child as soon as possible. It means taking a child to your office when you have to work on a weekend. It also means having pictures of you at your office so young children can be helped to visualize where daddy is.

The key point is recognizing that you can find creative ways to maximize your connection to each of your children, even when time is very limited. Just the fact that you are doing this will mean a lot to the children (and to your wife), increasingly so as they get older and understand more about what is happening. You must also realize that the strongest influence on your children will come not from criticisms, punishments, and lectures. Instead, it comes building the strongest connection you can and allowing your children to absorb an image of their father that is vivid and positive. They will integrate your values into their own unique personalities as a result of this bond and you will achieve not only the goal of preparing them for their future life, but you will be an important part of it as their friend. Which is one of life’s special rewards.