When I was in college, I remember watching an episode of Jerry Springer. The theme was deadbeat dads. And one of the baggy-pant-donning guests stood up and arrogantly shouted "I take care of my kids" to thunderous applause, all because he agreed to pay off his owed child support. I remember thinking to myself… um… isn't that, like, your job? I learned then and there that not all dads take their responsibility seriously. I also learned that the studio audience on Jerry Springer has the moral compass of, well, a studio audience on Jerry Springer.
Here's the thing: when it comes to parenting, they say that showing up is half the battle. I disagree. I show up. But I'm not always there… not always present. There, I said it. Now I can stop privately beating myself up over it and finally do something to fix it. That something had me asking lots of other parents for advice and reading lots of articles on ways Dads can be more present in their children's life. I've narrowed it down to ten tips that I've already begun to implement. Have I completely turned things around? In the words of Whitney: hell to the naw. But at least I've acknowledged that Houston, we have a problem. And that's always the first step.
I'll start with the most obvious problem — our devices (duh).
1. We Must Put Down Our Freaking Phones
I know it's much harder than it sounds. What is it about our phones that is so addicting? Why must we check it obsessively, and respond to work messages in real time? When I started in advertising twenty years ago (yes, I started when I was eight), there were no cell phones. And somehow we managed to wait until morning to put out fires. Work problems should not trump family time. We can't allow ourselves to become complicit in this. We owe it to our families to create boundaries. For the first time, when I was playing on the floor with Max last week, he shouted for me to "put down your phone and pay attention to me" — and that one sentence broke my heart. It's the last time he'll ever have to say that to me. Because if it gets to the point where your kid verbally calls you out on it, it's clearly a problem. For starters, now when I play with Max, I make sure my phone is out of sight so he knows he's my number one priority. If our children see us always on our phone, they'll grow up to be attached to their smartphones. We can tell them not to do something a thousand times, but we are their example. As much as I want to be Max's role model, device-addiction isn't the thing I'd like to teach him about. Pop songs from the nineties? Now that's a different story.
2. Attend as Many School Events as Possible
When I was growing up moms were usually the ones who came to school events while dads worked. No shade to the fathers of the late 80s. It was the way of the times... the yuppie years. Well, things are different these days. Families look different now. So it's time to put an end to the archaic idea of moms being the primary parent — those rules no longer apply. We fail fathers when we promote old stereotypes rather than questioning them. That means we have to do our part to change those perceptions. We don't have to step down from our job to devote our lives to being at home, but, at the very least, we should make it a priority to attend school events a handful of times a year. Yes, I know it's inconvenient. But kids deserve to see their dads in the front row cheering them on, even while singing the world's worst rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock" (except you, Max, you always nail it).
3. Schedule Play-Time and Follow Through
It's not rocket science. Find the things your kids love to do and make time to do them. And by the way, you don't always have to act your age. Let loose and just be in the moment. Even if it's only 15 minutes a day. It could be the 15-minutes they look forward to most. I don't always make it home in time to give Max a bath, but I always make it home in time to put him to bed. That's my thing. He knows that no matter how crazy things are at work, he can always count on me to tuck him in and enjoy some "goodnight huggy time." And even when I'm away traveling for work, we do "goodnight huggy time" over Facetime. It's a ritual. And those are the things kids remember… like the first time they heard you say 'f**k' when you stepped on one of their Lego figures.
4. Make Weekends Unabashed Family Time
Most of us have to work. It's just one of those grown up realities, like paying bills and not having sex. And so if, like me, you've got a stressful, time-consuming job that demands a lot of late nights, maybe it's time to draw the line when it comes to weekend work. And reallocate that time back to your family. That's what I've done and it helps to assuage the guilt I feel for being "absent" a few nights during the week. And then when the weekend comes, I try to be extra present, available and ready to focus on the two most important men in my life. Sorry, Sean Mendes, you've been bumped. That said, your Calvin game is on point.
5. Wake Up Before Your Kids
Lots to do. Not enough time to do it all. I get it. So here's a thought: try waking up earlier. I know it sounds tedious and annoying. But imagine an hour inside a quiet house. A time to relax by yourself, workout or get things done that you can never get done once the brood wakes. My husband, Alex, does this and he feels so productive by the time Max wakes up. He's ready for anything… even Max's "where's my Pop Tart" six a.m. demands. That quiet time to stay centered before you're launched into the madness will work wonders. Don't take my word for it, take Alex's — 'cause my ass will still be asleep.
Have Daily One-On-One Time
Work consumes my life lately. And I'm not proud of it. One thing that eases some of my guilt is the 30-minute commitment I make to Max every morning. As soon as I wake up. He's got my undivided attention for 30-minutes before I drop him off at school. Sometimes he likes to watch me shave. Sometimes he wants me to watch funny Instagram videos (Girls Getting Hurt is our favorite) and sometimes he just wants to cuddle on the sofa while telling me that my belly makes a great soft pillow. #GroundedForLife
7. Adjust Your Expectations
Stop trying to be the perfect Daddy. It doesn't exist (aside from Josh Duhamel, but that's a whole different article). Point is, if you're a working dad, you've got to alter your expectations of what can achievably get done in a day. Those who say they can balance it all are lying through the artificially whitened-teeth. You won't get frustrated if you accept that it's not all going to get done. And be okay with that. Redefine what a productive day looks like for you… and make sure quality time with your kid(s) is at the top of that list… even if it's just for 15-minutes. When you're making your to-do list, only put on the things that HAVE to get done. Not the things you know aren't going to get done… because then you won't feel like a failure when they inevitably remain un-crossed out.
8. Don't Bring Work Energy Home
This one is hard for me. I take my job very seriously. Perhaps too seriously for my own good. The truth is, I should be taking my other job more seriously. You know that one I'm going to have for the rest of my life (the father role, for those not following along). Oftentimes I come home from work and my family can instantly feel my stress and anxiety. And that shit ain't fair. They didn't sign up for this madness, so why should they have to experience the negative energy? They don't. Well, not anymore. Now when I get home from a long day at the office, I'm going to put my phone away, at least until after Max goes to sleep. Then I'm good to continue ignoring my husband for the rest of the night. Can't have it all. Sorry boo, I'll be up to watch House Hunters Renovation with you by 11. I promise. (Update: Al was sound asleep by the time I made it upstairs… at 1am).
9. Stay True to Your Word
One thing you have control over is your word. Don't intentionally lie to your kids about when you're going to be home. Because that would be giving them false hope. Instead, give them a broad range of times, a best/worst case scenario so their expectations can be managed. This means there's less of a chance they'll get/stay mad at you for coming home late. Sometimes, I tell Max I'll be home in about an hour… when I'm just pulling into the driveway because I love seeing the smile of surprise when I walk through the door. Okay, fine, that's a little selfish of me. But everyone's happier in the end. #HappyMaxHappyLife
10. Accept That You Will Make Mistakes
For God's sake, cut yourself some slack. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, shit happens. Cars break down. The office keeps calling. The supermarket is out of Hot Wheels. Everything can't always go according to plan and your kid will eventually get over it. When this inevitably makes you feel like a failure, just channel that guilt into newfound determination to be on time the next day. Oh, and if you walk through the door with two Hot Wheels in hand, consider yourself forgiven. Works almost every time (whatever you do, don't get him one he already has — let's just say the teeth marks haven't healed).
So there you have it. 10-tips on how we can be more present with our kids. I know it's a lot easier to write this stuff than actually live it, but with enough commitment, dedication and consistency, we've totally got this. Following some of these might just give your child the affirmation they're looking for… while you no longer have to go to bed wondering if you're doing enough. And that's a win-win for everyone.
If nothing else, remember how much work it took to get you into this position in the first place (the whole having a kid process). You've had good intentions from the very beginning. You are a loving father, but no one can be everything to everyone at every minute. And that's okay.
P.S. I practice saying those last two sentences in the mirror every morning. Perhaps soon I'll start to believe it.