With a heavy heart I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic magazine essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” I’ve heard the same laments from my wife, who runs a small fashion trend-forecasting agency and is a great, sensitive, thoughtful mother to our two children, who are 4 and 3. Like Slaughter, my wife was told by the previous generation that it’s possible to have it all — to have a fulfilling career and be present mothers — but as working parents they’ve realized it’s just not so.
I have all the respect in the world for the impossible challenges working moms face. The battle is not the same for men; it is not as tough. We don’t have both the maternal voice and the feminist voice in our heads telling us we should be at home nurturing our kids and also at work building fulfilling careers. But it’s nearly impossible for men to have it all too. Many men want fulfilling family lives. I want that even as I fulfill my familial role by providing. But most of the time I feel like I’m not involved enough in either my career or my kids’ lives. I usually feel as though my life is like a plate of food sitting in front of me, but there’s so much that the plate is overwhelmed, unable to hold it all, so it spills over onto the table.
When I’m at work and away from my kids, my heart aches as I look at the pictures my wife texts me. Here we are eating ice cream in the park! Look at us with the Easter bunny! Aren’t they cute in this little pool?! Meanwhile, I’m alone in a quiet office trying to finish my next book or preparing for tomorrow’s show. But when I’m with them, I can’t totally forget about the work I could be doing to help give them everything they need. Work that’s piling up because I can no longer work during weekends whenever I need to and must end many work days early to pick up someone from school. But then I find myself in northern Iowa or central Florida, about to give a speech about my book, and read an e-mail from a teacher about how my son acted out at school that day, and I feel tinier than a bug. Am I having it all? No.
My dad didn’t have it all, but he never seemed to worry about it. For many years he ran his own accounting business in Mattapan, Mass., and during tax season we barely saw him. He drove us to school and that was the last we saw of him until the next day’s drive. He taught me that a man is a provider. If that means working long hours and missing out on some key family moments, then so be it. I knew my dad loved me because he was always at the office. He was far from an absent father, but he did not achieve the balance I’d like to have. Alas, as I write this, my wife is putting the kids to bed by herself. I’ll get home later and kiss them asleep in their beds.
(MORE: The Detached Dad’s Manifesto)
I feel the imperative to provide, but sometimes I feel like maybe “provide” means more than I realize. I need to provide emotionally as well as financially. If I’m not there for my kids, then we’re both missing out; but if I’m there for my kids too often, then I can’t provide financially. Sometimes I feel as if I was a prehistoric man, I’d bring home a bison and proudly tell my wife, “We will eat well for a month!” only to have her pop my bubble by saying, “But you were out hunting for a month and the children missed you.”
Men are more likely than women to choose work at a cost to family. Perhaps they suffer less emotionally over that, but there’s still pain there. We just push the feelings down and don’t complain. That’s why our side of this story rarely gets told. We must push away the hurt and press on, or revel in the joy of providing and forget about all that we’re missing at home because we’re working. But the hurt is still there.