Monday, August 17, 2015

The Heartbreaking Good Fortune of Returning to Work

This is a note to all the husbands (and wives and partners) of a parent who spent a few years at home, working or just parenting, while looking after the kiddos, only to return to an office job once those children grew. Please support them. Because, it’s a heartbreaking transition returning to work.

I know, because I just did it. And it’s hard. Really hard.

Our family’s story is a bit unique, as everyone’s is, I guess. For the past five years, since just before our fourth child and only son was born, I’ve worked from home as a consultant, freelance writer and adjunct professor. The work went through ebbs and flows, making me extremely busy at times and not terribly busy other times. My wife’s work-from-home job (I know, two work-from-homers is not exactly normal) was far more structured, requiring her to be at her desk or on conference calls all the darn time. Meaning that, for the past five years, I’ve been the parent of record.

A random and typical photo of my kids,
representing the last five years -- and the future.
I’ve been the one in our house at home watching after the kids when they’re not at school, making bag lunches in the morning, grocery shopping in the afternoon, playing in the yard after school, and preparing dinner way too late, pretty much everything but the laundry – which is a whole other story -- and working as close to full-time as possible myself, fitting my career in on the fringes of life. When I wasn’t working or tending to kids, I was usually driving them places: to pre-school, to playdates, to parks, to day camp, to birthday parties, to soccer practice. If they had someplace to go, Dad’s was usually driving – sometimes while on a conference call of my own.

I remember one time pacing in the front parking lot of a Chuck-E-Cheese, on a particularly tense conference call, while one of my daughters, her friends and all the other parents in attendance partook in the festivities. They probably thought I was a jerk, but I was just trying to balance my career and my family. And, for the last five years, I’d been able to do that while mostly being at home. Not too far from my kids.

It wasn’t always that way.

During the first seven years of our child-rearing experiment (our oldest daughter was born 12 years ago) I was the part-time parent; A weekend warrior. I worked 40-, 50-, 60-hour weeks well away from home, and fit in the parenting around the fringes, usually seeing our growing number of kids during their awful bedtimes or on the weekends that always felt too short.

Back then, it was my wife who bore the primary parenting responsibility, while balancing work and family from her home office. She was the one who made all the tough transitions, from full-time worker, to maternity leave, to part-time worker, to maternity leave, to contract worker, etc.

The pain in her transitions is something I never thought of when I was the one working an office job full-time. I imagine, most working spouses of homebound parents likely don’t think about the transitions either. If anything, we’re a little jealous of the whole arrangement.

But I can tell you, the transitions are hard. It’s truly painful to go from a stay-at-home mom, or stay-at-home dad, or a work-at-home-parent back to a nine-to-fiver. It’s hard to think that your time at home with the little ones is really over. It’s hard to watch your little baby turn five, and know that those years went by in a blink. It’s hard to think that all those hours, days, months, and years, where you sat on park benches and on a practice sideline, begrudging being around your children all the dang time, that those times are now over. And you’re back at the water cooler. Commuting. Working all day. And living for weekends that are simply too short.

Here’s a confession: the morning that marked my return to the office routine, I sat down after my shower on the closed toilet in our bathroom, with a towel, a t-shirt, and a toothbrush, and I cried.

Me. A grown man. A grizzled veteran dad. I cried. Heck, I bawled. The end of this era hit me. My time at home was over.

I thought about that fact that some of my kids didn’t remember the days when I wasn’t around. And I knew some of them might not remember the days when I was.

Yep. I cried.

(By the way, If my current boss reads this part, I don’t want them to mistake that sadness for regret about this new job. In truth, I am grateful, both for the chance to work from home for the past five years and for the opportunity to return to the workplace.)

I know I am lucky. Lucky I have these wonderful kids and a wife who still professes to love me. Lucky to have a good job when so many others – moms and dads – struggle to get back into the workplace.

But I do regret that time has traveled past me so fast, that my children have grown so quickly, and that I can’t seem to slow this world down no matter what drastic steps I take to do so.

To everyone who is at home with the kids, parenting full-time or working from home, I say, find a way to appreciate what you do have: Time. Time with your kids. It is the most precious thing we have.

And, to everyone who lives with someone who made the sacrifice of staying home for the kids' formative years, only to return to the work routine, know that it is harder than it looks. So, support them. 

Many moms (and dads) who've done it already know this: but it is a heartbreaking good fortune, returning to work.
No parent should underestimate how hard and fortunate it is.

Like the article?  Here's others you may enjoy. Learning Lessons from a Little Boy, Tip of the Hat to Single Parents, and Thanks to My Backup, and New Year, Few Expectations.


Larry said...

Good luck as you continue the transition. I can imagine it's difficult.
I'm sort of doing what you did. I left my full time job. I am working from home for the most part. While work wise my first year was tough, spending more time with my children was the best part.
Btw, I'm sure all of your children will remember the time in some way.

Cort Ruddy said...

Thanks, Larry. Missed you at this year's Dad 2.0 Conference