At their best, dads are awesome. Life-changingly awesome. If dads are involved in their children’s lives in the right way then they are more likely to succeed, more likely to learn to take calculated, positive risks and more likely to be able to build strong, meaningful relationships in later life. This is especially true for dads who have daughters, with research suggesting that girls with strong paternal role models are more likely to break through work-place glass ceilings, and less likely to co-opt values that would lead to them acquiescing to workplace or institutional sexism. With this in mind, I endeavour to be as active a presence in my daughter’s life as possible. Unfortunately, for me and many other dads out there, this isn’t always easy, and navigating work-life balance can feel like walking blindfolded through a field of unexploded ordnance.
Living in the Middle-East brings additional pressures, pressures that directly relate to a dad’s decision making about his children. It is an increasingly expensive place to live for families, working conditions – whilst better paid – are invariably more stressful and time consuming. The amount of time afforded to new fathers to bond with their children and support their partner is a paltry two days, leaving the Middle-East lagging behind the overwhelming majority of ex-pats’ countries of origin (and a whopping 88 days at full pay less than standard-setting Sweden). Even emerging European nations such as Slovenia and Lithuania offer more support.
The upshot of this is that dads like me are often stuck in limbo. On the one hand, it has never felt more important to earn and save money for our families, and on the other hand, we have never felt such a strong pull to be a significant presence at home. There are several potential solutions – nannies, nurseries, career changes to name a few – but so many of them only seem to result in falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.
Maybe the riddle of work-life balance lies answered in a story my wife once told me from when she was studying for her master’s in architecture. Her class had been set the hypothetical challenge of redesigning Mexico City to reduce its chaos and disorderliness and streamlining its transport and city planning whilst operating in the same budget as the city mayor. In order to do this, they had to study the finances of the city, analysing its infrastructure and evaluating the allocation of funding. They returned to their professor confused. They told him that not only they couldn’t improve upon what Mexico City already had, but also that given the budget the city had to work with, and how chaotically the public transport system functioned, that it was utterly impossible and beyond their comprehension that the city actually worked. Except that it did.
For me, it was clear from the minute my daughter was born that she was, and is, more important than anything else. Given everything I had read, and more importantly, what I felt, I knew that making time to be with her was my ultimate goal. This led to several tough but crucial decisions.
Having been unhappy in a previous job, I quit and got a new one that I enjoy, meaning that the vampiric-suction of my energy from a negative workplace was curbed and I could return home happy and purposeful. I chose a place of employment that, whilst paying me less than I am accustomed to, respects my needs as a new father and provides me with the ability to be home more often. I live near my place of work, meaning that I don’t have any dead-time sitting in traffic; my wife and I might have sacrificed being in a more glamorous community for these reasons, but our daughter isn’t really bothered about how close we live to the trendiest restaurants or beachfront living. I also read a miniature library about savings and investments, meaning that the money that I am working hard for will benefit us all in the future and diminish the pressure and guilt I feel for earning less than I could.
Yet, even with these concessions, there are problems, there are doubts, there are insecurities. My wife is a successful, highly educated woman who has sacrificed her career and – like so many other women in the same position – is often cut off from adult company. I am plagued by a sense of guilt about this. Having both decided that we did not want to sub-contract the care of our daughter out to nurseries or nannies, my wife is often fatigued from the daily exertions of caring for a child. To buy her breathing space and recovery time, I am often out of the house with our little girl, meaning my wife and I spend less time together. Our life is a tightrope act performed at a fever-pitch of exhaustion.
But we wouldn’t change it for the world. I feel enriched beyond any financial remuneration, and my time is happy, purposeful and saturated with love. More importantly, our little girl is happy, bright, strong and full of life. Together, my wife and I are giving her a stronger platform than any amount of money could provide for her in our absence. And isn’t that really the point?
In my eyes – whilst we might be able to measure the zeroes on a pay-cheque – time, care, love and guidance are priceless beyond measure. Navigating ourselves to this position has been the most challenging thing we have done in our lives, and it will be for most other new parents too. But we did it, and so will you.