God had something special in mind when he made us husbands and fathers. What else could explain why he would give us the tremendous responsibilities of protecting our families from harm, providing for their material needs, leading them spiritually, and loving them through time spent together? The good news is that he has given us all that we need to accomplish this noble mission. But doing so is a tremendous challenge.
Wouldn’t it be great if the world were such that we only had to work a few hours each day to provide for our families? We would then have the rest of the day to spend time with them; our wives would be happy; stress would be low; our children would thrive.
Unfortunately the world is not like that. Instead, we find ourselves burning the candle at both ends: our work demands huge chunks of our time each day, at the expense of our families, and it seems we work more hours to make less money. Many of us have tight budgets in spite of the long hours we put in.
When I got to college I hit a crossroads: what should I get my degree in? I loved to write, and I loved engineering. I considered majoring in English Literature and going on to become a writer. But I also was thinking ahead as to how I could provide for my future family. English majors typically don’t make very good money. Engineers, on the other hand, get paid well for what they do. So I chose engineering and got my degree in that.
Over the past fourteen years of work, I have not regretted that decision. Being an engineer has enabled me to work a normal amount of hours while making a good living for my family. It is a fulfilling job, one that God gave me the intelligence and desire to do, and one that provides important products and discoveries that make the world a better place.
Eight years ago when I got married, I came upon another crossroads: should I put in lots of hours and accelerate up the technical track, or should I continue putting in a modest amount of hours and perhaps plateau in my position and salary at the company? By that time, I had been Catholic many years and had learned that maximizing time with my family was more important that making more money. I was already making enough for us to have a modest living; more would be nice but was not essential. I chose to work less hours and advance more slowly.
For me, these decisions were not difficult to make. But for others, who find themselves in different circumstances, they can be. Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing, but it often can be. Our challenge as men, as workers, is to discern whether the ambitions we have are motivated by selfishness, or whether in fact God has placed lofty goals on our hearts, ones he wants us to strive for and achieve.
One way I have found to see the way forward is to observe the fruits of my decisions. Is this new position that I accepted at my workplace benefitting my family and the time I get to spend with them, or is it hindering it? Is the amount of travel I am doing taking too much time away from them? Or perhaps the travel is putting me in situations where I am tempted to lust or be unfaithful to my spouse?
Sometimes we need to temporarily take on new responsibilities or positions in our work so we can make it to the next level. We show our companies that we are dedicated employees who are willing to put in our time doing things we may not love in order to help out. But these types of positions should be temporary. If they become permanent, we must reevaluate whether remaining in them is worthwhile.
No matter what our work is, we must be willing to swim against the tide. In our economy, revenue and profits are often prioritized over the human worker. Companies will take as much time as you are willing to give them. It requires us to be clever and vigilant to find ways of succeeding at work while giving our families their rightful due. Different jobs make this easier or harder, but none make it easy. But with a true understanding of relative priorities, we can strike the right balance between work and home life.
When Work Is More Gratifying Than Home Life
I have known quite a few men who work all the time. Many would call them workaholics, but when I have talked with them, I have found that they don’t so much love their work but that they find it more rewarding than their home life. This is a humiliating admission to make, but it is more common than most realize.
Think about it: at work they get promotions, salary raises, bonuses, accolades for good work done, and many other tangible and intangible kudos. They may come home to a wife who is (understandably) exhausted and frustrated and children who are loud and needy. A cycle begins where they prefer work to home life, resentment between husband and wife grows, and the children act out because they need their father’s love and attention but don’t get it.
Many times these families look great from the outside. On paper they are “doing everything right”: Mass, activities, lots of children, husband has a “good” job, and so on. But on the inside they are hurting, and the key is the husband and father. Left unchecked, the children will become estranged emotionally from their father and will be deeply wounded as they enter adulthood.
What can we do who are the dad in this situation? First, we have to be honest with ourselves and with our spouses. While potentially painful and embarrassing, speaking frankly about why we feel more at home working than with our family is absolutely necessary. Second, marriage counseling with a good Catholic counselor can be very helpful.
Catholic men in this situation should also seek out a spiritual director, preferably a wise and faithful priest who can help the man get to the root of his difficulties. Lacking this, finding a good friend with whom you can share your struggles would also be a big help.
Some dads in this situation have sought to justify the long hours or travel they do by explaining that they are making a great living for their family. While true, children need their father more than lots of money and things. My own father was a butcher his whole life. My first job out of college paid more than he had ever made, and yet what I remember from growing up was all the time my dad spent with me playing and coaching my sports teams. We weren’t wealthy but we were not in poverty either.
When you speak with your wife, ask her what kinds of things you can do with your children. Especially with babies or little children, it can be hard for us dads to know how we can interact with them. But mothers have lots of ideas for what kinds of games or activities the children like to do.
Get together with other dads and do a fathers-children hang out time. See how your friends who are good fathers interact with their children and emulate them. Sometimes our own fathers were lacking in this area, and so we never learned how to really be a father.
Finally, pray! Ask God the Father for help in how to be a good father. Pray for the grace to desire to spend time with your family. Look for father-child retreats or camp-outs that you could go to that include a spiritual dimension as well. Deepen your own relationship with God, and he will show you how to grow closer to your wife and children.
The Yeoman and the Cog
Our society is moving and changing quickly. Engineering jobs like mine are being outsourced to Eastern Europe and Asia, where workers are paid a fraction of what we earn in the States. Mass layoffs are the norm across many sectors of the economy, and those “good jobs” seem to increasingly be fewer and farther between.
Companies want us to be cogs in the wheel, for the simple fact that cogs are standardized and can be easily replaced. To make our ability to provide for our families as secure as possible, we need to either become indispensable cogs or opt out of the system entirely.
Becoming an indispensable cog means doing your work so well that you are truly irreplaceable. To accomplish this, you must innovate, excel, and execute well on a regular basis. Doing so will certainly move you up the ranks or solidify your place in your work and helps to ensure that you won’t be one of the ones let go when layoff time comes around.
But you are still a cog. If the weather changes and the winds shift, perhaps on a macro scale for your company, you may not be able to avoid getting the ax. Now, hopefully your skills will be broad enough or useful enough that you can transfer them to another company. But this is not a given.
A better solution is to escape out of the machine altogether. But what does that look like? For some, it means starting their own business, allowing them to make their own hours, call the shots, and carve out a niche that provides handsomely for their families.
For me and my family, it meant moving out to ten acres, raising cows, and seeking to live a life closer to the land. Both my wife and I grew up in suburbs and towns. Neither of us was a country kid or knew anything about farming. But when we got married we realized we both had dreamed about having a farm one day. Our first step was to get bees. Next came a handful of backyard chickens. Eventually we rented a place with a few acres and raised goats and lots of chickens.
We enjoyed it, and because of the rise in people’s desire for organic produce, pastured meat, and other healthier food, we saw the real possibility that we could turn our interests into a way of life.
My work as a software engineer allowed me to work remotely. This cut my commute time down to nothing and enabled me to spend hours and hours each day with my children on our farm. Work was siloed off and its demands minimized while we ramped up our farm.
Best of all, my children were growing up understanding nature. My four-year-old son is an expert on spiders, snakes, ponds, and wildlife. We’ve seen foxes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and hawks on a weekly basis. My young daughter can scale huge dirt piles, climb trees, and build sandcastles.
We’ve now moved back from the farm to the city–short e-book on our experiences forthcoming!–but the lessons we have learned from the country have not gone to waste.
A Noble Quest
We have been called by God to be great men, saintly men. It is not an easy task. The entire world seems to attack us, and the arena of work is no different. Finding a good job that we enjoy and that pays well and doesn’t require insane hours can seems impossible. Juggling all of the demands of work and home life can put us in a perpetual squeeze.
And yet, by God’s grace we can maintain the focus on the highest priorities: God and our families. The Church offers her support through the sacraments and communal life of faith. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can provide for our families while also spending an abundance of time with them.