Jeff, who had been a managing director at a boutique investment firm, arrived at Starbucks wearing an expensive suit with a power tie, impressive cuff links and impeccably polished shoes. As he took a seat across from me, his crisp scented aftershave lingered from our handshake.
I asked if he had an interview that day. He said no, he dressed like that every day. Really? Every day of the last six months since he had lost his job? He said he didn’t want his wife to know he was out of work. What? He had been unemployed for six months and still hadn’t told his wife? Turns out, no one knew except the firms he had interviewed with – and me.
After six months of an unsuccessful job search, Jeff was still shelling out cash for the yacht club, the private schools, the vacations. Even though he had no prospect of a new position in sight, he was rapidly draining his savings and investments to fund this lifestyle for his family and his panic was growing. When I pressed a little more about why he hadn’t told her, Jeff’s answer stunned me … “I’m afraid that if she knew, she would take the kids and leave me.” I sucked in a breath and touched his hand gently.
His pain was palpable as he mumbled, unable to meet my gaze, “I’ve failed in my role as a provider for my family and I’ll never live down this shame.”
Every day for six months, this man had gotten up, dressed, left the house before his family rose and took the train into the city, as he had for the past two decades. He whiled away the hours reading trade magazines, drinking coffee (sometimes something stronger) and trudged home well after dark to look in on his sleeping children, have brief meaningless conversations with his wife and slip in beside her with this secret untold. He had sought no support from friends, family, peers at the golf or yacht clubs or in what should have been his most important relationships with his wife and children.
Over the next two hours, I spoke with him about his life, and how to begin doing things differently. Surely, his wife and children would be able to help him weather this setback. He told me his wife viewed him only as a meal ticket and that he had nothing in common with any of this three children, ages 9 to 17.
Had he failed in his role as a provider? I was thinking yes, but not for the reason he thought. He had failed to provide the most meaningful aspects of a life for his family and, most importantly, for himself.
Last month, friends in Chicago had a new baby boy. I’ve watched with delight as their photos stream across my Facebook feed. One particularly touching post made me catch my breath. It read:
“I got a new job! Unfortunately, I drew the short straw and am stuck working the night shift. It only pays in kisses and there’re no breaks allowed, but on the plus side the benefits are pretty great. I get to see the sunrise and am madly in love with the boss!”
Other friends recently married and I’ve been enjoying their glorious newlywed chatter about the life they are embarking upon together.
In this early infatuation with our precious new arrival, we experience startling clarity about what really matters in our lives. We look forward to providing our spouse or child with our attention, our affection. Somehow, though, our view of what we provide to those we love all too soon morphs into a distorted view of our role as solely one of “breadwinner” and we lose sight of all the other things we provide as a spouse or parent, if we aren’t careful.
How is it that when we evaluate our role as a “provider” the only aspect that factors in is the economic one?
It turns out that both my male and female clients, no matter their age, experience the same worry about whether they are adequately “providing” for their families and they usually speak of it only in terms of economics. Even though, in this column, I am using an example of a male client and speak about fathers, I have chosen to do so only for simplicity.
I’ll continue on with what Jeff and I learned as we worked together.
Jeff wanted to stay married. As he said, he was well aware of the impact of fatherlessness on issues such as drug use, truancy, teen pregnancy and criminal activity. What he didn’t realize was that fatherlessness doesn’t only happen when a father is incarcerated or otherwise physically out of the picture. In fact, it was happening in his own home.
- Studies consistently show that the engaged presence of a loving and nurturing father significantly improves outcomes for children, families and communities.
- Children with actively involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior, and avoid high-risk behaviors such as drug use, truancy, early sexual behavior and criminal activity compared to children who have uninvolved fathers.
- Studies on parent-child relationships and child well-being show that father love is an important factor in predicting the social, emotional, and cognitive development and functioning of children and young adults.
“Good fathers do three things … they provide, they nurture and they guide” says Roland Warren. Warren served as president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), where he was dedicated to the mission of improving the well-being of children by increasing the proportion of children that are raised with involved, responsible and committed fathers.
Just because a father is present and filling his traditional roles doesn’t mean he is doing enough to avoid creating a fatherless child. “It’s not just the person who isn’t in the house. It’s the person who’s in the house and incapable of engaging in a meaningful connecting conversation,” Dr. Steve Perry, the founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut said. “It’s a different kind of fatherlessness when your father is at home but not emotionally available.”
Dr. Perry explains, “You could send your kids to boarding school, not physically be around them, and still make them feel like you’re there every day. You could have a child sleeping in the same bed next to you because your place is so small, and they could feel like they don’t know who you are.”
I hear clients I work with routinely say “I’d give anything for my family.” Have you said it? Is it true? Would you give up a measure of external success to be consistently available to demonstrate tenderness to your child or your wife?
Would you do it like hundreds of dads (uncles, grandfathers, step-dads and other father figures) did at a Jackson, Mississippi elementary school? On a recent Monday morning, they formed a human tunnel like those seen in sports for their children to walk through, offering high-fives, words of encouragement and cheering them on to do their best as they arrived at school to take their exams.
As the principal of McWillie Elementary, Sara Harper, told The Huffington Post, “[The kids] felt … more encouraged and supported. When they see that support in person from their dads … they feel less stressed out about a state exam. It was exciting.”
Kids have a hole in their soul that is in the shape of their dad. If the dad is unwilling or unable to fill that hole, it can leave a wound that is not easily healed.
Jeff’s son later said to him (after the divorce and some intense work trying to heal the broken relationship with his son), “A man’s success means nothing to me if he’s not a father to his children or a husband to his wife. I didn’t need you to tell me how to live, Dad. I needed you to live it and let me see how you do it.”
What a child wants most from their dad … wait for it … is to know “Do I matter to you?”
Do you know their clothing size, their shoe size? Or do you have to ask their mother? Do you know the name of their teacher (or if they’re grown, their boss?) You may brag about their athletic prowess or intellectual ability, but do you bother to attend their games? Or only the ones where it’s a championship? Do you eat dinner with them? Or does the nanny take care of that for you? Ask yourself, do you know their hearts?
Get honest with yourself. What else are you providing for your family beyond the money? If you can’t answer this question, with specific examples (not some lame “I’m there for them”), then you shouldn’t be surprised if your spouse or children view you strictly as a meal ticket or a cash machine. You’re failing at the most essential aspects of being a provider for your family.
When evaluating new roles for Jeff, we talked about setting limits around his work so he could be home for dinner, attend his kids’ activities, have time just to enjoy being with his wife. His first comment was “I can’t imagine being home for dinner, shutting down that early. I have way too much energy for that.” I challenged him … “Why do you think being home with your family means shutting down and not turning on?”
You are free to choose where you focus your attention and what you provide for your family, but you are NOT free from the consequences of your choice.
Jeff learned it the hard way. Years later, when he tried to comfort his daughter over what he called “her broken heart” around the breakup of her short-lived marriage, she told him “Dad, don’t bother, you broke my heart long before any boy had the chance to. You showed me that what really mattered was your work and the money, not me.” His reply, “But I was doing it for you kids!” fell on deaf ears. In truth, he was providing almost exclusively what mattered to him and his sense of self-esteem, not what she wanted or needed from him.
Harry Chapin’s 1974 folk rock classic “Cat’s in the Cradle” still makes Jeff cry. But he’s trying to do it differently – with his second wife and their two young kids. Is “providing” for your family making them into your starter family and you’ll figure out how to provide what’s important for the next go around? Or do you kid yourself that you’ll just do it “for a couple more years” until you’re more financially secure and THEN you’ll spend time with them?
If you haven’t a clue what a good father looks like, look around and find someone who is doing it well. Then watch him, learn from him, mimic him. Just like you did with your career. Get someone who can help you set and maintain your priorities. As you practice, you will change your children’s lives. They will absorb who you are.
This Sunday is Father’s Day. It’s not called Economic Provider’s Day. Real dads support their children with more than just money.
This weekend, cuddle up with the ones most important to you and ask them this question, one by one,
“If there was one thing you would change about our relationship, what would it be?”
Then get busy providing THAT! I’m betting none of them tell you they wish you’d work more hours or make more money – and if they do, you’ve got some real work to do – at home, not at the office.