As a father of five, I have an overwhelming internal monologue about all the things I think I should be doing. At 3 a.m., it goes something like this:
Summer camps are expensive. Make more money.
Wife seems distant and lonely lately. Be more attentive.
Sales are flat at my business. Work more hours.
Kids are growing up too fast. Work less.
It feels like I will never reconcile the competing priorities to somehow do more and do less. It's like playing a game I can never win. A game that I am often convinced other dads are dominating.
When I hit bottom like that, I've found that the best way to climb back out is to focus only on what I can control and what's most important. If I can do that, then I start to enjoy the game more – even if it still feels rigged.
Here's how I stay in the zone:
Accept that it's work
This is a hard one, but the fact is family building is work. It needs the same care and attention as a small business – organization, teamwork, effective managers, and goals. Just like any job, there will be good days, bad days . . . and days you wish you didn't work for this company. It will not be easy.
Sometimes this acceptance is all it takes to reduce the mental stress. From this perspective, I'm able to give myself a break when I honestly just don't have the energy to read one stinking bedtime story. I also find solace in accepting that our family operates in seasons, and some are busier than others. We will pass from a busy time into a less busy time. We will move through the difficult times and return to happier moments if we just keep moving forward. It's one foot in front of the other through the good and bad.
Get on the same page
With seven people under one roof, there are ample opportunities to offend, misinterpret, upset, and disappoint any number of people – sometimes all at once. A sly comment here, an exaggerated exhalation there, and the pot begins to bubble. It's only a matter of time before it boils over leaving both my wife and me feeling like this is too hard.
To keep this in check, we hold a weekly family meeting every Sunday. This gives us a chance to appreciate the kids, plan the schedule for the week (events, meals), and have conversations on important topics we may not get to address during a busy week, whether it's a discussion about what it means to fit in versus belong or (more practically) what to do when the fire alarm goes off. The cooperative communication keeps the logistics of life manageable and makes us all feel more supported in tackling them.
Every few months, my wife and I cover bigger topics in our own meetings. We ask each other questions like, What's one thing you love about me? One thing you're excited about? Are you getting to your hobbies? Are you doing things for you? How can I help you get the time to do so?
These more meaningful meetings give us an opportunity to be open and honest in a formal setting where we both know what to expect, rather than trying to muster up thoughtful conversation as we're falling asleep watching Netflix. Again, this helps me realize that I am on a supportive team where no one has to shoulder everything alone.
Fill up your bucket
In order to be able give my best to my kids and my wife, I must do the things that feed my soul. When I do, I'm exponentially more able to give to my family.
For me, this usually revolves around working out or playing basketball. It's a time when I'm not pulled to be a husband or a father or a provider, just a dude on the court trying to make some buckets without tearing an ACL. This is especially important when the daily parenting grind feels like I have a starring role in Groundhog Day.
Lean into your kids
There's no better way to put things in perspective than lying flat on my back gazing at the clouds with my kids. They make me laugh. They force me to be present. They teach me to relax as they describe their own busy worlds happily devoid of any nonsense adult stress.
When I take these moments, I am struck breathless by the reality that I may only have a few years left of someone needing to hold my hand or wanting to tell me every detail about her day. Tapping into that transience, my stress melts into gratitude (at least for a few moments).
The demands of fatherhood are not going away, but they lose their power when my cup is full, communication is open, and I am in a more open mindset. That’s how I stay in the game.