For many career-loving parents, the holidays come as a welcome reprieve: a chance to enjoy a few slow weeks at work, unwind with the kiddos and stuff their faces full of seasonal treats. Many parents look forward to the holidays.
But not me. And it’s not because I don’t love my family. It’s because—and there’s really no nice way to say this—I suck at the holidays. My weaknesses as a parent and a professional woman seem to become more pronounced when combined with the smell of a newly cut Christmas tree or a freshly baked pie. I over-plan, over-commit and shop at the last minute. I worry about work when I’m at home and worry about home when I’m at work. I essentially spend the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years looking (and feeling) like a tightly wound ball of tinsel.
This year, though, I’m determined to handle things differently. My son will turn two just a few weeks before Christmas, and unlike the past two years, he’ll actually understand what all those presents under the tree mean. I want to enjoy the holiday, not plow through it.
I’ve also come to realize that the stress I—and many other working moms—feel over the holidays is essentially just a concentrated version of the work life challenges we struggle with all year. It’s as if the holidays are a final exam, an end-of-the-year evaluation of your ability to be both a mom and productive employee.
My go-to move for guidance is to poll my extensive network of like-minded career-loving moms. But, after spending a few minutes studying my husband’s placid expression as he perused our crowded (read: unmanageable!) list of holiday commitments, I decided that I needed to speak to some working dads. What are they doing that I’m not?
Here’s what I learned.
1. They’re “turning off” their parent brain (and not feeling bad about it).
I started with Matt Sweetwood, father of five now-adult children he raised completely on his own after their emotionally unstable mother left them. To say that it was a stressful time is a clearly an understatement, and yet he managed to continue to build his business, manage his staff of more than 100 employees and simultaneously help his children manage the difficult emotions that accompanied the painful divorce.
When I asked him how he did it, he contributed much of his success, in both business and parenting, to his ability to “compartmentalize” his life. “When I got to work, I turned my parent brain off. And when I was at home, I turned my work brain off. That ability is one of my biggest strengths,” he said.
I was particularly struck by this statement because I have ambivalent feelings about “turning it off” at the office. Shouldn’t my son be in the forefront of my mind 24/7? Perhaps my problem isn’t an inability to be present in the moment and only focus on the task at hand, but rather a reluctance to do so. If this strategy could help Sweetwood navigate a life-altering crisis, surely it could help me enjoy a few stressful weeks of the year.
2. When they can’t turn their parent brain off, they’re using it as a strength.
I began my conversation with Brent Almond, founder of Designer Daddy, a creative blog chronicling his journey as a gay, part-time-work-at-home dad and graphic artist, with the compartmentalization method in mind, wondering if he would share a similar strategy. Brent told me that when he and his husband adopted their son, he immediately felt its effect on his work. “I felt less organized, and, in some ways, less driven,” he said.
But instead of feeling defeated by his change in passions, he leveraged it. “My design always had a playful, colorful style to it, which transitioned easily into Designer Daddy.” Brent has transformed Designer Daddy into a revenue producing, part-time career (in addition to his graphic design and daddy duties) in blogging, now contributing to Huffington Post and The Good Men Project.
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