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How to Deal With Family FOMO When You’re At Work

Every working dad gets a serious case of FOMOCKS every now and then: Fear of missing out on cool kid stuff.

I had a serious case of FOMOCKS the other day. My daughter was having her picture taken by a pro photographer for the first, and possibly last, time. My wife, my mom, and my daughter traveled by train from our New Jersey home to the Manhattan studio. This meant I was missing out on a big day of adventure.

For a four-year-old, riding on a train is like seeing Beyoncé at Coachella. My daughter is a high-energy kid, so I doubted if she could stand still long and let a stranger take her picture. But maybe she’d be fine? In any case, it hurt not being there. Thinking of Manhattan’s heavy morning traffic, I wanted nothing more than to firmly grasp her hand as she crossed the streets.

Instead, I sat at my desk at my office, following the action via text messages, FOMOCKS settling in.

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FOMOCKS stands for “Fear of Missing Out On Cool Kids Stuff” and I made it up. It isn’t popular expression, at least not yet. But the sensation certainly is. And, as I sat at my desk, I at least had the cold comfort of knowing I wasn’t alone in my feeling of missing out. After all, I’m not the only one sitting in an office or at a job to support my family and missing out on cool moments in the process. As much as you hope and try to not miss out on important stuff, it’s inevitable that you’ll miss out on something.

As a reader of an article published on the internet, it’s likely you’re sufficiently web literate to recognize that FOMOCKS is a play on the social media-borne anxiety of FOMO, or fear of missing out. FOMO started as a joke but evolved into a disorder. FOMO was born in and fostered by Harvard University students. In a 2004 humor column for the Harvard Business School publication Harbus, Patrick Mcginnis coined FOMO to express a distinctly first world problem: being overwhelmed by too many attractive options. .  

But despite FOMO’s semi-satirical origins, it was quickly taken seriously, thanks in a large part to another thing created by a Harvard student in 2004: Facebook. Increased adoption of social media made FOMO a real problem. Through check-ins, status updates, and pictures available in real time on smartphones, computers, and tablets, we could get live reports on events we didn’t attend.

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Generally, people are very careful about what they feature on social media but careless about how they consume it, which gives FOMO the oxygen it needs to thrive. Social media users curate their feeds like highlight reels of their lives. We look at our social media feeds in moments while bored or when we’re procrastinating. We see our friends’ happy pictures and exciting posts during moments of dissatisfaction. Surprise, surprise: we feel like we’re missing out on a good time or at least a memorable time.

FOMO is simple but may be rooted in primitive instincts. Psychologist Anita Sanz believes that it harkens back to a time when we needed to be “in the know” about our groups to survive. Missing out on information about food, safety from predators and so forth, represented an existential threat. While our lives have changed, our brains still retain a reflexive panic when we feel removed from the safety of the herd.

Whatever the origins of FOMO, there’s no doubt about its conclusion: feeling awful about yourself. “FOMO is another way of expressing anxiety that who we are, what we are or the choices we have made” are inadequate compared to our friends and peers,” says Psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis. “You’re looking at social media posts as proof that your choices in life were mistakes. Social media is designed to be habit forming, so you end up vigilantly reinforcing your self-loathing.”

MORE: The Science of Dad and the ‘Father Effect’

FOMO and FOMOCKS are related — the acronyms have four words in common, after all — but they’re not the same. FOMOCKS isn’t as driven by social media as FOMO, for one thing. It’s more apt to be sparked by a text or email from a spouse, nanny, grandparent, daycare worker, or whoever else is keeping an eye on the kid.

While FOMO makes for serious anxiety, FOMOCKS causes a different, more acute form of pain. When you’re a parent, you’re not just afraid of missing out on someone else’s good time. Parents define themselves by their relationship with their kid. With FOMOCKS, you feel like you’re missing out on your own life. You’re more connected to your kids than anyone else on earth and feeling alienated from your child’s life is a special kind of awful.

With FOMO, you worry you’re missing something fun or better. FOMOCKS does too, but it also makes you feel guilty about being absent from bad stuff. It springs up immediately upon hearing your kid fell off the swingset or banged into a wall. If you’d been there, maybe you could have done something, or at least provided consolation.

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But you weren’t there. You were at work. You’re worried you’re missing out on your kid’s life. Time to sip some bourbon, tell Alexa to play “Cats in The Cradle,” and have a nice little cry alone at the kitchen counter. Just kidding! That song sucks and is bullshit. Self pity never solved anything before and it’s not going to solve anything now. The bourbon can wait.

The real answer to FOMOCKS is so obvious it’s disappointing. You need to stop worrying about not spending time with your kids and spend more time with your kids. Take advantage of the moments you can share with your kid. Make it quality time, AKA time where your cell phone stays planted in your pocket. Create more opportunities to spend time with them. Find something you can share that you’ll both look forward to. Clear your schedule and make yourself available for big events and stick to it. Comb your memory for your most cherished childhood memories of your dad and reverse engineer them. Be patient and present in the moment.

TL; DR: the first step is to actually be a good parent.

The second step is remembering that FOMOCKS is a product of anxiety and that anxiety is inherently irrational. You could be worrying over nothing. Don’t focus on all the things you’re missing out on. Instead, think about what you’ve been there for. It’s possible you’re already doing the right thing without giving yourself credit.

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So don’t be so hard on yourself. FOMOCKS is a sign of a healthy parent. It means you miss your kid. If you didn’t miss them when you’re away from them, that would truly be a problem.