How to Be a Good(ish) Parent While Working at a Startup

Here's how I'm getting better at it — without messing up my job or my kids.

by Coy Whittier

Success at work and success at home are not mutually exclusive. I understand why you might think that they are. As a full-time tech marketer — and an all-the-time dad of three boys 6 and under — I completely understand the concept of competing interests.

True story: It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and my kids are on hour two of mindless animation. (I’d like to say they were watching a PBS learning program, but I’d be lying. If I call the sponge Robert, will it make him seem more elegant?) I’m stressed about tackling some big UX issues — not typically my area of expertise — and I can’t afford to take the day off. On go the cartoons. Into the microwave go the dinosaur nuggets. Go ahead — just hand over the Dad of the Year award.

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Do I have it all figured out? Why not ask my 1-year old — the one who’s shrieking because his brother grabbed his nutrition-devoid, tube-contained yogurt? No. I don’t have it figured out. But I know I’m not the only one.

The tech world is struggling to find a way to play in two sandboxes that have previously been perceived as somewhat antithetical: family life and work life. I don’t have to tell you that. If you know the tech world, you know how it is, in many ways, built around the needs (or lack of needs) of a young workforce: ping-pong tables, happy hours, and less-than-standard work schedules. Children don’t always fit easily into the mix.

But it can be done. You might be doing it right now. Good for you — seriously. Let’s take a quick second to recognize what a badass you are for balancing both demands. That being said, like you, I want to be better — as an employee and as a dad. Here’s how I have tried to do this.

Acknowledge Ambiguity of Measurement

At work, it’s pretty easy to measure effort and product: “If I invest X into Y, I’ll see Z results.”

With kids, you’re playing the long game, and the usual metrics don’t work: “Well, we saw a 30% rise in giggles per day when we increased the amount of times each book was read by 5X. That seemed promising, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable.”

It’s natural: We like knowing that we’re making a difference. And when you spend so much of your time in a metrics-driven world, it can be hard to step into ambiguity — and into a world in which your efforts can seem unappreciated and fruitless. It’s just not going to be that clear – and it shouldn’t be. Quantitative can’t always live in the qualitative world of human relationships.

Success at the workplace may not be easy, but it is typically easy to measure. At home, your thinking around what success is may need to shift. You need to be able to flip a switch and allow yourself to just be present, without anxiety or pressure for performance.

Be Present

This has been a major challenge for me, as it’s hard for me to stay focused when I’m at home. Game time with my boys ends up being “Boys playing a game while dad stares at the wall thinking about an email he forgot to send before he left work.” Am I there in person? Yeah, and I suppose that’s better than not being there at all. But am I there mentally? Not really. I have to consciously turn off my work brain – and most of the time, it autoboots.

Point is, we know when we’re giving our best, and when we’re half-assing it. And nowhere is this more evident than in phone usage. You were afraid I was going to say that, weren’t you? I’m not trying to be preachy or judgmental here — this is something I struggle with on an hourly, or even minute-by-minute basis.

Months back, my wife and I were having regular disagreements about how often I was on my phone while we were together as a family. I would roll my eyes and get defensive and tell her “Just a minute — I just need to do this really quick,” and this would go on and on. It was a daily occurrence, if not more frequent than that.

But I knew she was right, and I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. I went out to the garage, found some wood, and built a very rudimentary box. I hung it on the wall by the door, and it gave me a place to deposit my phone every afternoon when I got home from work. I even (very poorly) etched the words “Dad Is Home” on the front, as an indication that if my phone was in the box, I was home and present. We’ve taken to calling gestures like this acts of “presenthood.”

Now, in the interest of transparency, that did not solve the problem entirely. There are still many times when I’m on my phone when I shouldn’t be. But it helps.

In a study performed by AVG Technologies, 32% of children used the term “unimportant” when sharing how they felt when their parents were on their phones. Fifty-four percent reported wishing their parents spent less time connected to their devices. I don’t know about you, but the idea of my kid feeling “unimportant” is terrifying to me.

Make Commitments and Keep Them

This is literally the foundation of integrity, but too often overlooked in family life.

It’s also another big struggle for me. When I tell a client I’ll call them at a particular time, I do it. When we have a company meeting, I’m there. Somehow, though, when my wife is at the end of a hard day and I tell her I’ll leave at 5, it’s crazy — something always comes up, and I’m not out of there until 5:30 or 6. Each time that happens, she trusts me a little bit less.

Now, things come up. And sometimes, family life needs to take a hit for the sake of furthering (or keeping) your job. My wife has been 100 percent right, though, when she’s observed that I’m often much more willing to go above and beyond to keep my word to my colleagues than to my family.

I hate that. I’m trying to get better at setting realistic expectations and then fiercely working to attain them. Every time I do, my wife trusts me a little bit more — and she’s more understanding when the real emergencies come up. So far, I’ve presented the risks of letting the startup life bleed too much into family time. However, it’s not all bad — there are some awesome benefits to bringing some of it home with you.

Be Innovative

I have to hand it to my wife on this point: she’s a master at coming up with new things to do as a family. At the outset of the summer, we discussed ways to spend more time together in the outdoors. What did she do? Went out and bought a $500 camper trailer. After tearing it down to the studs and rebuilding most of the interior, it was ready to hit the road a few weeks later. The old thing has provided a ton of fun, and we’ve grown closer while spending time away from the normal stomping grounds.

Start With Why — Teach the Big Picture

I’m a big fan of the business author and speaker Simon Sinek – if you haven’t seen his TED Talks or read any of his books, you’re missing out. His first book (and my favorite), Start With Why, dealt with the concept of putting “why” before “what” in product and brand development.

Startup life is rough. It demands a lot, and despite all of the safeguards and tips I’ve shared here, it’s still going to eat into your family life and you’re going to have to talk to your family about it.

The “what” way of doing that would look something like this:

“Hey buddy, I have to go back into work for a little while. Sorry, but it’s my job and I have things I need to get done.”

Nailed the “what,” right? The information was conveyed in a clear way. It didn’t paint a picture, though — or maybe it did, but the picture was “My dad works a lot because he has a lot of work to do.”

What if it went more like this?

“Hey, buddy, remember how we talked about doing your best when you’re playing baseball? And how it’s hard sometimes, but it’s worth it? Well, I have to do my very best at my job right now, which means going back into the office again. I really wish I didn’t have to, but working hard now means it will be easier to go on vacation next month.”

That may be a cheesy example, but it serves to show the “why” way of doing things. The “what” only dealt with the facts and the “right now.” The “why” dealt with those same facts, but within a context of character traits, rewards, and branding: “In our family, we do hard things and we do the best we can, in order to enjoy time together.”

Take Care of Yourself

In an interview with Bloomberg, early Googler and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer shared that 130-hour workweeks were regular early in her career. She also asserted that the startups that would succeed were those that were willing to work through weekends.

The former is fine. I’m not willing to do that — and I’m not interested to working in a culture that requires or rewards that. If someone wants to, though, good for them. It’s the latter claim that I think is garbage: Plenty of startups have become successful while maintaining work-life balance. Basecamp, for example.

While I’ve never worked a 130-hour week, I have worked plenty of extremely long weeks and long nights. I’m not nearly as productive at the end of them. Sure, all-nighters are necessary once in a while — and if you’ve had a baby, they’re nothing new. It’s ridiculous, though, to say that success requires a state of constant work.

Take care of yourself and your family, and you’ll be a much more balanced person. And generally, balanced people contribute more to their colleagues and to their families.

Coy Whittier is a father of three boys, a husband, and a marketing director living in the mountains outside Salt Lake City. He enjoys being outdoors and building things with his hands — activities he partakes in significantly less often than changing diapers, applying Band-Aids, and patching drywall.