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This is an experiment: I had a harrowing little moment with my family and told my wife Sara I wanted to write it out. She wanted to join in, so my words are below with her thoughts in italics.
Last week, I was proud of myself: I got home from work every day by 5:30pm, with plenty of time to have dinner with my kids, talk with my wife, and feel good about successfully coping with my lifelong addiction to work.
I love what I do, which makes it worse; I’ve only just now accepted that it’s unproductive to email so much I wear the letters off my keyboard (as I once did with an old Blackberry). That whole “I’m always available to everyone” thing is a hoax. I can dutifully recite that it’s only possible to place attention on one place at one time. I know about the presence thing.
“…I’ve only just now accepted that it’s unproductive to email so much I wear the letters off my keyboard (as I once did with an old Blackberry).”
Give me a few free minutes, though, and the Ouija planchette of my attention slowly spells out w-o-r-k.
I’m blessed to satisfy my work’s demands on my own terms — all the choices of how to spend my time are mine. I’m rarely at the office late for reasons beyond my control, and — though I do travel more than I’d like — I feel in control of my schedule, and my life. (I learned in my first job how much I resent restrictions on my time, and have enjoyed that kind of freedom since my 20’s.)
My husband works hard. He tortures himself actually—always willing to take a meeting (even if only for five minutes five weeks from now), to help a former colleague or friend. It’s lovely and generous but also annoying.
You see, he looks for the same affection back.
He finds it sometimes, in confidences requested, deals accessed, invitations, retweets, the like. He goes in search of these fixes constantly, checking his device as if it cures his validation-Tourette’s.
He’s actually proud of himself when he puts it aside. Like he’s giving something up. (Hint: it’s your ego, honey.)
“He goes in search of these fixes constantly, checking his device as if it cures his validation-Tourette’s.”
Last week, when he got home early every night, our kids were happy to spend evening time with him, everyone debriefing about their days. I was happy to see him before we got to our way-too-spent-to-deal-with-you place (which more typically happens). He was happy, too.
Last Friday afternoon rolled around, and I walked inside the house with one more email to check. (Has a more innocent lie ever been spoken?) My son, age 5, asked me to get off the phone, which he does from time to time — I take it seriously.
Our son asked him to get off the phone. Roy was not quite quick enough on the draw, so our resident infographic specialist (wait, I thought that was my job!) made this:
I asked him what he meant. On a scale from 1 to 10, How much am I on the phone? 8.
Eight! (“Please Stop!”)
I actually did not witness this exchange — Roy’s face told me everything I needed to know. He was devastated. After all his trying to do the right thing, he wasn’t good enough. Couldn’t he just go back to his devices, where everything works predictably, where he can feel good?
(It probably didn’t help that I also gave him a hard time about being on his device. I was trying to get him to observe Shabbat with the family. And there are times, like Fridays, when I feel justified in demanding his devices and putting them in a kitchen drawer for safekeeping.)
It’s obviously upset him. He’s wondering whether this is a fact of life to accept, or something to be improved upon.
“I asked him what he meant. On a scale from 1 to 10, How much am I on the phone? 8.”
Our son rubbed salt into the wound by being eminently reasonable: “If you were a 2 or a 3, it would be fine with me.”
So how much progress had I made, in being present, focusing on my family, dealing with my work addiction?
Maybe kids are always asking their parents to pay them more attention, even if their parents are models of focused, loving presence. Maybe it has something to do with gadgetry (though it’s easy to imagine myself coming home with a stack of memos to edit, as I remember my mother doing night after night).
Or maybe I’m deeper in the addiction hole than I realized. Maybe my son saw the truth in the glow of a touchscreen. Maybe many of us are in that place.
Like a junkie looking for a fix, I find my ways. Wait for everyone to go to bed, pop open the laptop. Go downstairs to take out the trash, check Twitter. Work nonstop when there’s nobody to see, like on this flight I’m on now. This way of working is broken, like adding more lanes to a highway only to find the traffic is just as jammed a few weeks later.
I promised my wife a few weeks ago to stop working after she goes to bed — there, I did it again, I carved my promise back. I actually promised her to avoid working at home entirely.
I admire how my wife can be passionate about what she does without losing the ability to put it aside.
Imagine what my son must feel like, or our daughter who has yet to find the words. Seeing their dad more interested in something else. Taking another hit of the work pipe.
Or maybe we need them to see this. To show us how we spend our time, who we really are. So we can see who we want to be.
“Like a junkie looking for a fix, I find my ways. Wait for everyone to go to bed, pop open the laptop.”
Our kids love the shit out of their dad. He doesn’t see the difference in them when he’s there versus not. I do. It makes a difference for them to see him applying the effort. It makes them happier, it helps them sleep better.
I think coming home early is good for Roy too. It gives him something in his life that provides the same hit that work has given him all these years. And it’s a challenge for him to decide between his two favorite things. (I kind of wish that could have been me, but I’m ok with that. He’s lucky I’m an introvert.)
I’m delighted my son can so clearly express his feelings. Given how busy we all are, how much we’re out of town, all the nights out to be adults, it’s great for them to snap us to attention. Our son making this picture is a signal to me that we’re doing something right.
I’ll be carrying that picture in my bag for a long time to come. It’s now the home screen on my phone. I’ll stare at it, think on it, and remember that while I’m letting my excuses get the better of me, he sees what is.